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Spotlight on: Little Evil Things by Frank Macchia and Tracy London
Frank Macchia and Tracy London, Little Evil Things, Volume I
Frank Macchia and Tracy London, Little Evil Things, Volume II
Frank Macchia and Tracy London, Little Evil Things, Volume III
Frank Macchia and Tracy London, Little Evil Things, Volume IV
Frank Macchia and Tracy London, Little Evil Things, Volume V
Winner of the Publisher's Weekly Listen Up Award, the Little Evil Things series is the brainchild of Frank Macchia (writer, producer, composer, actor) and wife Tracy London (writer, editor, producer, actor) in their endeavor to bring all the fun of the suspense and horror programs from the Golden Age of Radio forward into the twenty-first century with dramatic interpretations and accompanying music suited to the actors' performances. Each CD contains four or more creepy tales designed to "chill your bones and let your imagination run wild."
As a fan of those old radio shows -- like Escape, Inner Sanctum Mysteries, and Suspense -- I was particularly eager to hear the results and I'm glad to say that I was generally pleased with what I found. This series is filled with terrific parts that flow cohesively into an entertaining whole: in particular Frank Macchia's acting-attuned scores, the writing of Macchia and Tracy London (his solo writing is missing the same spark), and Jim McDonnell's energetic narration that made me ask, "Where has this guy been?" Drawbacks were rare, with only Macchia's unskilled acting a regular in that department.
The inaugural release features five dramatizations. "Transformation," a short piece by Macchia, starts off the collection following a man through his metamorphosis into a werewolf. The first-person narration adds to the immediacy and actor Jim McDonnell's raspy voice suits the situation. The next, title track (by Macchia and London) is longer and more developed, giving the listener a chance to get to know the female protagonist (London) as she takes on a "Little Evil Thing" as a pet, with suitably dire consequences. This showcases London's acting skill as well as her addition to the writing team.
"The Quiet Child" is well acted and sets the proper atmosphere for this narration regarding a young boy who is mostly silent, but still manages to communicate his wishes. Poor word choice lessens its punch at the beginning, but the track is redeemed by McDonnell's active vocalization and the music performed by a string quartet plus clarinet. Stiff acting diminishes the effect of Macchia's "It's After Me." He plays the lead role of a man chased by a supernatural being in his dreams, but leaves this listener longing for the more skilled chops of McDonnell. Nor do his costars seem to be up to the challenge. Not even an ingeniously clever twist ending can save this one.
But when a lonely gemologist wins an all-expenses-paid trip to Johannesburg, he stumbles upon a disused gem mine and finds a beautiful stone he can't identify that opens him up to "Parasites." Wonderfully strange and unusual, gruesomely descriptive and original, this final play is the best on the disc and is alone worth the price.
Little Evil Things, Volume II consists of four longer pieces that improve on their predecessors. All pieces are credited to both Macchia and London from here on. In the first story, a couple buy the house of a recently deceased man and, since he had no family, inherit everything in it, including whatever "The Thing in the Jar" is. Disguising itself as the intended victim's favorite food, the Thing waits until it is well inside the mouth before striking, long after the victims could do anything to defend themselves. (As is common in horror tales, the mysterious jarred creature has a strong sense of morality and only kills those who deserve it, protecting itself by protecting its owner.) It is this level of surprise and vulnerability that makes the Thing, and this story, so successful. This is the epitome of the best that Little Evil Things has to offer: unafraid to be gross, but simultaneously restrained, well-acted and paced, and long enough to fully develop the storyline.
And that goes "double" for the next offering, "Sisters," in which one of a pair of Siamese twins schemes to get rid of the other so she can be free. But that isn't as easy as it appears, especially when the second twin (who is usually rather mousy) begins listening to her "inner voice" telling her to stick up for herself. The voice talent here is phenomenal and I never doubted that I was listening to the frustrations of two conjoined -- but very different -- people.
"It's in the Water" suffers from an underdeveloped storyline and the previously mentioned acting limitations of Macchia as Bill. It is also patently obvious that the actress portraying the four-year-old Jeannie is much older. The dialogue in this story of a man whose new swimming pool brings up things preferably not remembered is of high quality, though, and Jim McDonnell's narration raises this track up to "listenable."
"Blubb," which is being adapted by London for the screen, concerns the effects of Beverly Hills' extreme heat -- and a concurrent garbage strike -- on the city's liposuction leftovers. The ferocious fat devours anything that is itself fatty, from a rat on up to one of the city's most famous residents. Again, McDonnell's narration kept me riveted to this update of The Blob. He has a fascinating way of saying lines that, on the page, would be laughable, and making the listener take them seriously.
Little Evil Things, Volume III begins with "Buried Alive," where a man finds himself in the universally-feared situation that Edgar Allan Poe covered so well, and then tries to remember how he got there. McDonnell's narration enhances the closeness of the story; and the surprise twist ending makes this one perfect for late-night listening. Macchia's score to "Buried Alive" is performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. A stunning, multi-layered work, it is best when taken on its own. Unfortunately, it is almost too good for this story: a little too dramatic and therefore somewhat distracting. In the end, the piece works well, but with McDonnell already supporting the drama of the writing, the music causes a near overflow. Track 6 is the score by itself, which gives the listener a chance to appreciate how well it works on its own.
When a couple try and fail numerous times for a child of their own, they decide to adopt, until they meet the mysterious Dr. Von Parkes, who offers them new hope. "It's a Boy," of course, but not exactly the kind they expected. I was rather offended by the reference of one character to a prospective adoptee as "someone else's throwaway," but this mixture of sentiment (underlined by Phil Feather's oboe), humor, and horror had me misty at first, then chilled and belly laughing at the double-twist ending.
In an attempt to drum up more business to the freak show at Zemo's Big Top Circus, a trio of brothers conspire to abduct transients, appropriately modified and "Freaked Out," and present them as new acquisitions. Poetic justice is served and the whole thing ends with a punny twist on an old adage. The stories in the Little Evil Things series that, like this one, feature McDonnell's narration alone with Macchia's music are quickly becoming my favorites. His voice has power and skill at making melodrama believable.
Tracy London narrates/performs "The Dolls," about impatient Ronald who just can't wait for his inheritance from his elderly Aunt Bernice. When he kills her, her favorite trinkets (designed for occupations from A to Z), take revenge on him. This newest version of a well-used idea add little to the canon, but still manages a chill or two. ("It's almost time...") The final track, "The Potion," hearkens back to Volume I's shorter cuts. This silly treat features Lauren Cohn's game portrayal of the stereotypical witch; her cackle is one for the books.
Little Evil Things, Volume IV (there's an "I.V." pun in there just waiting to be tapped), in the interest of yet again focusing on the music, opens with the "Little Evil Overture" as performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. It is relatively short and sets the stage wonderfully for the first playlet, "Lost." This successful melodrama follows a very unlucky man through a nightmare that never ends. In a bit of a change of pace, "Hazardous to Your Health" features a jazz score. Macchia's abilities at composition shine here under this tale of a nasty gangster who gets his from a pretty likely source. McDonnell's narration, as always, is the true star here, but the score is at least as memorable.
"Infection" storms on with a heavy orchestral opening from the MSO, leading into the story of a sad sack who gets a numb spot on his arm that keeps growing. Having the covering mole removed, it opens to a dark hole that vanishes anything placed in it. This is one of the more imaginative tracks in the series, as medical personnel attempt myriad tests to discover the source of the hole, which continues to spread.
Worried about aging? No fear, it's all "In Your Head." Jerry shares your fears, especially when he finds itchy gray hairs that sprout differently than his others and multiply without hesitation. I love how Macchia and London can take a simple premise and expand it to its limits, and beyond into speculative horror. Often the endings are either circular or humorous, as is the usual case in this genre of radio thriller.
Set in Russia (where else?), "The Violin's Curse" is the story of Boris (the wonderful Alan Brooks) and his meeting of Esmerelda (Tracy London), the girl of his dreams who smells of apples and cinnamon, in front of a music shop. When he follows her, he gets more than he bargained for: to gain the lovely Esmerelda's hand in marriage, he must retrieve the violin stolen from her gypsy village centuries ago. Alexander Avramenko's beautiful violin leads the score, as well as performing the evocative featured role in the program. And "The Violin's Curse" has a layer of emotion and maturity that brings it to the top of the Little Evil Things series. IV is the most solid of the five entries, based on the stories, that Jim McDonnell is allowed center stage for the most part, and that everyone involved seems to be working past their limits toward a common goal.
"Whispers in the Attic" is that most difficult of styles to pull off well: the first-person horror narrative. Unfortunately, this shortest of the five audio tales on Little Evil Things, Volume V is also, surprisingly, the dullest. But humor helps "The Happy Wanderer," a riff on the classic hitchhiker tale. Anchored by two fun performances (from Dave Florek and Del Howison), a sense of mystery pervades until stopped short by a trite ending that doesn't do justice to what came before.
When Gil Bates invents the operating system of the future, allowing wireless networking worldwide, he and his company make all computers globally united by 2009. Then he decides to put Phase II into effect... "O.S. 666" will undoubtedly be enjoyed by much of the anti-Microsoft crowd, even though its message lacks subtlety. The blipping score is a highlight, however.
Another noir-ish jazz score, again one of Macchia's best musical accompaniments, surfaces again on "Dreamgirl," where Brian Bogglesworth kills his wife but still can't seem to rid himself of her. Dave Florek returns with fine work as Brian, a complementary counterpart to Jim McDonnell's stellar narration. Tracy London hams it up wonderfully as the meddling next-door neighbor and Susan Hull takes a great turn as Stacey, Brian's new girlfriend. The ending is perfect, leaving just enough room for speculation while offering definitive closure. The collection ends on a high note with "The Impaler." When a strange creature's skeletal remains are used for cloning, it wreaks havoc on Chicago with its own brand of carnage. A predictable "surprise" mars this tale but its descriptive power serves a horrific feast for the mind's eye.
Each CD has its own flaws but all of these Little Evil Things are representative of some of the best audio work that has been produced, complete with cartoonishly gruesome liner illustrations. Having completed their original goal of five recordings in five years, Macchia and London are taking a break from horror to raise a family and focus on other projects (like Macchia's impressive Hollywood credits). We can only hope that everyday life becomes too banal for this creative couple and that they'll once again slip on their razor gloves for Little Evil Things, Volume VI.
This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.
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