During the dark prelude to World War II, Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air infamously scared the bejesus out of America with its 1938 Halloween radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells’ 1898 Martian-invasion nightmare.
It is hardly earthshattering news to observe that the visceral punch of horror lies in its ability to allegorize traumatic social anxieties — Wells’ original novel was itself a thinly veiled cautionary tale of Europe on the brink of world war. What does come as a surprise in Fake Radio’s verbatim live performance in East Hollywood of the Mercury Theatre broadcast is just how freshly engaging Orson Welles’ storytelling powers continue to be in an era of vastly different, but just as apocalyptic, worries.
Director/emcee David Koff, who is also effective as an ill-fated reporter, and his nine-member ensemble (which includes standouts Dave Cox, Julie Millett, Chris Bonno and Keythe Farley) are faithful to the Howard E. Koch script without ever lapsing into mere mimicry. More crucially, Koff retains much of the sound from the original acetate recording, including Bernard Herrmann’s uncanny impersonations of varying dance bands of the day.
That’s important, because the key to Welles’ art is how he used the reality effects of the medium itself to amplify the chills. His pioneering use of source sound for scoring and news reports to develop narrative would re-emerge in his films and become standard horror-cinema tropes by the 1970s (i.e., George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead).
That makes Fake Radio’s re-enactment a must-see for Halloweeners and film students alike.
GO! Trepany House at Steve Allen Theater, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; through Oct. 31. (800) 595-4849, trepanyhouse.org.
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