Arch Oboler may not be a common name to horror fans today, but for radio listeners in the 1930s and 40s, his name was synonymous with “scares” and “chills”. A writer, producer, and director of radio theater (and later film), Oboler made a name for himself as the host and writer of the popular radio series, “Lights Out“. Created by Wyllis Cooper in 1934, “Lights Out” was a weekly radio program specializing in crime thrillers and tales of the supernatural. When Cooper left the program in 1936, Oboler stepped in, creating controversy with his very first tale, “Burial Service”. The broadcast, which told the tale of a paralyzed girl who has been buried alive and left for dead, upset many listeners so much that parent broadcast company, NBC, was flooded with letters of protest, which led to Oboler’s being forced to “tone down” the content of future episodes.
Oboler would leave “Lights Out” in 1938 in order to produce and write other projects, many focusing on his growing obsession with anti-fascism. “Lights Out” would be cancelled in 1939. However, due to his need to actually make money, Oboler revived the program in 1942, only for it to end again the following year. Another revival of the series hit airwaves in 1946, lasting for 8 episodes. In 1972, NBC attempted to bring “Lights Out” to television as a movie pilot, but the project was not well received by audiences and a series never ordered. Oboler would later deny any involvement with this project.
It’s worth noting that all of the episodes of “Lights Out” that are available today are actually from the 1946 revival as nearly all of the original recordings from the 1936-1939 series have been lost to time.
Continuing to work in film and television, Oboler would dip back into the “horror well” once more with the audio recording, “Drop Dead! An Exercise in Horror“, released by Capitol Records in 1962. The recording features a collection of short horror-themed tales, some of which are condensed versions of plays which originally appeared on the “Lights Out‘ program. The record starts with an introduction from Oboler, who advises the listener that they are about to experience “horror” in its multiple forms.
This is followed by the album’s first tale of terror, “I’m Hungry”, which Oboler labels “sick horror”. It’s listed as “movie-type horror” on the album’s track listing and back cover, though. Oboler defines this style of horror as the gruesome, shock-minded horror of “modern times”, even calling it “psycho horror” before giving a plot synopsis of Hitchcock’s Psycho as the defining elements of the sub-genre.
“I’m Hungry” proves to be nothing more than a Peter Lorre impersonator welcoming the listener before discussing the difficulties of having to saw through human skulls in order to get at those delicious brains while proceeding to do just that. It’s not remotely Psycho-like, but it does check all the boxes for being “sick”, presumably more so for audiences of the time who had yet to be exposed to the gory images found in the films of HG Lewis or the flesh eaters of 1969’s Night of the Living Dead.
Again, Oboler returns to introduce the next story, as he will with each of the album’s tales. After much hype from Oboler, the second tale, “Taking Papa Home”, opens to find a woman driving her drunken husband home after what would seem to have been a pretty wild retirement party. He mumbles a few songs and makes inebriated shallow promises about buying his wife new things before passing out.
While “Taking Papa Home” is listed as “suspense-type horror” on the album’s track listings, it might be more fitting to call it “cold reality horror” or “sadistic twist of fate horror”. Like, even Alanis Morrissette wouldn’t call this shit “ironic”. She’d rightfully call it “tragic” and “sad” while Dave Gahan stands in the corner talking about how he doesn’t want to start any blasphemous rumours, but…..
The third and final story of Side A is called “The Dark”, which Oboler calls “supernatural horror”, but the album lists as “radio-type horror”. Why can’t these two ever agree?
A police officer and local doctor drive to an old house in response to an alarm. Upon arrival, they find a woman cackling madly inside the house. Upon further inspection, they find the body of a man… or what resembles a man. The body has been “turned inside out”, the organs all exposed externally. More surprising, the man proves to still be very much alive!!
However, the story quite literally takes a much darker tone when something else in the house proves to be very much alive! This entry arguably suits the billing of “sick horror” more than “I’m Hungry!”, especially considering the wet-sounding “popping” effect used in “The Dark”. What the tale lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in thrill factor. It’s also worth mention that this story was later adapted for use in a “Treehouse of Horror” episode of “The Simpsons“.
The flip side of the disc opens once again with Oboler. He introduces the next story, “A Day at the Dentist”, as “humorous-type horror”. The album’s track listing labels the tale as “comedy-type horror”. Nice to see these two opposing forces almost agree for once, although they are both quite wrong. The tale is much more harsh than hilarious.
The story starts out innocent enough, with a new local dentist preparing for his next patient. Upon hearing the man’s name, the dentist starts acting strangely, and even orders his staff to take the rest of the day off. What follows serves as a precursor to Brian Yuzna’s 1996 film The Dentist, albeit with some heavily-implied rape-revenge thrown in.
The next tale, “The Posse”, is what Oboler labels as “television” horror. For once, the album listing agrees. However, in this instance, both Oboler and the person writing the liner notes make the broad assumption/accusation that the only thing on television in the early 1960’s was “westerns”. In this case, very short “westerns” that consist of nothing more then 2 men talking about how funny it would be to hang another man, only to have a hearty laugh while watching the same man’s death spasms when they actually do go through with the deed.
The B-side’s third tale, entitled “Chicken Heart”, is what both Oboler and album call “science fiction horror”. Oboler also calls it the latest in “horror”, which he also admits means “popular”, so why not cash in? The story would later be popularized in a routine by Bill Cosby, who some would say was responsible for unleashing his own brand of horror upon the world in later years…. and that’s just talking about Leonard Part 6!
“Chicken Heart” may be the album’s most memorable tale, if only for how bat-shit bonkers the concept is. Playing out like The Blob-meets-War of the Worlds, this is the story of a genetically altered piece of chicken heart tissue that begins to devour everything it comes in contact with, growing exponentially as it eats. The segment is told as a “real-time account” by someone who may have played a hand in the monstrosity’s creation.
The record closes out with “The Laughing Man”, which Oboler calls “the ultimate in horror”. The story, set 20,000 years in the future, is a rather preachy morality piece featuring the future’s brightest historian laughing at the “absurd” tales of how we (modern-man, or at least the modern man of the 1950’s and 60’s) divided our Earth into nations and waged war over trivial disagreements instead of living in peace. Look, the message is great and all, but don’t beat me over the head with it! Also, it’s a rather weak “final bow” for what has been a satisfyingly macabre listening experience.
The album features a sizable cast of voice actors. While you may not be familiar with many of their names, you are most assuredly quite familiar with their work. The most recognizable names are presumably those of Bea Benaderet and Mercedes McCambridge. While many know Benaderet from her starring role on TV’s “Petticoat Junction“, just as many may not be aware that she also provided the voice of “Betty Rubble” on “The Flintstones” from 1960-1964. McCambridge, on the other hand, was an acclaimed actress who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in 1949’s All the King’s Men, and would again be nominated in 1956 for her supporting role in Giant. However, horror fans may remember McCambridge as the voice of the demon “Pazuzu” in 1973’s The Exorcist, a role for which she originally went uncredited.
Other names that fans of classic horror and science fiction may recognize include Edgar Barrier, who appeared in Universal’s 1943 version of Phantom of the Opera and Orson Welles’ 1948 production of MacBeth before floundering his way down to 1957’s The Giant Claw, and Bill Phipps, who appeared in War of the Worlds, Invaders from Mars, and Cat-Women of the Moon all within the same year. Also of note are Lawrence Dobkin, who appeared in both The Day the Earth Stood Still and Them!, but also served as the original narrator for Disney’s Hall of Presidents and Epcot’s Spaceship Earth, and Junius Matthews, the original voice of Winnie the Pooh‘s “Rabbit” and “Archimedes the Owl” in The Sword in the Stone.
Rounding out the cast are Barney Phillips (Sgt. Ed Jacobs on TV’s “Dragnet“), Harold Peary (radio’s “The Great Gildersleeve“), Jack Krushen (who played memorable Greek grandfathers on both “Webster” and “Full House“), and Olen Soule, who voiced Batman on popular 1970’s cartoons such as “Super Friends” and “Scooby-Doo“. Last, but most certainly not least (especially for horror fans), is actress Virginia Gregg, who cemented her place in horror history as the voice of “Norma Bates” in Psycho II and III (and was also one of 3 actresses to voice the character in Hitchcock’s classic original film)!!
While I wouldn’t say that used copies of Drop Dead!: An Exercise in Horror are plentiful on the resale market, it’s not exactly all that difficult to find a copy in acceptable condition. Used copies of the album tend to sell for between $15-$25 on eBay, although you can often find it for less (like I did). At this price range, Drop Dead! An Exercise in Horror is well worth the expense, especially when you consider that sealed copies of the album run upwards of $100! While not all of the stories contained on the album are certifiable “spine-chillers”, they do provide solid entertainment and show that even in these early days of radio, the horror could get quite graphic and intense. If nothing else, hopefully it helps remind modern horror fans of the legacy of this overlooked master of horror.