Radio dramas, an entertainment mainstay of the 1930s and 1940s, have been co-opted and even modernized by several companies. These are full cast recordings, replete with sound effects and music.
"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," adapted and produced by Yuri Rasovsky, is a throwback to the golden age of radio, though the story was inspired by the silent German Expressionist film of 1919. (Tangled Web Audio; original audio material; one cassette; 70 minutes; $9.95. Available in stores or by calling  336-5746.) This short tale was polished to perfection by a top-notch cast led by John de Lancie, an actor who has made quite an impression as an audio performer in the last few years.
Convincingly macabre, it is part psychological thriller, part horror story. Mind control, zombies and murder figure into a tale set in the days of horse-drawn carriages and snake-pit sanitariums. Clear sound effects and music underscore the action, but never overpower. This superb audio is eerily atmospheric and entertaining on a level that should appeal to adults and older children.
Another similarly classy production can be found in the BBC adaptation of "Our Mutual Friend" by Charles Dickens, dramatized by Betty Davies. (Bantam Doubleday Dell Audio; original audio material; six cassettes; 8 hours and 50 minutes; $27.50.)
This may be one of his minor works, but it is also one of Dickens' more witty efforts. The extensive cast clearly conveys both the satiric humor and the tragic drama of a story peppered with hidden identities, newfound wealth and hard-won love. Imaginative sound effects and music are used with just enough restraint to enhance without overpowering the story.
The production's best feature is a cast that clearly expresses the many walks of life in Dickens' England. Accents and markedly different vocal personalities bring to life lowly workers, educated scholars and the pretentiousness of the nouveaux riches. Unfortunately, the cast is so large and the list of characters so extensive, that one occasionally becomes lost in the crowd.
A small Los Angeles-based company, Audio Movies, launched its first recorded book with "Double or Nothing," written and directed by M.D. Baer. Though the production is somewhat overblown, it is intriguing for its cast, which features such recognizable names from the music industry as Leif Garrett, Michael DeBarres and the late Michael Hutchence from INXS. (Audio Movies, original audio material; two cassettes; 3 hours; $16.95.)
This unwinds at an energetic pace, though the writing tends to be overwrought. Set in San Diego, this tale of murder and environmental sabotage includes a poor little rich girl, her handsome but dangerous true love, bad guys and creepy accomplices.
Hip references bring some humor to the tale, but dialogue is too often lost amid music and sound effects that are overly loud and annoyingly cute. The cast is rife with intriguing voices and the production values are top-notch. One would like to hear what this company could do if it applied a little more self-control in the editing room.
"Brick Mallery Private Investigator," written and directed by Mark Bornstein, is a successful parody of old-time radio mysteries that proves to be surprisingly humorous. (Scenario Productions; original audio material; three cassettes; 2 hours and 12 minutes; $29.95. Available by calling  411-6463.) The genre is hard-boiled, and the jokes bounce between laugh-out-loud humor and tasteless gags that will have you groaning. (Keep in mind that this material is adult-oriented and not for children.)
With one exception, the actors display interesting accents and engaging performances. That one misstep is a pseudo-Italian accent that comes across as stereotypical and cartoonish. The three stories in this satiric series may be wildly over the top but are also fun and breezy. Again, it would be interesting to hear what this company can do if they reined themselves in and used less background noise and incidental music.
Rochelle O'Gorman reviews audio books every other week. Next week: Margo Kaufman on mystery books.