I’ve looked at a few Nigel Kneale teleplays from the 1950’s this year, and I thought it would be a nice change of pace to find one of his later works to review for this very blog. I truly believe that Nigel Kneale is one of the often overlooked grandfathers of science fiction, as you can see his fingerprints on tons of modern genre TV (especially Doctor Who). That’s the main reason I’ve been slowly digging through all the Quatermass material I could get my hands on – to hopefully build some awareness if I can.
Today, I ultimately settled on The Stone Tape, mostly because I had never heard of it before this viewing. This was Kneale’s last accepted BBC script before he ultimately got fed up with them and jumped ship to ITV. After years of what he perceived to be meddling and broken promises by the BBC, Kneale took his rejected fourth Quatermass script, among others, and ran. Luckily The Stone Tape doesn’t shed any light on his professional troubles, and seamlessly blends sci-fi, horror, and drama into one cohesive film that was so well received that it helped establish a paranormal theory – the stone tape theory.
As Wikipedia states “The Stone Tape theory is a paranormal hypothesis that was proposed in the 1970s as a possible explanation for ghosts. It speculates that inanimate materials can absorb some form of energy from living beings; the hypothesis speculates that this “recording” happens especially during moments of high tension, such as murder, or during intense moments of someone’s life. This stored energy can be released, resulting in a display of the recorded activity. According to this hypothesis, ghosts are not spirits but simply non-interactive recordings similar to a movie. Paranormal investigators commonly consider such phenomena as residual hauntings.”
In an effort to gain market share on his Japanese competitors, the head of the R&D department of Ryan Electronics, Peter Brock, has been struggling to develop a new recording medium that can revolutionize the industry. His team have set up shop in a new facility within an old Victorian mansion called the Taskerlands, a property that seems to have some unwanted lab assistants. Jane Asher (See my review of A for Andromeda for more of her) stars as the weak-willed computer programmer Jill Greeley. Jill spends the first few minutes of the film paralyzed by fear for a handful of different reasons: first a near miss car accident, then a ghostly sighting within the mansion. To Jill’s horror, a young woman can be seen committing suicide within a room that workers refuse to renovate.
After asking around, the team learns that The Taskerlands is, in fact, notorious for the death of a maid some one hundred years prior. Brock puts two and two together and realizes that this “haunted room” has somehow recorded the death of this poor girl. This phenomena, dubbed “stone tape”, could be the very breakthrough that the team is looking for, just as long as they can somehow harness it. As you can imagine, there are setbacks and all manner of paranormal incidents going on at the Taskerlands, and not everyone makes it out in one piece.
The Stone Tape vaguely reminds me of a handful of serialized TV shows such as The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits for some reason. It’s not because it has a big moral at the end of the story or anything, unless that moral is science is bad, but the way it ends is one of those abrupt shock endings you get used to with that sort of show. The Stone Tape definitely has a better budget than those sorts of shows, but fans of that genre might be interested.
As with anything from the 1970’s, there is quite a bit of “culture shock” to get through when watching something almost 40 years after the fact. The entire plot hinges on the fact that everyone at Ryan Electronics fears that Japan will soon be taking over their entire country in just about every way, and finding a way to edge them out is the only way to stop it. This reeks of the general xenophobic mindset of the time, something that manifests itself with casual racism and “yellow peril” / Fu Manchu impressions from a few characters. These scenes made me cringe a bit, but luckily they weren’t glamorized, one man thankfully gets told to shut up. Seeing this, one has to wonder how poorly anything modern, full of the casual anti-Islamic sentiment we see in TV, will look forty years from now? I bet my grandchildren will be just as embarrassed as I am today.
My main quibble with this drama is something I brought up earlier, and another cultural relic from a long time ago. Jill is a laughably weak character, seemingly breaking down into fits of madness whenever anything bad happens. She’s like one of those stock “old-timey” female characters that has to be slapped whenever they go into fits for some reason. Granted, I’ve been in a few car accidents, so I know they can mess up your mental state. I can’t imagine someone being so indisposed afterwords that everyone around has to baby the person in question for weeks on end. Jill reminds me of the old stereotype that Doctor Who used to suffer in regards to it’s female companions, as she is seemingly only there to scream, fall down, and look weak. This does a great service of making most of the male cast look dashing and heroic in comparison, at the cost of making Jill unlikable.
As with many productions of the time, this movie has little in the way of special effects. In fact, the only sequences that really have these sorts of shots involve camera tricks to achieve ghostly images, pretty much on par with any other 1970’s BBC sci-fi or horror shows. The horror that builds in many scenes is usually achieved with lighting and sound in place of flashy visuals. These effects include, but are not limited to: Perhaps a blood-curdling scream, flickering lights, or a horrible noise. In many ways, this helps the production, as a cheesy guy in a suit could have ruined any tension that is achieved without it.
Personally I’m more of a fan of this sort of horror film than what most people like, that’s why I usually tell people “I don’t like horror movies”. I have grown tired of “gore porn” films that over-saturate the market today, as they are not scary to me whatsoever. What things such as The Stone Tape have over them is that they can build real tension without resorting to jump scares and blood to make the viewer squirm. I’m not saying it’s the best thing ever, or that I’m now super into horror, but it’s a step in the right direction for me.
The Stone Tape is pretty good despite the flaws it has. It’s by no means the best thing Nigel Kneale ever wrote, but it’s pretty good as a horror /sci-fi program. I will say that some cultural relics from the early 70’s including casual racism and borderline misogyny made me a bit uncomfortable, but neither ruined anything for me. If anything, they made me think of how we act today, and how that will look in the future. If you have a few hours to kill, and want to see an old-school horror movie with a sci-fi splash, you might like watching this, but finding it might not be easy. It was on DVD over a decade ago,but is out of print pretty much everywhere. I was able to find it in its entirety on YouTube, so that should be the place for you to look as well!
- The Stone Tape/Ghostwatch (DVD) (takingtheshortview.wordpress.com)
- Haunted Double Feature: Ghostwatch, The Stone Tape – box set review (theguardian.com)
- Stone Tape Duel (infocult.typepad.com)
- Kneale Before Satan: The Witches Reviewed (thequietus.com)
- BBC Sunday Night Theatre: George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1954) (anamericanviewofbritishsciencefiction.com)
- Goodbye Blighty: The alternative reality of Quatermass II (go.theregister.com)
- TV Review: DOCTOR WHO 7.09 – “Hide” (badassdigest.com)
- Happy Devil’s Night, 2013: “Baby” (1976) and “The Signalman” (1976) (30daysofhorror.wordpress.com)
- Signing out of a broken Britain: The final Quatermass serial (go.theregister.com)
- Stone Tape Theory and haunted locations (kittyjanusz.wordpress.com)