The Stone Tape



UK 1972
Peter Sasdy
75 mins

The Stone Tape is typical Nigel Kneale – the oddball Manx brain behind Quatermass and Halloween III, and the inspiration for most of John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness – in that it’s fascinating but flawed, at once over-ambitious and under-developed. It’s also a compendium of his recurring themes and preoccupations, as a group of scientists headed by the arrogant Brock (Michael Bryant), searching for a compact new recording medium, discover it in the very stones that make up the ancient walls of their stately-home HQ. The stones can, under the right circumstances, ‘play back’ historical events they’ve ‘witnessed’ and ‘recorded,’ including the death of a Victorian chambermaid – the playback manifesting itself in the form of a haunting. But when the scientists inadvertently ‘wipe’ the ‘stone tape’ of its surface ‘data’, they unleash an ancient, evil force, with dire consequences for psychic programmer Jill (Jane Asher).

As usual, Kneale never bothers to fill in the troublesome details behind his intriguing conceptions (hence my liberal use of speech-marks in the above synopsis). It’s never made very clear just how the stones ‘record’ the events, or how the death of the chambermaid fits into it all. But, despite the many loose ends, it’s fascinating to see Kneale using rational, scientific ideas to deconstruct the superstitious shenanigans of the ‘traditional’ ghost story (not for nothing was The Stone Tape originally aired on the BBC on Christmas Day, 1972) even if the ‘technical’ apparatus on display now looks particularly unconvincing. The film stands as a real historical curio, balanced on the edge of the bold new electronic era (the scientists are always fretting about the Japanese, their rivals in innovation) but with one foot planted firmly in the past – perhaps even the distant past. The Stone Tape opens with a puzzling, distorted shot that resolves into the logo of Ryan Electrics, the words in very 70s computer-style writing. Ryan himself never appears, but his nationality prefigures the Celtic darkness of Halloween III‘s crazed, wizard-like Irish toymaker, while, as in Quatermass and the Pit, there’s a kindly local historian on hand – this time a vicar – to provide tantalising glimpses into the location’s shadowy background.

While this is clearly a writer’s film – the size of Kneale’s name in the opening credits stresses the point – director Peter Sasdy never lets you forget who’s actually in charge of bringing it to the screen. Unfortunately, his contributions are what makes The Stone Tape look so frequently – and, now and then, laughably – dated. The grand-guignol gaudiness that made his Hands of the Ripper movie so enjoyable seem crass when transferred to the small screen. With the exception of the elderly gent* playing the vicar, who makes the most of a nothing part, Sasdy’s handling of the actors is distractingly ham-fisted. Bryant’s Brock degenerates into a sneering caricature of chauvinistic stroppiness while Asher histrionically emotes as if she’s auditioning for a remake of The Perils of Pauline. On the plus side, the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop go into overdrive, contributing a varied, sometimes deafening array of atmospheric rumbles, clangs and vworps.

*name of actor not traceable at time of writing – our apologies!

1st April, 2001