Written by: Ralph Wooster
Directed by: Peter Sasdy
Cast: Michael Bryant, Jane Asher, Iain Cuthbertson
From the comfort and safety of my sofa with movie popcorn in hand, my attitude is, were I to encounter a ghost, I’d blow my nose on its sheet and shoo it out the window. That’s what happens when what should be utterly frightening becomes instead frightfully cliché. Overused and overdone. Familiarity really does breed contempt. However in real life, were I to encounter an actual specter and I didn’t die from fright outright, I suspect I’d run like hell and keep running. That said, I think ghost stories still have the gas to get us there, to evoke that primal fear, that rush we so long for. They just need to be reinvented, reimagined somehow.
This is precisely what the writer Nigel Kneale, best known for his Quatermass series, did so brilliantly in his 1972 BBC TV movie, The Stone Tape. He referred to it as his play and it’s probably best to think of it that way. If you came looking for a big budget show with lavish sets and jaw-dropping special effects, keep moving brother. You’ll not find that here. If however, like buying a ticket for a live play, you expect an astounding story with well developed characters supported by better than average acting, well then get comfortable and enjoy the show. You’re in for a thrill.
If you’ve seen Quatermass and the Pit (1967), you’ll recognize Kneale’s fingerprints all over this one. The Stone Tape is essentially The Pit adapted for ghosts. The setting is an old abandoned country mansion recently refurbished by a high tech research company into offices and laboratories. However, when the scientists arrive, they quickly discover that one of the house’s chambers is still inhabited by a previous occupant.
Nigel Kneale didn’t believe in the supernatural and it really shows here. The project director, Peter Brock (Micheal Bryant) refers to the ghost as “a mass of data… waiting for the correct interpretation”. Kneale’s reinvention of ghosts is quite unique and will set your mind turning in some surprising directions while sacrificing little of the creepiness a standard ghost entails.
The director Peter Sasday is no stranger to horror with such Hammer Films such as Taste the Blood of Dracula and Hands of the Ripper under his belt and I can’t fault anything about his work here considering the budget restraints he had to work under. Similarly, all the actors were long time veterans of BBC TV and did their jobs admirably in my opinion.
If there is one area where I fault The Stone Tape, and it’s really so you can get your head around it, it’s that it’s just so dated. Really dated. Think double breasted polyester suits and psychedelic silk shirts with humongous pointy collars and you’ve got the picture. Consider the last time you revisited that 1979 masterpiece, Alien. What was your reaction to the Nostromo’s computer, Mother? A green monochrome CRT wedged into a plywood wall with blinky Christmas lights. For me, it was distracting as hell, but in light of the rest of the movie, easily forgivable. Plus, it was 1979 for God’s sake. It’s what they had.
Well, The Stone Tape has reel to reel computers as big as refrigerators in it and a dot matrix printer the size of a Shetland pony. I kid you not. But hey, it’s what they had. It was 1972.
Also, the issue of pacing should be mentioned. If you’ve ever read any of M.R. James’ work, famous for his ghost stories, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. The big payoff is in the end. Mystery and tension build in small increments. There’s no rush. It’s a slow burn, a story devoid of today’s formulaic Hollywood attention deficit disorder schlock. Not a single explosion to be found.
The Stone Tape is all about story, one that seeps into your consciousness gradually like water into a cellar, and long after you’re done, down there in the dark dank, things begin to grow. Such is the power of great storytelling, that in essence, it haunts the mind long after it’s over.