The Stone Tape centers on a privately funded research team that moves into an old Victorian house to start work on a new, potentially revolutionary recording medium. Led by the egocentric, driven, temperamental Peter Brock (Michael Bryant), the research team has only a limited amount of time to prove themselves to their backers, Ryan Electronics. Peter’s rival, Dr. Crawshaw (Reginald Marsh), has a different, more prosaic goal for his own research: a fully electronic, self-operating washing machine. Peter’s team includes an old friend and site manager, Roy “Collie” Collinson (Iain Cuthbertson), and his ex-lover, Jill Greeley (Jane Asher), a brilliant computer programmer.
As part of the modernization of the Victorian building, Peter and his team plan on using an old storeroom for data storage. Unfortunately, Collie’s men refuse to work in the storeroom. The men claim to have heard footsteps, moans, and screams. Peter, ever the rationalist, brings his research team into the storeroom. Jill, however, proves to be the most sensitive to whatever’s haunting the storeroom. She not only hears the footsteps, moans, and screams, but she also sees an apparition, a young woman dressed in a maid’s uniform. Peter, still the rationalist, decides to make science and scientific equipment work for him. Dismissing the possibility of a poltergeist, Peter sees the experiences as a “set of data” that needs to be evaluated.
Eventually, Peter and his team make a breakthrough: the stone inside the storeroom functions as a recording device that can transmit sounds and images directly into the brain of the recipient. Peter attempts to harness the stone. If he can manipulate the stone, recording new information or at least controlling the visitations, then he believes a new, potentially lucrative storage device has been found. Of course, not everything is as it appears. Peter and his research team receive pressure from the corporate CEO, Peter Ryan, and Dr. Crawshaw, who wants to move his research team into the new facility. Meanwhile, Jill becomes increasingly distraught. Even as she attempts to uncover the storeroom’s ancient past, she faces the disapproval and condescension of her colleagues.
For fans of the horror genre, The Stone Tape will immediately bring other, better known examples of the scientists-exploring-supernatural-phenomena scenario, beginning with The Haunting (filmed in 1963), The Legend of Hell House (filmed in 1973), and moving past The Stone Tape to films it might have influenced, Poltergeist (1982), and Prince of Darkness (1987). In the case of Prince of Darkness, John Carpenter readily admitted to The Stone Tape’s influence on his film, going as far as crediting a fictional “Martin Quatermass” as the screenwriter (Carpenter wrote the screenplay himself).
The Stone Tape’s datedness can be traced back to the early 70’s depiction of the lone female character. She might be brilliant, but she’s also prone to hysterics, making it even more unlikely that her fellow researchers will take her lead in further investigating the storeroom. Kneale does toe a fine line between Jill as an excessively unsympathetic portrayal and Jill as a victim of a men’s club that has minimal use for her, either for her practical contributions to the team or as a sex object. That she’s had an affair with Peter, a married man, makes her appear opportunistic (granted, she does seem to have genuine feelings for him). There are also a few racist jabs at the Japanese who threaten to grab control of the electronics industry.
Story wise, The Stone Tape lacks the dramatic payoff of Kneale’s best Quatermass entry, Quatermass and the Pit, which first aired on the BBC as a limited series in 1958-59 (it was later made into a feature-length film by Hammer Studios in 1967). For Quatermass and the Pit, Kneale combined fascinating, if flawed, ideas about primate evolution, alien invasion, life on Mars, hive minds, religion, and race memory into a uniquely memorable genre film. Quatermass and the Pit’s influence was clearly evident in the alien mythology that informed Chris Carter’s The X-Files. The Stone Tape, on the other hand, offers one or two broad hints about ancient evil and human sacrifice, but stops there, leaving the rest to the viewer's imagination.
The Stone Tape has its share of suspense and jump scares, but it’s hard to ignore the low-budget production values or risible special effects. The Stone Tape is surprisingly suspenseful, thanks to agile, constantly mobile camerawork, fluid editing and, of course, Nigel Kneale’s taut script that balances supernatural/psychological horror against speculative science.
© Mel Valentin, 22nd January, 2006
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