Thursday, 31 October 2013

THE STONE TAPE : "The best haunted house story"

Recently caught up with what in-the-know types used to say was the best haunted house story ever filmed, Nigel Kneale's THE STONE TAPE,  a long tv play, virtually a BBC tv movie, first shown by the BBC in 1972. It was shown again a year later at Halloween and developed a legendary status in the following decades.

After decades of build up you might think The Stone Tape was disappointing but it was still comfortably the scariest thing I've seen since Prometheus.

This is from the era of the original BBC Survivors (so you know this isn't kids stiff) written by the creator of Quatermass, Nigel Kneale. It is directed by one of the best and last of Hammer director's, Peter Sasdy and comes furnished with audio tinsels from the BBC Radiophonic workshop.

It stars Jane Asher returning to the genre for the first time since Roger Corman's classic Masque of The Red Death, (apparently she appeared as child actress in Hammer's first Nigel Kneal adaptation, Quatermass Xperiment in 1955). She is Jill Green, a a smart but sensitive computer programmer, who becomes the center of the action in the house. Aside from the supernatural this is a part that provides magnificent period detail on the  miseries of the 70s working environment, especially for women. Her boss, played by the excellent Micheal Bryant, is a sexual predator in charge of a leading edge technology company, and the general atmosphere of beery incompetence gives a fascinating look on its own at the technological desperation of Britain in the 1970s

This becomes mere background story detail when a masterful haunted house tale kicks off - but as you'll see on your viewing, it is the twisted little details about The Stone Tape that really stick with you.

RYAN, a high tech company researching a new recording medium takes possession of a newly renovated old mansion, and when it finds a mysterious disembodied scream in a walled off area of the cellar  it seeks to record and explain the phenomena. If they can just establish that the audio is a recording held within the stone they'll have an industry breakthrough that will make them a fortune.
Unfortunately for them there is more than one recording.

The scientific rationale for what takes place is established early on and it is believable and consistent throughout. This makes the chills considerably more effective when they arrive. The rationale is so convincing, 'The Stone Tape' has since become an accepted theory within parapsychology.

Ultimately this ends up in the territory of Kneale's Quatermass and The Pit, which if you are familiar with it should be recommendation enough. New viewers just discovering the charms of classic Dr Who, and stumbling across The Tomorrow People and Sapphire and Steele in turn should definitely not miss this, it makes the Pertwee and Baker eras look like the B movie child entertainment they probably were (much as we loved them at the time).

What is really effective about The Stone Tape, apart from the great acting, dialog, characters, and drama are the strange almost surreal plot threads and details which are not resolved entirely but suggest enough to be quite troubling.
I'm going to be very careful with spoilers here.

Some of the wierd details, like The Spam, seem to go nowhere, like the stairs which lead up from the basement to ..?

But others are left to hang with just enough suggestion lead onto conclusions that are genuinely chilling in a typical Nigel Kneale fashion, simultaneously scary, thought provoking and arguably brilliant science fiction with it.
I would for instance try and explain this strange comparative bit of background detail with the plot


But I'm not 100% sure what it is myself and don't want to give away a spoiler, suffice to say you'll probably know what I mean and it sends a shiver down my spine just thinking about it

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