Originally broadcast by the BBC on Christmas Day in 1972, The Stone Tape is part of a tradition of seasonal ghost stories that included such classic televisual chillers as The Signalman and Whistle and I’ll Come to You.
A group of boffins move into a stately home that has been bought and refurbished by an electronics company. The building is to be made their R&D division. Company’s research head Peter Brock, an officious corporate climber, is displeased to find a basement room intended to house computers (it being 1972 this does require a large room) is behind schedule because workers have been avoiding it. Computer programmer Jill Greeley (Jane Asher) and shortly after Brock himself, experience a disturbing paranormal event in the room. Inspired Brock puts his team to the task of recording and documenting the unexplained activity using the flashiest technology 1972 had to offer (and something the props department knocked up that looks like Orac from Blake’s 7).
This looks like a type of paranormal investigation story that even in 1972 had significant precedents, most obviously the 1963 version of The Haunting. However, The Stone Tape feels startlingly original even forty years later with the inclusion of story elements making it as much science fiction as horror. It also introduces a central concept so startling that it has subsequently been borrowed by parapsychologists and presented as a genuine phenomenon, the idea of ‘residual haunting.’ This is the notion that a ghost, spirit, whatever you want to call it, is not an active entity but a recurring psychic imprint of a past event.
As directed by Peter Sasdy and written by Nigel Kneale, The Stone Tape rises above the crudity of its special effects and sometimes stagey performances (there is a lot of projecting going on), still packing a punch today. Kneale was one of British television’s finest dramatists, although because he often worked in the genre he is not as celebrated as the should be. The creator of Quatermass, Kneale was a rare writer who could create deep unease out of ideas. This means his work endures despite the way production values and special effects have dated.
Kneale and Sasdy create an atmosphere that becomes more and more oppressive, until the stories brilliant and unsettling ending. As mentioned, the visual effects are crude, but the sound design is something else. Created by Desmond Briscoe – the co-founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – and Tony Millier, electronic noise, piercing uncanny screams, and the clatter of seventies era technology creates a truly chilling musique concrète. Coupled with Kneale’s dense and wordy screenplay, the soundscape is suffocating. In that dark, with the sound turned way up, there are some bowel loosening audio effects.
John Carpenter credited his screenplay for Prince of Darkness (1987) to the pseudonym Martin Quatermass, and The Stone Tape is clearly a massive influence of that film. In fact Kneale was hired by Carpenter to write Halloween III but when Dino De Laurentiis demanded the insertion of more gore Kneale had his name deleted from the credits. The Stone Tape is a great introduction to the writers work, I’d also recommend the Hammer version of Quatermass and the Pit which is available in a lovely blu ray and if you can track it down his version of Susan Hill’s The Women in Black (broadcast on ITV in 1989) is absolutely terrifying.
The Stone Tape is available on UK DVD from 101 Films.
This review previously appeared on http://www.screenjabber.com