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The Stone Tape (1972)

Review by: Sinister Ornament

Scripted by Manx writer Nigel Kneale (Quatermass, The Wine of India) who once again delivers good chills by blending horror and science fiction, but as I find with Mister Kneale's horror writing it not always the chill you were expected, and thus its punch is all the more powerful.
Kneale's Teleplay for Quatermass and the Pit is a good example, a good concept sits at the heart of the plot and long after the visual horror has faded the mental revelations and disturbing questions remain.
The Stone Tape has a cracking plot, marvellously intricate and layered considering the running time.
A group of researchers working for Ryan Electronics are moved into a sprawling old mansion called Taskerlands specifically to work on the next recording medium.
A new one is needed for two reasons. The first is explained by a good scene showing a character describing the flaws inherent in using tape to record things on. The second reason being Ryan, the Irish owner of the firm (who we never actually see) but we know that he's obsessed with getting one over on the Japanese firms (Ah, the 1970s. Doesn't it just bring to mind lots of tweedy blokes working away in their sheds on home-made tellies, rather than buy something Japanese? They all went a bit quiet when they drove their first Japanese car, didn't they? "Hang on a minute - this is miles better than my Allegro! Never mind all that mistreatment during the war - look, you can wind the windows down without the handle coming off in your hand!" - Ed.).
Taskerlands' interior has been transformed into a set of up-to-date labs and research facilities - all accept for one room that remains unaltered.
We, the audience, know this room is going to be important. Brook (Michael Bryant) is in charge of the research centre and is under the surface a ruthless bit of work - not afraid to use his staff to get what he wants. He tears down wooden struts to reveal… well, not much of anything.
I was puzzled about this on my first viewing. How are they going to generate any horror from such a bare storeroom? The main features of this room, one window, one door, steps leading up to where once their must have been a second floor. A rather bland dank room. All in all this room is so bland it would give a wildly exaggerating estate agent a run for his money.
Jill Greeley (a computer programmer played by Jane "Masque Of The Red Death, nice cakes" Asher) has a vision. She glimpses at the top of these steps the image of a maid screaming at something, arms raised up in a defensive stance. This is all the more terrifying because of the way the camera/Jill is stood where the scary thing would have been.
To say the team actively research this stone room's history after this is misleading, they at first regard it as a mildly interesting diversion and as time goes on there is a gradual accumulation of documents (parish records, death reports, newspaper clippings, building up Lovecraft style) all slowly building up to a worrying hap-hazard jigsaw of reports years apart by different witnesses.
Eventually the research team, having heard ghosts described as a recording, become interested. Could this room supply the answer to their research? If they can somehow provoke the ghost into 'playing' they can start learn how this 'Stone Tape' works. The research moves into the old room, and the scientists start to learn how little they know - with tragic results.
Disturbing questions remain at the end when new information is revealed too fast to be all taken in comfortably, and after a while you want to watch it again to weigh the evidence again.

Bad points:

The story could be seen as dated by (narrow minded) people who can't swallow the fact that the characters featured are researching for an ideal recording system to replace tape. So if the viewer can cast or imagine (depending on age) himself back before the pre-digital age to 1972, it's easier to believe the programme. In fact I suspect there's a group of engineers somewhere working on the next medium after Digital Versatile Disks ("Damp Vermin-infested Dormitories"? Sorry. - Ed.)
I am unsure about the effects at the end - which whilst probably cutting edge at the time now looks a little naff. This could be considered a bad point, but they occur at the end of the film's length when the tension has built up a good head of steam. I suppose these fuzzy green and red blobs could have been done better, for instance I think they should have left out the ones that overlap Jill. The best special effect is an actor, someone who can act scared and make you believe is worth their weight in gold.

Good points:

The script sparkles; characters are well rounded and have lives outside the narrative.
Sound is well utilised to add to the tension and the scientist's dialogue seems convincing (to me with my failed science A and A/S Levels) although I'm not so sure about the results of Jill's computer programming, but it is brushed passed quickly enough not to matter. The rest of the technical stuff seems sound. I love the terms the scientists come up with "Occurrence pattern", "Dead mechanism", etcetera.
The firm's owner Ryan is one of the joys of the script. He is a main character but he is never seen, all we get is Bryant's impersonations of him and he seems a larger than life figure even allowing for the caricature. Patrick Ryan seems to be on the surface a charming Irish man with good business sense who works hard (started business from scratch) and I suspect he liked by the research staff. However he puts a man like Brock in place to do any of the dirty work and treats him mean and under pressure. Brock is obviously afraid of him. So he is something of an enigma.
There are good little touches to look for. Jill's coat on the back of her chair, delayed reaction by the light when a character turns a light switch (speed of light must have been slower in the 1970s), dramatic pauses and lingering looks full of meaning that we, sadly, don't seem to get in TV or films nowadays.

Conclusion:

Tape may be a delightfully imperfect medium (being just rust on sticky tape), but this programme shows us just how perfectly tailored to television the horror genre can be, with a rattling good script and good performances.
Think of other films when scientists try to study unexplained events; Amityville III, Hell House, etcetera, none of these has done scientists as well as this, here they ask deep search questions that are relevant to all unexplained events.

"...not some shade who couldn't get into heaven because the pearly gates were shut." - Brook

"Does she walk when nobody's there?" - Jill

"A mass of data waiting for a correct interoperation."
-Brook

I'd say that The Stone Tape deserves its reputation - in fact it is hard to believe that its status was once in doubt because of its unavailability.
When I found out that the phrase 'Stone Tape' is in use today, I realised how high a standing this programme has because, Surely there can be no higher praise than for this phrase to become household word amongst investigators and parapsychologists.

"...Subverts the traditional ghost story, and every moral precept that the genre supports."
-The Guinness Book of classic British TV

And I never once mentioned Kneale's dreadful script for 'Sharpe's Gold'.

Directed by Peter Sasdy (Hands of the Ripper)
Starring

Michael Bryant - Peter Brock, Jane Asher - Jill Greeley,
Iain Cuthbertson - Collinson, Michael Bates - Eddie,
Reginald Marsh -Crawshaw, Tom Chadbon - Hargrave,
John Forgeham - Maudsley, Philip Trewinnard - Stewart,
Jamew Cosmo - Dow, Neil Wilson - Sergeant,
Christopher Banks - Vicar, Michael Graham Cox - Alan,
Hilda Fenemore - Bar Helper, Peggy Marshall - Bar Lady

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