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RESTROSPECTIVE: A DEAD MECHANISM – AN APPRECIATION OF “THE STONE TAPE” (1972)

Tuesday, December 4, 2018 | Retrospective

It’s always a pleasure to revisit a thoughtful and well-executed classic. Freed from tracking the unfolding narrative, one can see new details, appreciate prescient snips of dialogue, relish a particular acting turn, or just marvel at how well put-together the whole enterprise is. THE STONE TAPE by Nigel Kneale (of QUATERMASS fame) just continues to rise in my estimation on each re-watch.

Headstrong and petulant Peter Brock (Michael Bryant) and his team of audio boffins (including Brock’s current lover, computer programmer Jill Greeley – played by Jane Asher) are tasked with developing a new recording medium for Ryan Electronics. To that end they are all installed in laboratories prepped by manager Roy Collinson (Iain Cuthbertson) and retrofitted on the sprawling, abandoned Taskerlands Estates. But Collinson has had problems with the local workmen, who believe that part of the property is haunted – something Jill (and then almost everyone else) quickly confirms. Brock decides to treat the haunting (a shrieking, flickering figure of a Victorian-era maid fleeing to her death) as a scientific challenge (“a mass of data waiting for the correct interpretation”) and, in doing so, accidentally hits upon a paradigm shift so stunning it may solve their primary assignment as well. That is, until the solution also unlocks unforeseeable circumstances…

“while essentially set-bound…it succeeds at frightening the audience even when one is completely familiar with the story’s events”

THE STONE TAPE surely is a marvel: thoroughly creepy and yet a thoughtful, humane interrogation of a complicated and compelling idea; and while essentially set-bound (and thus without recourse to fancy camerawork or effects) it succeeds at frightening the audience even when one is completely familiar with the story’s events. What’s so impressive about this telefilm is how, using just the play format, Kneale deftly sketches the characters, sets up the plot, and then proceeds to work out the narrative in a number of unexpected permutations, supported by his excellent dialogue. We move from superstition (a haunted locale) versus rationality (a team of scientists), which then unfolds into an argument between the humanistic (Jill’s worry that the ghost represents a “dead mechanism,” the only human part left to repeat a loop of mortal fear forever) versus the mechanistic (Brock’s assertion that “this isn’t some little shade who couldn’t get into heaven because the pearly gates were shut”). From there it moves into perceived objective reality (“Come when I tell you!” Brock demands) versus subjective reality (“Would she walk?” wonders Jill), before contrasting the human scale against geologic time (“Some deep level record, so old…and shapeless”). And all of this then folds back into a terrifying final moment of “just deserts” (ironically, an audio loop) on which to end.

Jill (Jane Asher) realizes just how wrong they all were…

THE STONE TAPE is a hell of a creative performance, ably played by a team of talented actors who give it their all, supported by a droning, understated electronic score (by Desmond Briscoe of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) and great production detail (the maid’s looped, repetitive screams are not only blood-chilling, their eventual absence helps thematically underscore the finale). Director Peter Sasdy (HANDS OF THE RIPPER) even wisely makes space for some light humorous touches (the antiquarian Vicar played by Christopher Banks, the rival team’s washing machine project) that help leaven the increasingly heavy mood. Kneale, famous for his mixing of sf and ancient horror in QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, here crafts a bravura technological ghost tale. Ostensibly a Christmas story (it premiered on Christmas Day, and an early detail is a note found secreted into the Victorian woodwork by a frightened child that reads “All I want for Christmas is: please go away”), the intrigued viewer of supernatural film owes it to themselves to curl up on a dark, cold evening and play the magnificent STONE TAPE.

Shawn Garrett
Shawn M. Garrett is the co-editor of PSEUDOPOD, the premiere horror fiction podcast, and is either the dumbest smart man or the smartest dumb man you ever met. Thanks to a youth spent in the company of Richard Matheson, Vincent Price, Carl Kolchak & Jupiter Jones, he has pursued a life-long interest in the thrilling, the horrific and the mysterious – be it in print, film, art or audio. He has worked as a sewerage groundskeeper, audio transcription editor, pornography enabler, insurance letter writer – he was once paid by Marvel Comics to pastiche the voice of Stan Lee in promotional materials and he spends his days converting old pulp fiction into digital form for minimal pay. He now lives near the ocean in a small metal box and he hopes that becoming a Yuggothian brain-in-a-jar is a viable future, as there is NO WAY he will ever read all the books he has on his lists, or listen to all the music he wants to hear. Everything that he is he owes to his late sister Susan, a shining star in the pre-internet world of fan-fiction, who left this world unexpectedly in 2010. He spends an inordinate amount of time reading, writing and watching movies.