Originally broadcast on the BBC as a Christmas ghost story in 1972, The Stone Tape has gained a significant cult following that belies its humble beginnings. It's greatest pedigree is screenwriter Nigel Kneale, best known for his creation of Bernard Quatermass, the character around whom the Quatermass series and the resulting films are based. The Stone Tape treads in a similar track as the more renowned Quatermass, but while the latter deals mainly with science (and science fiction), the former, and the subject of today's review, delves into superstition and the supernatural, and delivers a nice ghostly chill that the earlier series lacks.
We begin The Stone Tape outside a secluded mansion which has been purchased as a research facility by Ryan Industries. The purpose of the research is for the team to come up with a new recording medium, something beyond tape. As research team leader Peter Brock (Michael Bryant - no, not that one...) says, "Give me Wagner's Ring Cycle on the head of a ball bearing with instant
playback". Somewhat quaint, by today's standards; or perhaps
prescient? As the team begins setting up equipment in one particularly
cavernous room, Jill (Jane Asher, ex-Ms. Paul McCartney) hears echoing
footfalls and then a woman scream. As others hear the woman at varying
intervals, it is determined that the room is haunted. After attempts
are made to expunge the ghost, Brock, with some insistent urging from
Jill, realizes that there is not a physical roaming spectre per se, but
that the spirit in the room is recorded in the very walls themselves, a
"stone tape". What at first seems like a major breakthrough in the
team's research (i.e. this is the recording medium that has eluded them
thus far), soon becomes something far more sinister as Jill becomes
obsessed with and haunted by the spirit and her history, and makes a
chilling discovery that the ghost to which they have been witness is
simply on the surface, or the first layer of the "tape", and that there
are far older things recorded or contained on sub-layers of the stone,
back, back in history, back perhaps to when the stone itself was
formed. Old, dark, unspeakably malevolent things.
The whole cast here is wonderful, with especially exceptional turns by
Asher, Bryant, and Iain Cuthbertson (see also the similarly spooky Children of the Stones).
Bryant's team leader is headstrong and vain, and is nearly seized by
madness while trying to remove the ghost from the room (in a
terrifically psychedelic and possibly seizure-inducing scene) before
refusing to acknowledge that what he had clung to so tightly was even a
possibility after the experiment has failed. Asher is the typical
gothic heroine, fragile and tough in the same package, and one whose
pleas and warnings are mostly ignored by the rest of the team, save
Cuthbertson's Roy Collins.
The sound and visual effects are of course dated but work well in reinforcing the theme. Analogue sound and video effects are nowhere near as precise as modern CGI, but the amorphous green shapes and eerie glowing lights the VFX crew conjures up
are a perfect match for old, weird things that cannot be described, let alone shown visually. The effects have almost add to the creepiness, because instead of striving for realism and falling hard, they simply embrace the sort of abstract concepts in the play and work marvelously to that end. Some might see the effects as cheesy or dated, but they worked well given the concepts and subject matter of the play.
final 5 minutes of The Stone Tape are truly chilling and a semi-ambiguous ending leaves the viewer contemplating the terrible consequences and possible outcomes of Jill and Peter's actions for days.
Here, for your viewing pleasure, is The Stone Tape: