Spencer’s Sanctorum Presents:
THE STONE TAPE (1972) – TV MOVIE
Review by Spencer Seams
Welcome to Spencer’s Sanctorum. This column is about old TV shows in the vein of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, ONE STEP BEYOND, and KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER. I seek out the weird, goofy, and underrated episodes, the ones that nobody talks about.
Thanksgiving is a time for family, food, and comfort. The lingering scent of turkey grows stronger with each day. In this time of comfort, I’m gonna return to the comfortable world of the legendary Nigel Kneale (see my previous reviews of BEASTS, 1976 and KINVIG, 1981).
Although it’s Thanksgiving, this is a Christmas film. THE STONE TAPE (1972) is part of the British tradition of Christmas-time horror. These are not actually about Christmas, but Christmas is the creepiest part of the year for the UK. It’s their Halloween. Kneale truly crafted a great ghastly ghost story for the Yuletide season.
A RYAN Electronics Devices truck pulls into the driveway of a beautiful Victorian manor. British electronics are inferior to the Japanese brands, so RYAN is developing a brand-new machine for recording audio, in an attempt to lift British electronics to the top.
The manor is a few centuries old, but the foundation and certain parts are closer to a millennium. The house has a long, complicated history of abuse and death. There have been several exorcisms, but none have been successful. The most recent death was of 19-year-old Louisa Hanks. Locals have been seeing Louisa for decades. Some have even gone insane after encountering her.
The heads of the RYAN team, Jill (Jane Asher, DEATH AT A FUNERAL, 2007), and Peter (Michael Bryant, GANDHI, 1982), are setting up their new experimental lab. Earlier, Jill was nearly smashed by two trucks backing into her. No one noticed. She’s frazzled. She’s scared. She goes to the oldest room in the house. Ascending the stairs, Louisa Hanks screams…then dissipates into nothing.
Jill rushes to tell Peter, but he assumes she’s a crazy woman. Jill convinces him to check the room, and he hears it, too. The team uses their new technology to try to record the ghost girl. Everyone but one person can hear/see her, but her image and sound never show up on the recordings.
Through a series of failed experiments, the new device gets fried. Peter has a new idea of maybe using the stone, a natural source, to record it. It does work, but Louisa temporarily leaves. The local priest informs Jill of the house’s sordid past. Louisa isn’t the only ghost. Peter gets the lab ready for an inspection by the RYAN top brass. Jill is determined to find out the whole truth. Everyone suddenly stops believing her, but Jill still tries. Louisa appears to her. Jill chases the ghost into a new dimension and dies during the inspection. Peter has all her ghost research destroyed. He returns to the haunted room. Her ghostly wails bellow and drive him mad. End of TV Movie.
Ultimately, this is about the clash of the natural world versus the modern world. The ancient home rejects the use of modern recording equipment by driving the RYAN crew insane. It violates the rules set by the past. The ghosts don’t understand it, it intrudes on their home and daily routine. The only time it works is with the stone tape. The combination of nature and technology streamline the rough patch between the two colliding forces. That is, until it overloads it. But, for a brief moment, it worked. The RYAN corporation is like the WEYLAND corporation from the ALIEN franchise. Both abuse its employees, keeping them in a dangerous situation and ignoring their needs and wants. RYAN isn’t nearly as evil as WEYLAND, but it’s still not great.
Not only that, but this story is centered on the nature of recording something/keeping a record of something. The cursed land recorded the essence of residents that have passed. Peter and his crew are trying to work out the bugs on a new recording technique. Both forces are overly strained and on edge. Both sides are being wronged by an outside force out of their control. Both forces are violating the rules of those outside forces. Just like the crew in ALIEN, the RYAN crew tries to solve a supernatural problem instead of doing their jobs. Even Louisa is breaking the rules. The other, older ghosts are angry that she keeps asking for help from them. She’s stuck in an endless cycle of her final moments. Either she’s warning the crew in the only way she can, or she’s working with the ghosts. The exact details are left open-ended.
The cast is universally great. There isn’t much to criticize there. Jane Asher/Jill and Michael Bryant/Peter are dynamite leads as the heads of the RYAN crew. Peter initially doesn’t believe her, but very quickly changes his mind. There isn’t the classic and irritating troupe of the non-believer denying the evidence clearly in front of them. Despite that, Peter is an asshole, he never changes or lightens up at all. He deserves the haunting and madness that goes along with his fate. He should have moved the team, due to the stress of the situation, especially on Jill. The incident would have gone much smoother if he had actually listened to Jill and taken her seriously. That can be said about a lot of other horror/sci-fi stories, and real life too.
Kneale’s several QUARTERMASS series—beginning with THE QUARTERMASS EXPERIMENT (six episodes in 1953) through THE QUARTERMASS CONCLUSION (1979) —were already a big deal. He also had a hit with the The Year of the Sex Olympics episode for the show THEATRE 625 (1968). But THE STONE TAPE made Kneale even more in demand. It turned him into the TV writer to look out for.
There are problems, but not many. Of all the TV movies I have covered, this is easily the best…that isn’t BAFFLED (1973). Also, it’s not the best Nigel Kneale, but still retains all of the Kneale quality I expect from his work. Watch it, but pay for it. It deserves it.
THE STONE TAPE is on DVD and Amazon Video.
© Copyright 2017 by Spencer Seams