The Stone Tape (1972)

*. The Stone Tape, which was a TV-movie that ran on the BBC as their seasonal “Christmas ghost story,” and which was originally planned as being part of its Dead of Night program before being eventually presented independently, has two main claims to fame. Or, to put it a bit more precisely, two entry points for talking about it today.
*. In the first place, it stands at the head of a sub-genre of horror films that deal with the scientific investigation of paranormal phenomena. At least Kim Newman gives it pride of place in this regard and I don’t think I can argue with his appraisal. I call these the Ghostbuster films, as they usually involve researchers, a sort of secular team of exorcists, called in to explain weird or scary goings-on. Other Ghostbuster type films include Poltergeist, The Entity, Prince of Darkness, and, in a comic vein, Ghostbusters.
*. The Stone Tape was so influential in this regard that it even gave its name to something called the Stone Tape theory, which has it that supernatural occurrences leave behind psychic records in physical material. This is not just something that gets picked up in other movies. People really believe it. Anyway, it’s what is supposedly happening here, with the damp stone of the haunted room capturing mysterious events from centuries in the past.
*. The other point to note about The Stone Tape is that the teleplay was written by Nigel Kneale, the man who invented Professor Bernard Quatermass and someone who now has an almost legendary status among fans of this sort of dark fantasy material.
*. Because it’s a Kneale vehicle the emphasis is very much on the script, which is quite technical and talky. One gets the sense the idea could have, and probably should have, been expanded into a miniseries. There’s a lot of information thrown at you, or yelled at you, as Michael Bryant is pretty loud.
*. I’ll admit I had trouble following the plot very closely. I get the basic premise about the haunted stones, but I wasn’t sure why Ryan Electrics should be that interested in them, or what the scientists were really trying to establish, or what was going on between Peter and Jill. All of which are major plot points.
*. Is Jill (Jane Asher) a case of stereotyping because she’s the most receptive to the ghostly presences? I don’t think so. She is some kind of a scientist or computer programmer herself, for one thing. She’s not a secretary. It’s also the case that among the rest of the team (all men) there is a range of sensitivity to the sounds in the stones. So I don’t think she’s singled out as the weak link because she’s a woman. And in fact she’s even allowed a bit of revenge at the end for the fact that the men never seem to take her very seriously.
*. It’s a bare-bones production, looking like it was mostly shot in a shoebox, and I have to say I don’t find it very scary. But it was an original premise and something about the idea stuck. I still don’t think the conflict between science and the supernatural has been fairly represented on film, with most of the science in these movies being pseudo-science of very limited utility in fighting ghosts and demons. But, given our all-too real anxieties about technology, I suspect many will see that as a relief.

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