Wednesday, June 6, 2012

LIE# 12: The Walls Have More Than Ears (a review of DVD MIA “The Stone Tape” (1972))

The Stone Tape (1972; Peter Sasdy; written by Nigel Kneale) is a very modern and very English ghost story that may look cheap by today’s standards, but is so rich in ideas that will challenge you and stimulate the brain.

Superbly crafted by the legendary genre writer Nigel Kneale, best known as the creator of the Quatermass series, The Stone Tape follows the R&D division of a large electronics corporation as it sets up shop in an old mansion (chosen for its privacy and out-of-the-way location to prevent industrial espionage—from the beginning, tension is set).

They discover one of the basement rooms is haunted—and in true technocrat style, they treat the haunting like “a mass of data waiting for the proper interpretation.”
They set up their gizmos, and after some trial and error, hypothesize that ghosts are “recordings” of extreme psychic or physical incidents, usually painful.
These “recordings” are trapped in the walls and floor (thus, ‘the stone tape’), and, when psychic energy is provided by humans entering the room, the “recording” is activated in a loop.

The engineers get to work, but in trying to isolate the signal, manage to “erase” it.

Thinking that because the signal (the ghost) is “erased,” the “tape” must be “blank,” the techies shut down the experiment and pack their gear.

They didn’t hypothesize that it wasn’t the rocks of the walls that “recorded” the “signal,” but that something (that has been in the rocks for 7,000 years) is mimicking the signal.
And without a signal to mimic, the Unnamed Ancient Weirdness (a cousin to Lovecraft’s Old Ones, perhaps?) is very, very annoyed

A fabulous and very spooky twist on the haunted house subgenre, this film cannot be recommended enough, for both science fiction and horror fans. There are no cheap scares, but plenty of unnerving tension as director Sasdy keeps things moving at a breathless pace that increases the fear.

But the real star of The Stone Tape is Kneale’s dialog and structure—he doesn’t waste any time, and if an element of the script isn’t being used to be propulsive to the plot, then it is used to flesh out the casts’ personalities. I think the writer is a believer of Heraclitus’ dictum that “your character is your fate,” with the chief engineer of Kneale’s teleplay (with his awful treatment of coworkers and girlfriends) setting himself up for a big fall.

Meanwhile, from the “Humans are Martians” thesis of Quatermass and the Pit, to the surveillance-state game shows of The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968),
I’ve always found Kneale’s ideas to be so thought-provoking that they make the ganglia twitch: Kneale was perhaps the most intelligent writer who worked in science fiction television.

While most of his work, because it was for the BBC, is unfortunately not available in the US on DVD, much of it is on-line. The Stone Tape can be watched HERE.

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