Wednesday, 30 October 2013
DVD Review: The Stone Tape
When it comes to the paranormal, the written word so often triumphs over the moving image. Sometimes, it's nice to sit back and let imagination take you through some dark places, away from over-zealous film directors showing you more than you really need to see. Sometimes, however, we encounter celluloid chillers that succeed in establishing an icy grip on the senses: The Haunting, The Changeling, Session Nine, The Others and The Woman In Black are just a few examples of films that can lower the room temperature and freeze the blood. The Stone Tape is another worthy member of this select group of spookers.
First broadcast on 25th December 1972, The Stone Tape must have ruined Christmas for many viewers, adopting a 'less is more' approach which delivers a handful of spectral apparitions, and a series of blood-curdling screams - the rest is down to Nigel Kneale's screenplay and several fine performances.
Director Peter Sasdy's declaration of intent is unveiled right from the word go as Jill Greely (Asher) - a woman clearly on the edge of a nervous breakdown - almost comes to grief with a large truck bearing the name 'Ryan Electronics'. Jill recovers from what could have been a fatal crash to begin work at Taskerlands - a building that dates back to the 18th century - where she will oversee the installation of computers and sundry data equipment.
A crack team of electronics experts - led by bombastic Peter Brock (Bryant) - hope to design a revolutionary recording medium, and confound the market leaders, affectionately known as 'old nippon'. With an eager team wanting to press ahead, the schedule is thrown off-kilter when workmen down tools, refusing to renovate one room in particular. A general feeling of unease appears to be their main cause for concern, though matters come to a head when Jill - blessed/cursed with mediumistic powers - sees the ghostly apparition of a young woman at the top of a flight of stairs that lead...... to nowhere.
The discovery of 30 tins of spam and a letter to Father Christmas ("All I want for xmas is please go away") become pieces in a jigsaw puzzle that includes a maid named Louisa Hanks; two attempted exorcisms back in the mists of time, and the reluctant testimony of a frightened local who mentions "the others".
As the unquiet spirit screams and screams again, Jill is joined by several of her colleagues who can now see and/or hear what may be a psychic echo of a past tragedy. Peter eventually joins the ranks of the believers, and embarks on a ruthless pursuit towards self-advancement, with no thoughts for the safety of his team or his mistress.
Approached from a purely supernatural perspective, The Stone Tape hits the back of the net on many occasions, with its aura of evil practically reaching out from the confines of a television screen to suck you into that infernal room where past events intrude on the present. The aural and visual manifestations are frightening enough, but Sasdy's film reaches its peak when a solitary figure enters the time-slip vacuum, breaching the darkness to confront a silence that is deafening.
It's a scary trip, and maybe Sasdy hasn't received the credit he deserves: due, no doubt, to another visionary screenplay from Nigel Kneale. Just witness the animated conversation regarding the possibilty of history in the making; a new recording device that will condense hours of audio material onto a tiny piece of software, and 13 channel TV - "Porn channel 1, porn channel 2, DIY...." Kneale even extends his take on the shape of things to come into a sidebar concerning brusque businessman Crawshaw (Marsh) who fights for a piece of Taskerlands to aid development of his own invention - a self-programming washing machine capable of sorting its own load. Together with Kneale's Year Of The Sex Olympics script, The Stone Tape casts an eye to the future with more than a degree of accuracy, and creates a foundation for Sasdy and his cast.
On the debit side, there are several scenes which grate a little - mostly in the form of OTT performances from some of the largely male cast, and the sight of 'ghostbusters' attempting to 'clear' the room by using primitive outside broadcast equipment looks a tad amateurish. Still, many films (with the advantage of state-of-the-art resources) have cheerfully cribbed from The Stone Tape's ghost-laying technique, and its desire to move on from the bell,book and candle approach should ultimately be applauded. Some dodgy FX scenes near the end momentarily threaten to undo the good work, but a late rally puts things to right, taking us into the haunted room which may be about to welcome at least one new occupant.
Sasdy's film is available in the UK on VHS and DVD. While I don't own a copy of the latter, I have viewed the disc and, given its age and the source material, picture quality is as good as one could hope for. The BFI disc includes a commentary track from Kneale and writer & reviewer Kim Newman, and there's also a DVD Rom extra in the form of a Kneale script, 'The Road'.
I was fortunate enough to catch a screening of The Stone Tape at London's National Film Theatre, a few years back. Afterwards, Kneale was interviewed onstage and briefly discussed 'The Road'; a ghostly tale of Roman centurians returning from the grave. Kneale lamented the fact that the tape of this film had been wiped by a BBC employee, and is lost forever. A crying shame, but think of it as an unfilmed gem that may see light of day from one of the UK's rising young directors. Until then, stoke up the fire, sit back and let your imagination take hold.