Thursday, 18 April 2013

The Stone Tapes


Instantly granted an outstanding reputation and work of brilliance since its original broadcast on Christmas night 1972, it’s no surprise that 101 Films has re-released Nigel Kneale’s critically-acclaimed BBC television ghost story, The Stone Tapes.

A scientific research team for an electronic technology company relocate to a renovated Victorian gothic mansion. When computer programmer Jill (Jane Asher) sees a ghost in a locked-up store room at the back of the house, the rest of the team also begin to see the apparition and hear its loud screams. Manager Peter (Michael Bryant) launches an investigation into the phenomena, believing it to be a supernatural impression of past events trapped in the room’s stone wall, which he dubs the ‘stone tape’. For Peter, “it’s a mass of data… waiting for the correct interpretation.” But when the researchers try to unlock the mysterious recording in an attempt to prove a scientific breakthrough in the recording medium, they unleash an evil, malevolent force that has been buried in the house’s dark history for decades.

Kneale’s play is a classic example of fine genre television, blending conventional fiction storytelling with cross-generic sci-fi, drama and horror mechanisms. Today, it remains one of Kneale’s most congratulated works outside his Quatermass movie and mini-series, serving his fervent interest in the conflict of science and the supernatural which has influenced further acclaimed literary works and scientific conjecture. Remaining an exemplary product in the traditional haunted house genre, it interestingly combines supernatural theory, historical investigation and a thought-provoking scientific hypothesis in the exploration of the building’s fabric.

Director Peter Sasdy has certainly created a very looky and feely film, cruelly attacking the senses with a profusion of colourful effects against the house’s dim-lit backdrop, coupled with a noisy trip of shrills, whirring and sirens. If it’s not the chaotic sound of the paranormal activity in heavy footsteps and strident cries, it’s the whirring of mid-20th century technology or the ear-piercing screams from one of the crew. It’s certainly crucial to the busyness and the sinister mood of The Stone Tapes, but it does require you to keep your TV volume button close to hand.

Though the effects are (as you’d expect) considerably outdated, rendering a supernatural presence with strobe lighting, coloured smoke and flickering projections, it rejoices in an abundance of eery silences that infuses a lasting trepidation.

The acting is very hit and miss with amateur performances across the cast that are more theatrical than suited for the screen, but they still manage to deliver a few thrills. Asher personifies the typical helpless heroine and victim of the ghost who is misunderstood and devalued by her male colleagues, spending most of her time onscreen screaming, tripping over, burying her head in her hands and covering her ears in shock. It’s a memorable performance- though not a great one- that is enhanced by Sasdy’s excessive use of zooming and panning, providing dramatic close-ups that are now largely inattentive in horror’s modern cinematography.

It certainly invades the senses both audibly and viscerally. Close your eyes and you may be able to picture yourself on the set of a 1950’s Doctor Who set. Its sound effects are tinny, raucous and hard to bear for ninety minutes - but that’s the point. And thankfully this is enhanced by a clear, vibrant picture that will no doubt keep this masterpiece on people’s screens for years to come.

VERDICT: It ends righteously with gloom, doom and death - and one loud scream! This is a tape you will be glad to have witnessed, and is well deserved of scrutiny from a modern perspective.
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