Tuesday, March 04, 2008

THE STONE TAPE went out over the BBC on Christmas Day 1972. It was a Christmas scare fest by Nigel Kneale who, among other things, famously wrote the Quatermass TV series and movies. Now I'm quite the fan of Nigel Kneale's writing and I'd heard about this TV movie for some time before I actually got a chance recently to view it. The plot concerns an electronics company that is trying to come up with a new recording medium (something very similar to the digital ipod technology we are now familiar with is alluded to). Ryan Electronics takes up residence in an old building which is quickly discovered to be haunted by the ghost of a 19 year old girl named Louisa. It is hypothesized that the haunting is caused by energy of past events stored inside the very stone walls (a "stone tape" which is an actual theory as to the origin of ghostly apparitions) that periodically "plays back" past events. The leader of the group decides that this might just be the "new recording medium" he's been looking for and promptly attempts to make use of it or, if not, exorcise it.
The leader of the research group is played (loudly) by Michael Bryant: who can be seen in the Amicus horror film "Torture Garden" as well as in such films as "The Ruling Class" and "Gandhi". The researcher who first sees the ghost is played by Jane Asher: well known as the former girlfriend of Paul McCartney as well as the female ingenue in Roger Corman's Poe film "Masque of the Red Death" with Vincent Price. Other members of a fine British cast include Iain Cuthbertson (who made a memorable appearance in the Doctor Who story "The Ribos Operation"), Michael Bates, Reginald Marsh (who played "Sir" in many episodes of "Good Neighbors" aka "The Good Life") and Tom Chadbon (who will forever live in my memory as Duggan the bumbling private eye in another Doctor Who adventure "City of Death").
After waiting all this time to see THE STONE TAPE, I have to admit that I was a little disappointed. Probably the most off-putting aspect for me was the first 10 minutes of the film which was extremely annoying; it seems like every actor is constantly shouting at one another. I'm not sure if this was a new tactic of early 70's filmmaking or simply an aspect of primitive sound recording techniques of the day. All I know is that it was EXTREMELY ANNOYING to me. So annoying, in fact, that I will admit to semi-tuning out during the first 10 minutes of the film. After that, things do settle down a little but there is still a preponderance of "shouted line reading" going on which, no matter HOW skilled the actors, can't really be carried off with any degree of aplomb. The premise of the "stone tape" theory of ghostly manifestations has a lot of promise and something is done with it here but perhaps not enough to fully recommend the film. The characters themselves seem surprisingly unlikeable for a Nigel Kneale project; Michael Bryant's in particular. The Jane Asher and Iain Cuthbertson characters are not unlikeable but neither are they particularly likeable. And the rest of the cast are not particularly memorable. When the cast is actually allowed to STOP shouting occasionally, things improve remarkably -- but all too soon the shouting recommences and the annoyance level increases again. There are one or two effective scenes that provide a chill or two -- mainly the startling shot of Jane Asher in a darkened hallway suddenly confronting what looks like two disembodied red eyes glaring at her. But, for the most part, no real atmosphere or spooky mood is attempted or sustained for very long. While THE STONE TAPE is definitely an interesting attempt and worth a look, I cannot heartily urge anyone to actively seek it out. It by no means a bad film but it's not a particularly good film either. Shame.

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