Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Insomnia Movies: The Stone Tape

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Yesterday my friend Lucy did a great post about Quatermass and the Pit (the article is in Italian, but you can use Google Translate) so I decided I’d like to watch it again. To me Quatermass and the Pit in color is always a strange experience because I first saw it on the telly, when I was a kid, and it was in black and white and I still remember it in black and white.

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But anyway, I was not able to find my copy, that lies buried somewhere. So, as I was going through a bout of insomnia and I was in a Quatermass kind of mood, I picked up another thing by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale, and I re-watched The Stone Tape. And then I thought I’d do a post about it.
Here we go.

MV5BODIyMzI2NzkzN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjI4NTgxMQ@@._V1_UY268_CR1,0,182,268_AL_The Stone Tape is a made-for-TV play the BBC broadcast on the 25th of December 1972. It was written by Nigel Kneale as a science fiction ghost story, and it is considered one of the benchmarks of the genre.
In the story, a team of researchers hole up in an old Victorian mansion to develop a novel recording system to counter the expansion of Japanese electronic consumer products. When one of the rooms in the mansion turns out to be haunted, they decide to investigate the phenomenon, to use the residual memories stored in the rocks of the house as the basis of their new tech.
It will end in grief.

The Stone Tape is a low budget effort, and as it usually happens with good professionals, it compensates the lack of funds with imagination and a solid technique.
The two main characters are the head of the project, Peter Brock – a cynical and overbearing individual – and the computer programmer on the team, Jill Greeley – the only woman on the team, and probably a latent medium.
Brock’s aggressive cynicism is played against Jill’s crumbling nerves and professional curiosity, and this makes for great storytelling – The Stone Tape is a story about people, and we get to care for those people (or to despise some of them).

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And considering its age, the movie does not use any modern gimmick -. There are zero jump scares in this baby.
What hits and hits hard is the way in which the actors portray their reaction to the horror, that is very different from what we usually see in movies today. The first time Jill experiences the haunting, her reaction is so physical and so convincing, you can’t but feel a shiver down your spine.
Great acting, great characters, and the feeling this is for real – this is what makes this movie great.

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Kneale apparently based the set-up on the BBC tech development section, and maybe it’s because of this that the whole ensemble looks so real. And interestingly enough, the exterior scenes were shot in the house formerly owned by Ada Lovelace – so that in the end a story featuring a woman computer programmer was set in the house of the first woman programmer ever.

And 46 years on it’s still pretty scary, all things considered. The Stone Tape influenced everything, from Carpenter’s The Prince of Darkness to Poltergeist, and both films name-check explicitly either the movie or Kneale and his work.
The jury is still out to decide whether this is a ghost story told through the filter of a science-fictional set-up, or a science fiction story using the modes and the tricks of a ghost story.
But these are classification issues that are better saved for a night at the pub, talking old movies. If you are interested, you can find a decent copy of The Stone Tape on Youtube. It is well worth a watch.
Or if you’d rather listen to the audio-drama version (it’s equally scary, if not even more), here goes…

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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