Monday, March 7, 2016

The Stone Tape: Great Old School Sci-Fi

Here is a great old piece of British Sci-Fi almost forgotten, and never really known in the States. It was the first teleplay to connect the nature of ghosts with a sort of temporal static loop, a recording from the past, rather than the spirits of the dead still roaming about. For its time it was a rather fantastic concept.
            This was written by the great British Sci-Fi writer Nigel Kneale (whom we discussed in an earlier post The Year of the Sex Olympics), known for bringing the first sci-fi drama to television in The Quatermass Experiment, then for his TV adaptation of Orwell’s 1984 (starring a young Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasance).
            Kneale was approached to write a play for the Christmas season and quickly that, in keeping with Christmas tradition, he would write a ghost story, but with a difference – ancient spirits would interplay with modern science. The concept of mixing the supernatural with technology had been a feature of some of Kneale's earlier work – most notably, his 1952 radio play You Must Listen, which concerned a telecommunications engineer who discovers that a telephone line has somehow preserved the final conversation between a woman and her lover before her suicide.
Micheal Bryant in The Stone Tape
            The story is as follows: Peter Brock is the head of a research team attempting to develop a new recording medium. The team moves into a an old Victorian mansion that has been renovated for their use. After arriving, they discover that the overhaul of one of the rooms is unfinished, the builders having refused to work in it because it is supposedly haunted.
Jane Asher in The Stone Tape
     The room, with its stone walls, is a remnant of the original building, with foundations dating back to the Saxon era. Curious, the researchers explore the room and hear the sounds of a woman running followed by a gut-wrenching scream. Jill an emotionally sensitive computer programmer, has a vision of a woman running up the steps in the room and falling to her death. Some research uncovers that a young maid died in that room during Victorian times and that an unsuccessful exorcism had previously been performed on the property.
Brock hypothesises that it is not a ghost, but that somehow the stone in the room has preserved an image of the girl's death—this "stone tape" may be the new recording medium they have been seeking. Their scientific devices fail to detect any evidence of the phenomena the team experience, and team members encounter varied degrees of the phenomena: most are able to hear sounds, Jill can also see images, but another member of the team experiences no sensory input. Jill suggests that the "tape" does not produce actual sound or light, but instead interfaces with the human nervous system to create the impressions sound and vision, and some individuals are more sensitive to this than others. She surmises that the recordings are imprinted in moments of extreme emotion, like a kind of telepathy.
Excited by the possibilities presented by a recording medium which uses a person's own senses as the means of recording and playback, Brock and his team move into the room. They bombard it with their technology, hoping to find the secret of the "stone tape" and have it play on demand. When they repeatedly fail, a last desperate attempt "wipes the recording" and some team members break under the strain. Brock's failures are compounded when he is informed by his superiors that the facility is to be shared with a rival research team working on a new washing machine.
Embittered, Brock no longer wants anything to do with the project. But after researching the failed exorcism from the 1800s, Jill presents the theory that the stone tape can be recorded over again and again and that the maid's death was simply the most recent recording. Jill discovers that the maid's death was masking a much older recording, left many thousands of years ago. Brock cruelly dismisses her findings, and forces Jill to take a two-month leave to prevent her from continuing her research.
     Returning to the room one last time, Jill's senses are besieged by a powerful, malevolent presence from the much-degraded older recording. Like the maid before her, she dies while frantically trying to escape it.
During an inquest, Brock tries to save face by claiming that Jill was mentally unstable. He then destroys all of her research without reading it. He makes a final visit to the room and discovers to his horror that the stone tape has made a new recording—that of Jill screaming his name as she dies.
The Stone Tape really is a remarkable film and it has one of those rare endings that stay with you long after viewing. It is a masterpiece of intelligent horror sci-fi. No jump scares here, just a steady increase of tension which does not let up. Like the room itself, the more exposure you have to The Stone Tape the deeper your perception of the possibilities are.
                                         The Stone Tape- Full Movie