The Stone Tape (1972)

Nigel Kneale, while best remembered for his four Quatermass stories, created quite a few interesting horror and SF films during a long career as a scriptwriter.  One notes his TV play, The Creature (filmed by Hammer as The Abominable Snowman ), the horror series Beasts, a comedy about a guy with an imaginary girlfriend from space (Kinvig), the interesting (but sensationally named) The Year of the Sex Olympics, adaptations of The Woman in Black and The First Men in the Moon, a script for Hammer’s The Witches, and of course this TV movie from 1972.

A research team from a big electronics company, trying to find a new form of recording media in the hopes of retaking the electronics market from the Japanese, take up residence in a Victorian era mansion which has been heavily updated.  Unfortunately, the room they planned to store their computer data in remains unfinished because the work crews refuse to work in it.  Their computer operator, Jill, is terrified by the room and hears strange noises in it.

And then she sees the ghost of a young maid fall to her death from the top of a set of stairs that go nowhere.

Her boss and part time lover, Peter Brock, decides that they have to eliminate the ghost before they can do anything else, but he soon realizes that the stone walls have somehow recorded an impression of what happened in that room a century before – and that this may be the breakthrough they’ve been looking for.

Only there are other, far more dangerous things recorded on those stones.

The Stone Tape reminds me of another, excellent film dealing with high-tech attempts to study a ghost, The Legend of Hell House (written by another legendary TV horror writer, Richard Matheson).  The two films go in very different directions,  but they both share a similar storyline of a  team of scientists using their orderly, rationalist approach against an inexplicable and seemingly occult series of events.  In fact, the two almost seem to bookend each other as, in Matheson’s story, the key to resolving the mystery lay not in merely dispersing the ghost with their machine, but in finding the personal secrets of the ghost, while Kneale, whose ghosts are apparently just recordings, ultimately suggests that the recordings may contain far more than just images and sounds.

The idea that one could somehow turn ghosts into a viable consumer product is as nicely outrageous an idea as Kneale ever had in a career of outrageous ideas.  The idea that ghosts are somehow recorded in the environment around them is one of those explanations real ghost hunters have suggested, and tying it in to theoretical notions of crystals as a new recording medium makes a lot of sense.  But turning a ghost into an iPod type device?  Now that’s just brilliant.

All in all, it is another solid – and scary – entry in Kneale’s filmography, and a very different take on some of the themes he’d dealt with in Quatermass and the Pit.  For years, the only way to get to see this film in the US has been through specialty dealers and gray market copies.  However, thanks to the wonders of Youtube, anyone can see it now.

For many of those who do decide to try it, this will be their first encounter with Kneale.

But hopefully not their last.

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