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THE STONE TAPE NIGEL KNEALE 0 1972 - UK





scientists. “Well, we’re rather better equipped...” With this invocation, acclaimed writer


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Nigel Kneale set the stage for a revolutionary spin on the traditional ghost story that con- tinues to resonate to this day. Having set the standard for televised science fiction and horror with his 1950s trilogy of Quatermass serials for the BBC, he essentially concluded his celebrated tenure at the network on Christmas Day of 1972 with the broadcast of The Stone Tape. A team of electronics experts assemble at Taskerlands, a remote Victorian


mansion being refitted for a top secret endeavour: the discovery and develop- ment of a new recording medium. Problems arise almost immediately when the renovation falls behind because workers inexplicably refuse to enter the room earmarked for critical computer storage. When emotionally sensitive pro- grammer Jill Greeley (Jane Asher, who at the age of six briefly appeared in Hammer’s 1955 film adaptation of Kneale’s The Quatermass Xperiment) encounters what appears to be the ghost of a ter- rified scullery maid named Louisa Hanks falling to her death down a flight of stairs, Peter intially downplays it. But it’s not long before other members of the team – including Peter him- self – experience the haunting as well. With pressure mount- ing to get the project underway, they’re left with no choice but to exorcise the ghost by any (scientific) means necessary. But when their inquiry reveals the haunting as a kind of recording (the maid’s death is imprinted in the stone walls of the room, playing back whenever someone enters), Peter reckons this may be the new medium they’ve searched for. Directed by prolific Hungarian director Peter Sasdy (who


established his gothic horror credentials with Hammer’s Taste the Blood of Dracula), The Stone Tape is a masterclass in mounting hysteria, climaxing in a gruelling sequence as Peter’s increasingly desperate attempts to control the haunting inadvertently “erase” the ghost from the stone. The ghost’s final manifestation as a series of chaotic printouts reaches a summit of inspired lunacy as scientist Hargrave (Tom Chadbon) bolts from the room screaming, “It’s in the computer!” But the core of The Stone Tape’s terror truly emerges during the story’s quietly clever faux-denouement, a deliberate lull in the pro- ceedings when Jill returns to the seemingly-no-longer-haunted room and encounters something lurking in the corridor: the


RM62


hey once had a go at it with bell, book and candle,” egocentric re- search director Peter Brock (Michael Bryant) intones to his anxious staff of


malevolent presence recorded a layer beneath. Much like Louisa Hanks is within the


walls of Taskerlands itself, the ghosts of Kneale’s earlier work are embedded within The Stone Tape. Jill and Peter’s visit to the town pub reveals local sus- picions that echo the paranoid pub- dwellers of Quatermass II, for example; and their subsequent historical inves- tigations directly parallel the uncover- ing of clues about the crashed martian spaceship in Quatermass and the Pit, where parish records and dotty vicars reveal past supernatural occurrences that the investigators reclassify in ra-


tional terms, not as ghosts and goblins but as “a mass of data, waiting for a correct interpretation.” Though The Exorcist would arrive a year later as a regressive counter-


point to The Stone Tape (in that film, the might of modern medicine came up short when pitted against demonic possession, leaving the church to save the day), scientific investigation into the supernatural became de rigueur almost immediately. The Legend of Hell House (1973) was quick out of the gate, but the legacy persists from Poltergeist (1982) through to Insidious (2010). In Kneale’s work, applied science successfully penetrates the cloudy membrane of superstition, but critically fails to discredit the underlying phenomenon, instead expos- ing and unleashing an even more terrifying horror con- cealed beneath the religious rhetoric. The tale’s most direct influence can be seen in John


Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, though. The film fea- tures a team of scientists, equipped with rooms worth of computer equipment, taking up in the basement of a church to investigate a canister of green liquid that is revealed to be the Antichrist itself. Carpenter paid direct homage to The Stone Tape’s creator and his other work by including a “Kneale University” in the movie, and by


crediting his script to “Martin Quatermass.” (This despite Carpenter having a disastrous collaboration with Kneale on the script for Halloween III five years earlier, which ended with Kneale taking his name off the project.) Indeed, the echoes of The Stone Tape have resonated loud and


clear through the past four decades, leaving its imprint on a number of impressive genre film hauntings.


JOSEPH O’BRIEN


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