Nigel Kneal’s 1972 TV movie The Stone Tape starts off seeming like it’s going to be another of those ghost hunting with technology stories, a bit like Richard Matheson’s Hell House (filmed as The Legend of Hell House at around the same time this one was made). Kneale however has some twists in store for us.
An electronics corporation has established a high-tech laboratory in an old house. Their mission is to find a new data storage medium to replace magnetic tape, a development intended to put Britain at the forefront of the technology race. They have all the latest gadgets, including even a computer (a mainframe the size of a small bus). Peter Brock, the director of the project, is disturbed to find that no work has been carried out on the from intended as their computer storage room. The local workers refuse to enter the room, believing it to be haunted.
Brock’s initial scepticism is shaken when several members of his team hear the ghost, and two actually see it. It turns out that a servant named Louisa was killed in a fall on staircase in 1892, and her running footsteps and screams are the sounds they keep hearing. Since they have a whole lab full of high-tech equipment, and since they can’t continue their project until they have the use of the room, Brock decides they should try to capture the ghost on film or audio. This is where the story takes an interesting and unexpected turn. Brock realises there is no ghost as such. What they’re hearing and seeing is a kind of recording. The room has acted as a recording medium, capable of preserving human emotional outbursts of sufficient strength, such as stark terror. Apart from being interesting in itself, Brock feels he may have stumbled upon the very thing their research was looking for - a whole new way of recording data. The room and the human mind seem to be interact on one another, holding out the promise of being able to record images and sounds that can be played back directly into the brain, without the need for loudspeakers or monitor screens.
Jill, the computer programmer who seems most sensitive to these sounds and images, becomes increasingly obsessed, and increasingly convinced that there are in fact many layers of recordings present in this strange room.
Using only the crudest of special effects director Peter Sasdy and writer Nigel Kneale have crafted an intelligent and genuinely creepy little chiller. Good performances by Michel Bryant as Peter Brock and Jane Asher as Jill certainly help. As is usual with Kneale, we get some startlingly accurate predictions of the future, often in the form of what are almost throwaway lines. In this case the local vicar’s predictions of the new forms that our conception of sin will take in the future have proved uncannily prescient.
The Stone Tape demonstrates once again Kneale’s talent for combining science fiction with traditional horror elements, and the film clearly never really commits itself on the question of whether there is anything supernatural or even paranormal going on. The ending is truly frightening, with the tension gradually building to a crescendo of terror, obsession and madness.
While technology has certainly moved on since 1972, the datedness of the technology used by these scientific ghost-hunters doesn’t date the film at all. It’s the ideas that count, and the ideas in this one are as disturbing and thought-provoking today as they were in 1972. Very highly recommended.