Streaming Review: The Stone Tape

The Stone Tape
Instant Video | DVD
Directed by Peter Sasdy
Written by Nigel Kneale
Starring Michael Bryant, Jane Asher, Iain Cuthbertson, Michael Bates, Tom Chadbon
Originally Released: December 25, 1972

In the most recent Doctor Who episode, entitled Hide, which we reviewed on the latest TARDISblend, the Doctor finds himself meeting a duo of "ghost hunters" in a mansion. Investigating the alleged haunting, the Professor explains to the Doctor a rundown of the sightings in the building, and incidents including the discovery of cans of Spam and a letter hidden behind a boarded up stone steps. This key moment in the episode is a direct reference to a notable BBC story from the 1970’s called The Stone Tape, and was a key influence on that episode.

Being an obstinate Whovian, I was curious to learn more about The Stone Tape, and was pleasantly surprised to find it streaming from Amazon. Not only does the classic televised play feature essential plot elements that would be implied in the Doctor Who episode of Hide, but it’s also implied that Hide is almost somewhat of a sequel (in a manner of speaking, to a degree, maybe) of The Stone Tape.

Additionally, I learned that this noteworthy film was not only influential to later horror movies (not to mention Doctor Who as well), but was inspirational to paranormal investigations. The name of the show would be used to describe the stone tape theory – a hypothesis that insinuates that inanimate objects such as stone can act as "recording devices" for moments in human history.

Essentially, the stone tape theory states that these stones are absorbing the energy from high-tension moments, and is later seen or perceived by the living as "ghosts" or ‘residual hauntings’. According to the Wikipedia page of the stone tape theory, "ghosts are not spirits but simply non-interactive recordings similar to a movie".

Considering all of that into account, I decided to select The Stone Tape for this week’s streaming review. I figured that many Whovians who caught The Stone Tape references in Hide would want to know more about it, but with it being a key influence on both horror movies that would follow it, and paranormal theories and investigations, it would make for an interesting review.

The BBC production of The Stone Tape begins at Victorian mansion named Taskerland. During the 1970’s, while the governments were onto an arms race, corporations on the other hand were in an electronics race – contending specifically against the booming rise of Japanese industries. A group of scientists working for Ryan Electrics (what we would refer to as Research and Development nowadays), have relocated to the manor on a new project to develop a new form of recording and playback – a new form of media and hardware.

As the team moves in to Taskerland, they find a basement room that had a stone stairwell boarded up and out of sight. Amidst the lost stairs that go nowhere, they find old cans of Spam and a letter to Father Christmas. Confounded by the mystery, programmer Jill Greeley (Jane Asher) feels a sudden cold spot in the chamber, and witnesses the appearance of a screaming apparition.

With team manager Peter Brock (Michael Bryant), Jill sets out looking into the history of Taskerland, finding evidence of earlier witnesses to hauntings in the building, and documentation indicating exorcisms during some points in the history of the mansion. Once Brock hears the screaming from the apparition himself, he resolves to focus his team on something different.

Initially the scientific team aims to catch evidence of the ghost on tape, but during a sighting witnessed by many of the team, not a single sound of audio of the spirit can be heard on the recording. Perplexed by the fact the scientists heard the screams but that the audio equipment did not catch them on the recording, Brock and Greely begin speculating that the stones in the vault act like some form of memory resonance, a natural occurring form of media that can only be "played back" by the perceptions of humans, as opposed to recording equipment.

But the pursuit to invent a new form of recording that can capture "ghosts"; or rather moments from history caught in some form of mineral resonance, Brock becomes obsessed with the project. He begins driving his team to limits, while promising the owner of Ryan Electrics a major breakthrough worth millions.

The quest becomes infuriating and dangerous, and their efforts and discoveries may result in deadly consequences, that may provide to be a huge revelation, though at an extremely high cost to many of the people involved”¦

The writing for The Stone Tape is actually very good. For the time in which it was written and released, Nigel Keale‘s story was extraordinarily ahead of its time – both in science and in filmmaking. The audio equipment used by the scientists in the basement is mostly accurate for the time era, but also include some gadgetry that looks a little like Classic Doctor Who. The motion picture era of the 1970’s was a pinnacle for "haunted house"-style horror movies, and The Stone Tape preceded many of these – clearly to become an influence for movies such as Poltergeist and The Legend Of Hell House.

The performances are fairly standard class for 1970’s BBC. Some find this kind of acting a little stuffy (okay then, a LOT stuffy), but movie buffs and TV historians would recognize it for what it is: theatrical acting placed within a television setting. Michael Bryant plays a fine lead role, expertly portraying the multiple facets of his character, warts and all.

Bryant also has a good chemistry with Jane Asher, but also with the phenomenal Iain Cuthbertson who plays Roy Collinson. Tom Chadbon is a particular highlight as Hargrave in the film, who countless Doctor Who fans will recognize as Duggan from the classic and memorable City Of Death; an iconic tale from the Tom Baker era. Chadbon’s line of "IT’S IN THE COMPUTAAARRRRR!!!!" is cited as a cult favorite – you can see a clip of it below.

There’s a historic element to The Stone Tape that captures the methodology of the BBC at the time, mainly with regards to the way it was filmed. Very much like Classic Doctor Who, the outdoor scenes are recorded on film, while the indoor stage and set shoots are recorded on video. The quality between the two is obvious on-screen in this modern era, with a filmic noise present on the outdoor shots, and a noticeable higher frame rate on the video.

The visual effects are inordinately naff and lol-worthy when considering the modern techniques – but there’s something nice about the quality of the old effects. Without the benefit of modern CGI, the 1970’s BBC was restricted to cost and equipment restraints, but there’s a lot of Chroma Key (early blue screen) techniques used that aren’t too bad, and they were the precursor for what would evolve into the modern green screen practices.

One additional aspect, very conspicuous in this era with the benefit of hindsight, is the cultural attitudes of the era. Before the advent of political correctness, there is a lot of noticeable misogyny in the context of the story. Additionally, there are a lot of observations about the Japanese industries of the era in the film that would be considered racist by today’s terms. Some people might be put off by this, but it should be remembered that the outlook at the time was totally different from now, and the Seventies would evolve into a revolutionary time for positive change in these issues.

The set design is truly quite spectacular for the era, considering the budget issues often faced by BBC productions of the era – notably the Sci-Fi efforts. A great deal of love and care went into this work by the crew. The lighting is outstandingly brilliant, carefully planned and placed, colored in certain moments to accentuate ambience and mood. It’s remarkable actually.

Merging all these elements mentioned above, The Stone Tape turns out to be a piece that is a little hard to watch to begin with, but as things progress; everything coalesces into a significant tale that captivates the mind and the imagination. It’s carefully paced (a little slow, but carefully), so that it leads to a climax in which the answers are open for the audience to take in for themselves.

That being said, The Stone Tape is not for everyone. The age of the piece will be off-putting for a lot of younger viewers, and quite honestly, there’s a lot in here they may not relate to – though it may be worth the BBC to consider remaking this film for a newer audience. The quality of the filming is not cinematic, and screams of "old TV" quality, but I’m sure geeks of classic and old television shows might be able to overlook this.

Then again, there’s something special about The Stone Tape. It was a revolutionary piece for the BBC that ended up inspiring the name "stone tape theory", but also was a huge influence for later horror movies globally. It’s worth watching if you’re curious about older movies, and fans of Classic Doctor Who may find it of interest as well; but if you prefer your visual effects modern yet digital and your storyline pace rapid and fast, this isn’t for you.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5

Clip: “It’s In The Computer!!!”

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