Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a column where I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the 70s. This week’s entry is a first for my little column in that it’s a TV movie from outside of the United States! You probably didn’t even know other countries had televisions in the 70s, but I Googled it and it’s true. The UK had boob tubes, and in 1972 they were doing it right by airing an original tale of terror on Christmas Day.
Does that mean it’s Christmas themed? No it does not. Now keep reading for a look at The Stone Tape.
Where: BBC Two
When: December 25th, 1972
Consumer Electronics is a tough business, and the folks at Ryans Electronics know this better than most. Their products are starting to lose out to Japanese imports, so the team decides to get proactive about their research and development. Team leader Peter Brock (Michael Bryant) leads a group of technicians and engineers into an old Victorian mansion that’s been retrofitted over the years to be far more modern with the intent of developing a new recording medium — something as good as audio tape but far more durable — but they discover one of the rooms has been left untouched.
Peter’s pissed at first, but after Jill Greeley (Jane Asher) — the team’s only woman and therefore the most empathetic (it’s science!) — hears and sees a young woman screaming in the room before vanishing into thin air, the team takes a different direction. Most of them start seeing and/or hearing the woman as well, and a little bit of research reveals the mysterious death of a maid in that very room over a century ago. They try to record the screams and ghostly vision, but they capture nothing despite hearing and seeing it themselves. It’s then that Peter makes a startling and potentially lucrative discovery.
The sounds and images aren’t the work of a ghost in the traditional sense — they’re residual hauntings trapped in the stone walls themselves!
Writer Nigel Kneale is the big name associated with The Stone Tape thanks to a little horror/sci-fi classic called The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and its ensuing franchise, and this slice of TV terror is every bit as deserving of attention. He once again blends science with the supernatural resulting in a film that makes for a terrific double feature with John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House (1973).
Jill and Peter theorize that while the stones in the wall have captured an emotional moment from the past it’s the individual who actual receives the signal. Some hear it, some see it, and then there’s Stu who’s “ghost-proof, like colorblind” and neither hears nor sees a damn thing in the room. She also comes to believe that the walls work like reusable tape — new recordings have been laid over older ones — and while no one else believes her she discovers the hard way just how right she is.
That’s where the real terror comes into play, and as with Hough’s adaptation of Richard Matheson’s fantastic novel Hell House (1971) the science of it all builds before finally giving over to elements that drive home the horror. Some viewers may find it a long way to go for the terror to fully kick in, but for my money the character interactions help craft an atmosphere that teases horror in small beats before cranking it all the way up in its final minutes.
A single downside, though, is that as dated as some of the equipment may be in the film’s it’s the social conventions that place it more firmly in the 70s. Jill is the only female on the team and quickly marked as being highly emotional, but even that’s positively PC compared to the group’s racist imitations of their Japanese competitors. Not cool British engineer dudes, not cool.
The Stone Tape is an engaging tale of corporate antics, workplace shenanigans, and ghostly terror, and it’s well worth seeking out for fans of horror stories that find a basis in science before embracing the unknown.
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