Ginger Nuts of Horror
An odd, esoteric little piece of work, generally forgotten by culture at large
Budget is not horror's friend, generally. Certainly not in televisual or cinematic terms. There is something about the guerilla style of production, in which invention is forced by lack of resources, that perpetuates artistry in horror, resulting in some of the most iconic shots, scenes and complete works that define the genre.
That is not to say there are not examples of horror cinema and television that have money behind them and which “work;” there are many, but...in comparison to those created on shoe-string budgets, by what were (at the time of production) considered non-entities and nobodies...they are few and far between.
British television, traditionally, has always laboured under constraints of budget, certainly in comparison to its US network counterparts. There was a time when that situation turned to its advantage, the product requiring a degree of quality in terms of writing, performance and atmosphere in order to succeed, as there simply wasn't any possibility of effects carrying the day.
The Stone Tape, a 1972 televisual “play,” is a fantastic example; written by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale, the story consists of a scientific research team's effort to create or discover a new recording medium; one that will catapult the UK's technology far in advance of that currently making Japan a commercial and industrial goliath. In that effort, the team accidentally discover a strange phenomena in an unfurbished room of the “Taskerland” mansion where they are stationed; where builders and renovators refuse to tread because it is supposedly “haunted:” a ghostly scream and spectral footsteps can be heard by certain individuals who set foot into the room, some even witnessing the manifestation of a womanly phantasm on the mysterious steps lining one wall of the chamber, which appear to terminate nowhere.
The researchers ultimately come to the conclusion that what they are experiencing is not a “ghost,” in the conventional sense; not an earthbound soul or spirit, but a kind of recording; a perpetually looping playback of prior events bound into the stones themselves. However, it soon becomes apparent that the newly discovered “medium” is far more versatile than once imagined, and that what it is capable of “recording” goes far beyond mere human extremity...
An odd, esoteric little piece of work, generally forgotten by culture at large, save by a rare few who were touched by its morbidity, its strange, oppressive atmosphere...the surrealism into which it descends at its climax, The Stone Tape has been cited as in influence by many who operate within horror media, including the dark princes of horror comedy, The League of Gentleman, the director of such iconic works as Halloween, The Thing and numerous other works, John Carpenter and writer and critic, Kim Newman. A success born of its own limitations and constraints, the TV short is an exercise in slow-burning atmosphere, escalating intensity; the classic “horror” trope of multiple, frayed and flawed personalities slowly going mad together (like much work of its type, the characters constantly question their own and one another's experiences, suggesting that there might be some sort of hallucinogenic in the air; a rare kind of gas or fungus, as might have inspired purportedly “divine” or supernatural visions throughout history...even the possibility of a kind of mass hysteria), pushed to the edge and beyond by an external and malevolent influence.
Part of the piece's strength is its mystery; despite the reams and reams of expository dialogue (much of which has to be forgiven in order to truly enjoy it), there is deliberately little in the way of actual explanation, the strangeness of the situation enhanced by confusion; multiple, conflicting hypotheses coming in rapid succession, most of them disproven or undermined in a matter of moments, whilst others are left to flail and foment. Without the proper guiding hand, this factor could so easily have rendered the story impermeable or alienating. Instead, it has the effect of intriguing and distressing, leaving the audience macabrely fascinated by what is unfolding before their eyes, waiting for the inevitable descent into chaos that is to come.
Beneath the deliberately esoteric, technical jargon; the allusions to established parapsychological hypotheses etc, is, ultimately, a somewhat traditional story given a gloss of (post) modernity; a trope that fans of Japanese horror cinema will be familiar with in the form of current technology rendered sinister and threatening by ancient and mythological influence: like The Ring's Sadako, what is contained within “The Stone Tape” is far more than a mere recording; it has an ancient and malevolent intelligence; an intent that is stirred by the research team's attempts to harness it, resulting in a manifestation whose crudity serves to enhance atmosphere; little more than crude visuals drawn directly onto the film cells, it is difficult for the viewer to make out precisely what the entity (or entities) is; a shapeless, amorphous mass of luminous vapour, it shifts and pulses with suggested form; those of human beings rendered down and eroded over centuries of captivity within the stones; those of things that existed long before humanity, before anything like terrestrial life walked the earth. Combined with the spectacular use of sound, the result is as distressing as it is fascinating, the horror one that the audience almost want to reach out and touch, even knowing that it might drive them mad.
There is more than a shade of Lovecraft to the closing scenes, not to mention the overall themes of the play (most notably that of post-modern humanity dabbling in ancient and primal forces they have little to no comprehension of, unleashing incomprehensible and arcane madness as a result), the researcher that proves most sensitive to the “recording” finding herself simultaneously drawn and harassed by the entity, until she finds herself drawn into the surreal realm it inhabits; physically falling from the stones themselves, breaking her neck, whilst her soul is drawn into them, becoming the victim and play-thing of the terrible, ancient entity that exists at the deepest level of the medium. It is a truly fraught and terrifying moment, leant a degree of Dario Argento flare by the strange lighting, the flashes of colour and strobing light...the fantastically disturbing, distorted soundtrack, which has the quality of many voices all murmuring their own inarticulate agony, wordless in their despair.
A far, far from perfect production; the play suffers from its lack of budget as much as it draws strength from it: certain scenes are problematic in their direction or editing, resulting in salient information being relayed too quickly for the audience to catch or being drowned out by background chatter. Some of the characters are somewhat one-note in therms of their performance (most notably the odious Peter Brock, who has a tendency to shout or bark every line and to erupt into fury at the slightest provocation). There are also numerous contemporary elements that might prove daunting or alienating to a more (post) modern eye; the shakey, cobbled together sets, the purportedly “high end” technology which largely seems to consist of vast banks of blinking lights and keyboards connected to nothing in particular...even the style and pace of storytelling are notably of their era; slower, more deliberate and oblique than more recent equivalents; much of the information provided by suggestion or vague exposition, leaving a certain degree of responsibility in the audience's lap: do not expect clear cut explanations or some sort of resolution that dots every “i” and crosses every “t;” the sincere joy of the piece derives from not knowing, in the manner of a Lovecraft short story, the mystery is the point; to define it, to explain it, would be to somehow constrict and contain it, thereby robbing it of power.
What the audience is left with is a wonderful sense of delerious chill, a gnawing paranoia, as though every wall and brick of their homes might, potentially, resonate with unseen malevolence; with the tormented spectres of ancient tragedy and forgotten evil.
Not for everyone, but for those who have a penchant for TV or storytelling conventions of the era, a fantastic specimen of slow-burning, paranoid horror.
GEORGE DANIEL LEA