StoneTapeA signature work from the British writer Nigel Kneale, one of the genre’s true masters. Rigorously constructed, thought provoking and deeply disturbing, this was made for the BBC in 1972, and may just be the finest TV horror movie ever made.

As a screenwriter Nigel Kneale’s voice is one of the most distinctive on the scene, and his best works, which include the legendary QUARTERMASS trilogy, are instantly recognizable. His is one of the very rare cases where the writer is the true auteur, and nowhere is this more evident than in THE STONE TAPE, which unfortunately remains his last work of note. Kneale unofficially retired shortly thereafter, and although he has turned out the occasional script in the meantime (including the uncredited original draft of HALLOWEEN 3 and 1989’s THE WOMAN IN BLACK), nothing he’s done lately has come close to replicating the power of his early work.

I have my differences with Nigel Kneale’s scrupulously tasteful and refined (in other words: British) approach, but I can’t deny the intelligence and imagination that inform every minute of this one-of-a-kind ghost story. The production opens with an admitted cheap shock (trucks seem to be intent on ramming the heroine), but quickly settles down into a riveting intellectual thriller.

A rambunctious electronic research team becomes trapped in a nightmare when they penetrate the stonewalled basement of a TV studio; eerie screams frequently ring through the area, and yet a tape recording fails to pick them up. It seems the room was host to all sorts of atrocities in the past, and the horrific presences remain as psychic impressions stored in the stone, which can be accessed according to the emotional discharges of people in the area.  But when one of the researchers decides to conduct an exorcism, it gives the ghostly impressions a way to enter into the physical world, with horrific results.

Peter Sasdy was the director, and he does a competent, workmanlike job, but this film is primarily a writer’s showcase.  It’s to Sasdy’s credit, then, that his visuals never get in the way of Nigel Kneale’s words. While the cheesy high definition photography and low rent special effects date the film, it still plays extremely well precisely because the script is so superbly written.

Vital Statistics

BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)

Director: Peter Sasdy
Screenwriter: Nigel Kneale
Producer: Innes Lloyd
Cast: Jane Asher, Christopher Banks, Michael Bates, Michael Bryant, Tom Chadbon, James Cosmo