Saturday, October 14, 2023

Lovecraftian Horror at Anthology: The Stone Tape

One of the only cool things about the 1970s was all the great made-for-TV horror movies that were released. That was also true in the UK, where they produced one of the best. Nigel Kneale is now considered one of the great television writers and this Lovecraftian-themed original definitely helped solidify his standing. Fittingly, Peter Sasdy’s The Stone Tape, written by Kneale, screens as part of the Lovecraftian horror series at Anthology Film Archives.

If this story were happening today, Ryan Electric Products would be battling competition (and possibly state-sponsored corporate espionage) from China. In 1972, R&D head Peter Brock is obsessed with beating Japan. To that end, he launches a massive “pure research” endeavor, hoping his team’s unrestrained brilliance will produce a providential breakthrough. To house his project, Ryan Electric acquired the “Taskerlands,” an ancient manor built above even more ancient ruins. The place has a dark and stormy reputation. It even had an exorcism that reportedly did not take, according to the research of Roy Collinson, Ryan’s facility manager and an old mate of Brock’s.

Somewhat awkwardly, Brock’s former mistress, Jill Greeley, has been assigned to Taskerlands as his computer programming. Apparently, she has heightened susceptibility to the building’s bad supernatural mojo. She feels it so acutely, she nearly crashes her car when first approaching. Initially, Brock condescendingly dismisses the strange sights and sounds of a ghostly woman she reports, until they are corroborated by others. As a stubborn materialist, Brock directs his team to devote their entire powers of computer-driven analysis to the “haunting.” He hopes the sinister stones of the chamber where the presumed spirit of a long dead maid appears will hold the secret of a radical new recording technology. Of course, their investigation will take a decidedly Lovecraftian turn.

Kneale’s screenplay gave rise to an entire paranormal hypothesis known as “The Stone Tape Theory” that posits supposed hauntings are actually the recordings of viscerally traumatic events. Few horror movies have that sort of lasting legacy, but its reputation really endures, because it is so darned creepy.

In addition to being one of Kneale’s best scripts,
Stone Tape represents some of Sasdy’s best work (along with his episodes of Hammer House of Horror). Using vintage Doctor Who-level special effects, he creates a sense of dread that is truly Lovecraftian. He and the design team made Taskerlands a very distinctive place that exudes massively bad vibes.

Michael Bryant is also terrific as the arrogant, blustery Brock. Every second he is on screen, we can feel him making the karma worse. Iain Cuthbertson nicely counterbalances him as the more decent (and probably smarter) Collinson. Jane Asher (who also appeared in Corman’s
Masque of the Red Death) is keenly sensitive as Greeley—and also provides some amazing freakouts.

Over fifty years later,
The Stone Tape is still one of the smartest horror movies around, especially for the way it combines “modern” technology with ancient unexplained phenomenon. Highly recommended, The Stone Tapes screens Thursday (10/19), Friday (10/27), and Saturday (10/28) at Anthology Film Archives, as part of its H.P. Lovecraft series.