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DVD SAVANT

Savant PAL Region 0 Review:

THE STONE TAPE


The Stone Tape
British Film Institute
1972 / Color / 1:33 / 90m.
Starring Jane Asher, Michael Bryant, Iain Cuthbertson, Reginald Marsh, Michael Bates
Production Designer Richard Henry
Original Music Desmond Briscoe
Written by Nigel Kneale
Produced by Innes Lloyd
Directed by Peter Sasdy

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Nigel Kneale is a grand old talent of British television, although barely known in the United States. The Stone Tape is one of his legendary BBC telefilms, one often referred to in Science Fiction literature, but that nobody seems able to see. Now the British Film Institute is putting out a series of BFI Archive Television DVDs. This disc is PAL, but region 0. This means (and Savant found out the hard way) that it won't play on a tabletop NTSC DVD machine. But it spins up just fine on a DVD-ROM drive in a computer. Luckily, I had access to one.

Kneale writes intelligent science fiction of the type that Savant dotes on, hence the enthusiastic articles in these pages on Quatermass 2, The Abominable Snowman, Quatermass and the Pit, and Quatermass in general in the very early Savant piece Quatermass Who? The Stone Tape shows Kneale to be both consistent, and consistently prescient - most of the concepts in this telefilm had to wait ten years to be exploited in more 'popular' movies.

Synopsis:

Brash project director Peter Brock (Michael Bryant) installs his research crew in a refurbished English country house, and drives them to forge into pure research to find a new kind of recording medium to take away the Japanese lead in consumer technology. But one unfinished room in the ancient building definitely seems to be be haunted with strange sounds, and sometimes sights, for sensitive team member Jill Greeley (Jane Asher). After unsuccessfully trying to record or measure the phenomena, Brock gets an inspiration: the stone of the room itself has somehow 'recorded' the death of a woman in the castle 200 years ago, and 'plays it back' when disturbed by intruders ... directly into their brains.

A brisk and challenging show, The Stone Tape is well written in the verbose teleplay style, and for a videotaped item from 1972, is extremely well-produced. Kneale's group of bickering researchers are rowdy and stimulating people, at a time when most shows still depicted any kind of a scientist as a sober cipher. Michael Bryant (The Ruling Class, Lenin in Nicholas & Alexandra) badgers and expounds and generally ramrods his project like a swimming-team coach, but with a better vocabulary. He's basically the Quatermass character, but oddly, more like the pushy and obnoxious American version of Quatermass, the interpretation Kneale claimed to detest. Jane Asher played a little girl in the very first film adaptation of a Quatermass original, The Quatermass Xperiment, and here takes the key role of an scientist especially sensitive to psychic phenomena. Or in this case, more susceptible to the brainwaves coming from the Stones.

It's fun to see what is basically a haunted house film done from the viewpoint of real scientists who have no intention of being spooked by superstition. Some of them do anyway, of course, but as in all Kneale stories, the rational outlook prevails. The screams and phantoms are pegged as, 'just a mass of data waiting for correct interpretation', and words like 'heuristic' are bandied about. This is not the kind of show where people shout things like, 'The ions are positively charged, professor!' Kim Newman's liner notes cite The Haunting of Hill House as a forerunner with the scientific investigation idea, but what The Stone Tape will remind us of is Poltergeist, made ten years later. The Spielberg movie's investigation turns a haunted house into a 3 Ring Circus; The Stone Tape stays very basic, with surprisingly effective low-tech special effects.

Peter Sasdy is best known for a few reasonable Hammer films; his career broke on the reef of The Lonely Lady, a movie so bad even camp aficionados haven't embraced it. This earlier television production is directed in exemplary style. Savant was expecting a soap-opera look but the low-key visuals are great (nicely lit for video) and the camera is used very expressively. Sasdy's handling of the actors is also good; the tension level of the show rises gradually until there is a feeling of general hysteria. The only criticism here is that Bryant's character is given a bit too much shrill yelling to do in the latter part of the show.

Kneale presents themes both familiar and new. The main concept is his old standby, telepathy. Even though it is explained that Jill and then the others are responding to some kind of communication aimed at their nervous systems, this is essentially the same kind of remote control theme seen before in Quatermass and the Pit (Martian ghosts mentally possessing humans) and The Abominable Snowman (Snowmen and a Tibetan lama mentally possessing humans). Of course, it was swiped by Jimmy Sangster for his Quatermass ripoff The Trollenberg Terror. Sangster solved the old problem of what to do with female characters in these science fiction movies by making young heroine Janet Munro the psychic medium for the aliens. Although Jill follows in this sci fi trend, viewers are going to identify her as being more like the 'sensitive' psychic character in The Haunting.

Besides presenting a brash Quatermass substitute to admire and finally criticize, Kneale takes a swipe at consumer research, introducing the William Crawshaw character (a funny Reginald Marsh) as a clown inspired by the millions to be made from a hi-tech washing machine, showing up in scenes with his hands dyed red, etc., by various mishaps. The pure research of Brock's team is presented as much more worthy.

Kneale also acknowledges international competition in the electronics industry, which Japan was winning hands-down even as early as 1972. Brock's rallying cry to create a world-changing recording medium to replace audio tape seems very ahead of its time for the early 70s, as scientists even now are researching miraculous-sounding digital storage technologies. Kneale adds some pro-British jingoism by pretending that the UK could forge ahead and seize the future if Brock's group got their act together. This is accompanied by several unwelcome racial swipes at 'the japs' (sic). Savant supposes the Japanese seized and held the electronics world for so long because the Americans were more interested in bigger and uglier cars, and the British were still thinking about ghost stories.


Because Savant watched The Stone Tape on a DVD-Rom, it was a very different disc experience. There are probably a lot of you who see your DVDs almost exclusively this way, but it's fairly new in this house: if my son hadn't been home from college with his computer, I wouldn't have seen it at all. The 25fps PAL picture is bright and clear and looks better than American archival NTSC video tapes from the same era - very sharp, with almost a 3D effect when a bright figure is set off against a dark background. There were some strange phenomena observed here and there ... intermittent red and green dots that would appear during motion on screen, which may or may not be familiar to PAL viewers, or DVD-Rom users. The sound is excellent. The menus say that the full teleplay scripts of The Stone Tape and another Kneale rarity, The Road, may be downloaded from the disc. There's also a provision to play back an audio commentary, which Savant tried but had no success doing, most likely my fault and not the disc's.

I'm informed that The Stone Tape and other BFI products are not available in American stores. Information can be had about them from this website:

www.bfi.org.uk

And they can be ordered through several UK online outlets, such as www.amazon.co.uk.

Remember that although this is Region 0, it is PAL, and will not play on normal American DVD player units, only DVD-Rom drives in computers. Those owners of region-free machines can figure the feasibility out for themselves.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Stone Tape rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Scripts for Two shows, audio commentary
Packaging: Clear plastic keep case
Reviewed: August 25, 2001


Footnote:

1. For hard-bitten Kneale-Quatermass fans: don't forget The Quatermass Home Page which has become a little outdated but is still a great source of information.
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