Sunday, October 14, 2007

Set In Stone

Jill is starting back towards the passage when she feels the premonitory chill. But she keeps a grip on herself and keeps moving. The passage is dark, as if the light in the entrance hall has gone out.

Oddly enough, there are two tiny spots of red light — low down and flashing alternately like indicator lamps. Then both glow evenly — and come rushing forward at incredible speed , swelling in an instant into two eyes, yet not eyes like those of any living creature, for they keep twisting and moving on separate courses.

She stumbles back and almost trips over a spade, sending it scraping across the concrete. It is the only sound. The eyes have gone. More movement. She turns — and sees shapes, or rather shapeless things moving towards her across the open floor with the same incredible speed.

JILL (screams): Peter!

As if this served to set it off, the grunting begins — the same huge, unearthly noise she heard here earlier. She starts across the floor — in the only direction she can, towards the steps. They are hunting her. Huge forms, terrifying in their very lack of definition, with here and there eye-like dots of red light. They move across the ground with that dreadful speed, quartering it like hounds. There is a brute male violence about every movement, a lust to bring down and tear —

Then she is on the steps, pressing herself against the wall.

JILL: Help me! Help – !

She glances up. The steps lead to an upper floor, with light pouring down from the opening. She claws her way up to reach it. The steps beneath her feet are unworn and strong. Frantic, she reaches the top of them. And there is nothing. No upper floor, not even a roof above her — only the night sky.

The whole room has vanished. Instead of the walls there are standing stones round a moonlit space. And there the shapeless things are circling, closing in —

Then she falls.

It is a long way down ...

- Kneale's script of the only memorable bit of the film...

The Stone Tape by that wonderful humanitarian Nigel Kneale.

It just goes to show that illegally downloading films DOES NOT PAY. In this case, the sluggish download (so slow I saw the thing via preview and then deleted it before it finished) left me with the Director's Commentary switching on and off throughout the course of the flick. Well, by Director's Commentary we get Kim Newman gushing over the exhausted sounding Kneale, who then proceed to discuss a bunch of random bits of Kneale's life. Very interesting I'm sure, especially if you haven't read his wiki entry, but they're talking over scenes with absolutely nothing relevent. Yes, I'm sure Kneale's utter refusal to keep to the format of the Halloween series and attempt to turn it into an anthology film series (get yer own, Nige! Oh, wait, you did and quit because you ran out of ideas... or was it that Doctor Who was doing them all better? Mwahaha!), but it's nothing at all to do with this story of ghosts, goblins and evils from the dawn of time. Thus, this commentary is only SLIGHTLY less annoying than the one for The Unquiet Dead, where Mark Gattis, Simon Callow and some guy discuss every possible topic to do with the episode... in the wrong order, so when we see the Doctor and Rose in the TARDIS for the first time, they've already talked about and have to fumble for something new... like fake beards. Or all the brilliant plot twists and subplots that were removed by Gattiss to leave the dross we saw.

On with the motley. The year is the fine tablewine of 1972. Ryan Electrics, a powerful computer firm, has bought out the isolated manor house called Taskerlands (named after one of its owners) to use as a top secret research and development station. Their mission? TO CREATE DVDS! Well, not DVDs per se, but a replacement for magnetic tape in casettes and videos. The Japanese (judging from all the mockery and racial stereotyping, I think Kneale did not like Nippon) are going to TAKE OVER THE WORLD! And only BRITAIN can stop them, by building a lash up of wires and crystals that will last forever!

We meet our cast. The boss is Peter Brock - a suspiciously familiar looking swarthy moustachioed type with a ruthless edge and, in the days before mobile phones, gets rung by his family every five minutes. He's a loving husband and father. He just shags the secretaries he treats like dirt. Human weakness? NEVER!

His co-command is the cheerful and calm Collinson, (the chubby Ian Cuthbertson), the Spock to Brock's Kirk, and beneath them a team of hairy 1970s scientists who absolutely refuse to do a day's work until one of their number has dressed up as a green space alien and had the shit kicked out of him. "We're sacrificing a Martian!" they shout ebuliently, in what COULD be a veiled Quatermass and the Pit reference. Or just total bollocks because they show no other signs of superstition or xenophobia... bar believing in ghosts and hating the Japs. Either way, you half expect that their sudden violence against the unlucky space mascot is a plot point. It isn't in fact, all it does is freak out the last member of the team - Jill.

And, Jill doesn't NEED this crap.

A highly strung Liz Shawesque computer expert, people are already thinking she's cracking up, which is why she doesn't mention the baffling scene she was in as the film started - trapped in her car, surrounded by blurry, incoherent shapes, deafened by an obscene grunting, breathing noise. No, she wasn't touring with the Bulldogs, she was in fact outside Taskerlands and freaking out while parallel parking between two trucks. Her sanity is not helped by the 'gang-bashing the Martian scene' either.

Brock however, has a problem. This is the 1970s when the computer capacity of the average mobile phone needs an office block, and the main room chosen to store all the reel-to-reel computer banks is not ready for their computers. Collinson (who is showing signs that he really, REALLY does not want to be here) explains that all the workmen abandoned clearing out the room, one of the oldest parts of the manor constructed centuries ago. Brock storms in and cannot believe what he sees - the place is deserted and an hour's work would get rid of all the ruined, decayed wood and crap. He kicks down one such bit of panelling and uncovers a stone staircase running parallel to the room, heading up to about headheight and stopping. There's no other level it could have lead to, so why is it there at all?

However, if Brock could pull his head out of his arse for the briefest of brief moments, he might notice that there are quite a few mysteries. For a start, the hard as nails work crews that apparently refused to work in this room are not the first, as it appears in the Second World War some hardened American GIs boarded up the staircase with a pile of tins of spam for some reason, and similarly refused to clean up. There's also the little matter of an ancient letter to Father Christmas saying simply, "Please Go Away" - clearly referring to someone other than Santa - and that the steps seem to predate the house by a thousand years, to the point where Collinson suspects it is some Saxon construction.

THIS gets Brock's attention: if it gets out that Taskerlands Manor is some kind of heritage site, their secret R&D lab is twelve kinds of fucked! As he and Collinson storms off, Jill is left alone... and she alone hears running footsteps, then the sight of a woman running up those steps, turning and screaming at something before vanishing. Jill freaks out completely.

Brock is certain that Jill is either going loopy or out to annoy him (and why? He's such a loveable person!) but not even Brock can ignore the fact that Taskerlands Manor has a history. A very long history. While the disgustingly decrepit barmaids at the local pub think nostalgically of banging American soldiers, the landlord notes that the house was infested with rats... well, SOMETHING in the walls was making those noises. Indeed, the dotty vicar (stereotype number 4) between damning modern society for pollution and drinking tea, notes that an exorcism was carried out on the Manor. On top of that, Collinson has the paperwork showing a maid dying in an accident at the manor, and an exorcism carried out a year later. What's more, the child that wrote that letter to Santa became a recluse and never left the house.

Finally, after Brock heads to the room late at night, even HE believes as he hears the footsteps and the screams over and over again. A clever man, Brock's problem is that his valued storage space is haunted. WHOYAGONNACALL?!? ... Yeah. His team of yobbos, armed with sound equipment. Their mission, should they wish to stay employed, is find out what the ghost is and get rid of it. Brock drags in the Landlord to tell them of his experiences with the 'rats', and rapidly notes flaws in the man's story suggests he's just making it up. Then, the screams start and the Landlord loses it even more than Jill has.

Reacting like an Ice addict being mocked by Alan Jones, the Landlord has something of a complete nervous breakdown and reveals he is downplaying the truth - that when he was a kid, for a laugh, he locked a friend in the room to listen to the ghosts, who did more than just scream at him, and now 'old Jackie' is happily laughing his head off every minute of ever hour of every day up at some looney bin.

Brock's team are starting to freak out themselves - especially when they discover that while they can all see and hear the ghost, they see and hear it in different places, and nothing is recorded by their fancy microphones and cameras. Collinson, feeling this definitely is one of those 'tampering with things man was NOT meant to know' jobs, advise they stop - and Jill, who everyone know believes is a kind of medium, is on the edge of cracking up. In all this harsh gritty, Season 7 realism, one question is raised and never speculated from: why did the maid die? If she did, as it appears, fall off the steps, she was more likely to break a leg than drop dead? Was there something else involved - maybe the thing she was running from?

Brock however, has a brainwave and announces his Stone Tape Theory (as it is now officially referred to by parapsychologists and supernatural sleuths - yay Kneale): the steps have recorded a telepathic imprint of the maid's death, and at certain points, the living humans complete the circuit and the sequence is replayed directly into their minds.

And Brock knows a way to make money out of it! But no, he's not going to turn Taskerland Manor into a theme park, but instead use this imprinting idea to create a replacement for VHS - TV without televisions, alowing people to telepathically view channels, perhaps through some kind of earpiece... Exactly HOW this will work, I'm still not sure, since Brock doesn't know how to either record or replay anything this way, but that's clearly not his department.

The gang set to work trying to work out the best way to replay the recording of the maid's death, (with Collinson taking over the main sound duties in one of the most subtle and cunning rewrites-script-since-actor-has-gone-home-early scenes ever), and use every bit of technology on the room for hours and hours... until the hysterical Jill and Collinson realize the truth: all this pissing about with laser beams, sound waves, disco lighting have erased the maid recording for good.

Brock is devastated - mainly because he got drunk and rang up his boss shouing "THIS is THE BIG ONE!" and now has nothing to show for it. Luckily, his boss is an understanding chap who immediately focusses his attention away from ghost-vision into the more lucrative aim of Intelligent Washing Machines! Ryan Electronics, those whacky guys!

But while Brock gets back to work screwing his secretary and his gang start tinkering with crystal sets, Jill has revealed her inner obsessive compulsive and is now determined to work out just WHY the maid was recorded in the stone, and why the words "pray" "prayer" "save" "pray" were being chanted. Her sanity takes another whack when, visiting the now cleared out storeroom, she hears that strange grunting noise again, and nearly passes out. Jill realizes that the Stone Tape recording has been used more than once - the exorcism the Vicar remembers is one centuries before the one to get rid of the maid ghost. The Stone Tape has not been wiped, but a previous recording has now been revealed - a recording of something so old, it's been corrupted beyond recognition. Well, either that or whatever was recorded was something very, VERY nasty...

Brock decides Jill is nuts and fires her.

Jill heads back to the storeroom to try and play back the 'true' recording in the stones, and, seriously, it's the dumbest thing she's done in this film. The Stone Tape may have been a snuff movie by Peter Moffat, but now it is an HP Lovecraft animation by some napalm-snorting 1970s arts students.

As Jill abandons the seemingly lifeless store room, a pair of red glowing eyes fly down the corridor, chasing her back inside, before a horde of green things that resemble the oscillation patterns of the title sequence attack her with that horrible grunting noise. Jill, under seige, retreats up that staircase, higher, and higher, and higher... until she's climbing some ancient monoliths under a starry night sky. By sheer chance, her psychic potential, or by the things chasing her, Jill has gone straight INTO the recording, which is over seven thousand years old, back before history itself.

Brock and Collinson hear Jill's screams and run to the storeroom to find her lying at the bottom of the stairs, having died in the same manner as the maid. The coroner declares Jill's death accidental, and Brock makes it incredibly clear she was a complete nutter and he has nothing to apologize for - and to make sure, he destroys all her notes about the Stone Tape theory so no one will realize what a complete arsehole he is. So Collinson puches his lights out.

Brock heads off to check the storeroom one last time. And what do you know? The screams are back - except this time, it's Jill, whose death has been recorded into the Stone Tape, and her shouts for Brock cause the man himself to freak out competely - and unless the lighting is entirely impressionistic, the sine wave monsters are still on the loose...

Guess that getting a telepathic version of The Caves of Androzani is out of the question, unless it's played during this prehistoric pagan sacrifice.

So, what can be said about The Stone Tape, ostensibly the coolest thing ever according to those TV critics who get quoted a lot and talk very loudly in restaurants? Well, it doesn't have enough sci fi or horror for a freak like myself, and if there's one way to cancel out the atavistic horror of the supernatural it is to cut to a woman at a typewriter pretending to work out a computer program. The Martian fellow at the beginning is a complete waste of time, and exactly WHY was Jill detecting the ancient evil in the first scene when they weren't unleashed yet? It wouldn't be directorial irony would it?

This is supposed to be Christmas entertainment, is it? Lots of long, dull scenes of Brock and his fellos playing with transistors and hurling racist abuse at the Japanese for their ability NOT to get sidetracked into ghost hunting? Why don't these idiots just pick ANOTHER room for their computers? Apart from Tasker's Christmas wish list, there's nothing seasonal about this. I dare say everyone still awake enough and sober enough to do so would have changed channels halfway through Brock's tour of the castle, or after the plot seems to stop when the maid recording is wiped. Apart from Kneale's reputation, I can't see much bar bone idleness attracting viewers to this on a night we're supposed to be celebrating the life of a famous hippy than fearfully worrying about druid monsters and corporate washing machine salesman.

Isn't it incredibly lucky that the one group of people who are likely to be interested in the commercial applications of the Stone Tape theory JUST HAPPEN to be in a house which proves that theory and JUST HAPPEN to have a psychic computer expert to set it off? That they JUST HAPPEN to have a 'stone blind' scientist amongst them, allowing them to program the computer? The idea of trying to harness the Stone Tape is pretty fucked up as well. It's like a Caveman picking up a paperback book in the belief that he can make the already printed words change into whatever he wants, despite not being able to read or write English. And exactly what happens to Jill is left very opaque. I'm lucky to listen to the fanboy and the creator explain exactly what the hell all the flashes and screams were all about. Even then it is not explained if the monsters that attack Jill are

a) corrupted recordings of some prehistoric druids or somesuch
b) accurate recordings of strange prehistoric energy monsters
c) prehistoric energy monsters somehow able to travel through time

And it's susprising that

d) none of the above; Jill was nuts

is never seriously considered. Exactly WHY these ancient things keep killing young women is also unknown, unless they both were psychic... though why a recording would feel threatened, I just don't know. Why don't they come after anyone else? And how could Jackie and the Landlord be driven to the brink of psychosis by the maid screaming when the whole point is that the death of the maid blocked off the prehistoric monsters, by 'taping' over them? Was Brock going crazy with guilt at the end? Or was it the monsters? Was Jill right and that she wasn't just a recording but an honest-to-god ghost? And why do I get the feeling that all the interesting stuff happened AFTER this story when the apparitions tackled the British Rocket Group or the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce or even god help us Torchwood?

All in all, this wasn't particularly satisfying. It is not that The Stone Tape didn't live up to its hype (which seems to be based on the opening and closing credits, and the trippy sine wave murder scene), but I dare say had it been shown to an objective public it wouldn't have got the hype in the first place. People seem to only remember the good bits and they are few and far between, with some baffling 'comedy' of Brock's continual phone calls home and the insane washing machine mad scientist who is dyed different colours every scene. Oh, and wasn't Kneale horrified at Doctor Who for scaring children? Yet he inflicts the demented, lengthly and surreal murder of an innocent women ON CHRISTMAS DAY? He doesn't even come up with a proper ending, just "Drammatic irony! To be continued: never!"

This guy bugs me.

So, The Stone Tape is curiously not remembered for its offensive stereotyping of the clergy (the nutty vicar who thinks pollution is material sin), the common folk (the pub crew who act like the sort of riffraff that keeps Ben Chatham awake at night), the Japanese (the speech-impediment suicidal computer Nazis making Britain crap!), the justice system (the corrupt bastards!), and also the very origins of life on Earth. Eventually, Kneale runs out of people to badmouth, and I am left wondering if I give a shit that the sine monsters might be loose on Earth 1972.

OK, so Kneale gave a name and possibly more to a world desperate to understand and rationalize ghosts, and thus has indirectly given us Whispers of Terror, The Chimes of Midnight, The Eye of the Gorgon, Ghost Machine and Sparacus' The Living Picture. Once again, others doing better work with this admittedly kickass concept. Well, four out of five ain't bad.

Not terrible, but not worth buying the DVD either.


Jared "No Nickname" Hansen said...

AH, I needed that. I love your caustic reviews. I actually knew nothing of Stone Tape... and I'm very glad you acknowledged that the ideas were good because once I reached the end I was thinking "Hey, that sounds kinda cool!" with regard to all the memory-implanted-on-stone stuff. Of course, MythBusters proved that sound can't be implanted into stone, so the idea of entire unconscious minds and entities being 'written' stretches credibility.

This is also reminds me a lot of Sharpe's Gold, probably Kneale's most infamous effort, which I have recently got on DVD and watched. It's everything I could have hoped for and less. It's like the story somehow fell out of a parallel universe. The thing is, the details aren't fresh in my mind (the DVD also has two much, much better episodes on it) so I'll have to watch the whole thing AGAIN before I can do it justice.

Oh, and downloading things off the internet is frequently VERY disappointing. I think it amplifies the flaws of whatever you get, really, because you mentally equate that the quality of the file should be in exact proportion to the effort/time you spent getting it. And it very rarely works that way.

Youth of Australia said...

AH, I needed that. I love your caustic reviews.
Do you??

I actually knew nothing of Stone Tape... and I'm very glad you acknowledged that the ideas were good because once I reached the end I was thinking "Hey, that sounds kinda cool!" with regard to all the memory-implanted-on-stone stuff.
Well, I it's true. But ST is apparently the biggest thing since 1984, so it's got enough good publicity

Of course, MythBusters proved that sound can't be implanted into stone, so the idea of entire unconscious minds and entities being 'written' stretches credibility.
Well, it was thirty three years before MythBusters Busted the Myth...

This is also reminds me a lot of Sharpe's Gold, probably Kneale's most infamous effort, which I have recently got on DVD and watched. It's everything I could have hoped for and less. It's like the story somehow fell out of a parallel universe. The thing is, the details aren't fresh in my mind (the DVD also has two much, much better episodes on it) so I'll have to watch the whole thing AGAIN before I can do it justice.

And it very rarely works that way.
Oh, worked that out ages ago...