When a team of scientists working for an electronics corporation move into their new research facility, a Victorian house in the country, they find that the builders have refused to renovate one room to match the rest of their now-modernized offices and labs. That’s because the room is inhabited by a residual haunting, a psychic recording of the last moments of a young maid who died there in the 19th century. The stone walls of the room themselves serve as a sort of recording device, hence the name The Stone Tape.
The opportunistic team leader, Peter Brock (Michael Bryant), sees the haunting, or rather the way it has been captured, as a possibility for a new medium to transmit television and sound, so intense research begins on the haunting itself. However, Brock manages to erase the evidence of the young maid. Unfortunately, there was a history of a haunting before her death, and the experiments only bring more malevolent forces to the forefront. One team member, Jill (Jane Asher), is more sensitive to the older forces than anyone else, but will anyone believe her before it is too late?
The Stone Tape brings enough material for critical analyses to keep someone like me busy through several viewings. First of all, I’m struck by the ways the different relationships between living characters echo the layers of ghostly activity. Jane and Peter have a history of a romantic relationship that is obvious, but Peter is married to someone else. At the end of the film, when the team has moved on from the paranormal experiments, Peter puts Jane on leave and simultaneously starts sleeping with a new secretary. This parallels the ghosts that existed before the maid and the new ghosts that will be trapped by the stone in the future: Peter was cheating on his wife, and now he is unfaithful to Jane too. There were others before her, and there will be others after her.
Then there is the conflict between Peter and another team leader named Crawshaw (Reginald Marsh), who wants to use the facility to develop washing machines. The washing machines are practical and relevant now although dull, and Crawshaw is seen as out of touch by Peter. The recording research is experimental, an attempt to reach into the future, to revolutionize. This disagreement could be related to the question of whether or not the haunting is conscious or not, and also the need Jane has to simply understand what is going on in the haunted room versus Peter’s desire to use the haunting as a means to an end. Peter thinks he represents the “sexier” or rebellious side of pure science, but in reality he is no different from Crawshaw.
There’s so much more going on here. There’s the possibility that the amount of background noise made by minor characters in the beginning, all but obscuring important dialogue, echoes the confusion that is to come. There’s the quirky and somewhat unlikable characters throughout, such as the barmaid who proudly insinuates her promiscuity with American soldiers during WWII, and the old priest who can’t stay on the topic of history because he wants to proselytize about pollution being a sin. And yet, although these people are super annoying, they’re right about the situation in the house. There is a truth here that Peter refuses to see, and it is plumb awful. There’s obviously some intergender conflicts, the old science versus religion game, and even racial conflicts between the electronics inventors and their unseen but referred-to Japanese counterparts.
And of course, as if we needed reminding, you can make an effective film with almost no special effects if you have good actors. I’m reminded what a talented actor Jane Asher is by her almost complete transformation into a different person from the other movie I’m most familiar with her from, Deep End. Where there she was aloof and probably a bit cruel, here she is vulnerable and intense, and definitely sympathetic. She even looks like a different person, and it’s not just the Margaret Thatcher hair in The Stone Tape.
And returning to the relationship between Jane and Peter: from the beginning Jane is accused of being hysterical when in reality she is the only one of the team who is close to understanding what is going on. In the very first scene Jane finds her car trapped between two reversing moving vans who don’t see her and she is forced to drive out of the way and consequently into a pile of sand. When she tries to tell Peter he won’t even listen, instead blaming her distress on his refusal to see her the evening before. He is the worst kind of chauvinist, thinking her every motivation involves him. This sets up the contrast between intuition and science when it comes to investigating the haunting. Jane represents feeling rather than thinking, she is ultimately the one who is right, and yet she is dismissed and treated as if she is nuts.
Really, this is the main conflict in this film and all the films that it influenced, including Poltergeist and Prince of Darkness: the conflict between what can be absolutely quantified, and psychic phenomena, which, so far, cannot. In every such film, it is science that loses, and that is the real horror for the science-minded among us. At least it is for those who will even watch these sorts of paranormal films. What if something happens that simply cannot be graphed or fit into a formula? Not possible? So terrifying that you refuse to admit the possibility? Can anecdotal evidence be evidence at all? Forty years on, The Stone Tape is as thought-provoking and terrifying as ever.