Archive for The Stone Tape

Sham Rock

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Television, They Live with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2017 by dcairns

Fiona’s been researching the works of legendary TV/movie screenwriter Nigel Kneale, so she got me to run HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH, which I believe I saw at my school film society when it was about a year old, and which I dismissed as tosh at the time. I learned at some point that Kneale had been involved — he wrote a draft but then took his name off the film — and sympathised with him. John Carpenter, apparently, is a big Quatermass fan, but the film got compromised, by Dino De Laurentiis and others, and director Tommy Lee Wallace, who reckoned that “60%” of Kneale’s script remained, ended up with sole writing credit (which seems a bit shifty of him, though if the sometimes irascible Kneale was unwilling to even touch the film with a nom de plume, what else could they do?).

Well, I was definitely right about the film back in 1983 or so. The lead roles are colossally underwritten — surely the unconvincing way they fall into bed together is part of Wallace’s 40% — in a film featuring robots, it’s even more of a problem than it normally would be when your main characters behave like automata programmed with a pianola roll of clichéd genre behaviour. The villain’s plan is completely absurd and worse, not scary. The only actor having fun is Dan “Nice shootin’ son” O’Herlihy, but his eccentric monologuing seems to have been cut to the bare bones, which is tragic since it robs us of additional lipsmacking and leaves the motivation for his elaborate scheme largely unexplained.

Of course, Kneale’s raison d’être as a fantasy writer was his ability to invest absolute conviction in potentially absurd ideas, but something is way off here. Fiona learned that the bit of stolen Stonehenge used as MacGuffin was not part of Kneale’s putative 60% contribution, but an addition by the production, who felt it was in the spirit of Kneale’s work since he had just used stone circles in the final Quatermass series. In the movie, Irish novelty mask manufacturer O’Herlihy (see also the unpleasant but offscreen Irish industrialist in Kneale’s The Stone Tape) is planning to reestablish the pagan roots of Halloween by implanting microchips with bits of henge silica, fit them to rubber masks, and send out some kind of subliminal signal in his TV commercials which will cause the wearers’ heads to erupt with cockroaches and snakes. Well, if Kneale was responsible for 60% of that guff, I can only assume we’re talking about a percentage of the letters of the alphabet, suitably rearranged.

Indeed, this site informs me helpfully that Kneale was thriftily repurposing an old TV script of his, The Big, Big Giggle, in which a TV signal causes teen suicides, rejected by a BBC in fear of imitative behaviour issues (not altogether unreasonably, though holding television responsible for the actions of people with mental health issues is always slippery and unsafe). Already it looks like Kneale’s idea is more disturbing, shorn of the ridiculous bug-head stuff, and convincing enough to cause TV execs to actually worry that it might, in a way, come true. It’s still voodoo television, and the henge-chips don’t really make it sillier, so I’d even allow that aspect of it, but the bugs are a step too far.

Kneale also apparently wrote the automata henchmen (or hengemen, if you will), which somehow fail to be creepy at all in the finished film, and are pretty damn implausible given the state of 1980s cybernetics, or even contemporary cybernetics. In the movie these guys are mainly used to add gory and unnecessary (in plot terms) deaths, which Kneale hated. But the movie was never going to go into production without a bunch of set-piece killings. Film history was not on Kneale’s side, even if the history of Samhain was.

But OK. Dull as the human interactions are, rote as the conspiracy investigation is, ludicrous as the conspiracy itself turns out to be, and entirely empty of meaning as the film itself is, it does have a few pleasures. The attractive widescreen is one of the few connections with Carpenter’s original film (glimpsed on TV sets — also we hear Jamie Lee Curtis’ echoing voice from factory tannoys). There’s one good BOO! moment early on, repeated to lessening effect. Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s electronic drones are lovely: somehow the crudeness forced on Carpenter by early synths enhances his music rather than detracting from it; somehow the marriage of 35mm anamorphic widescreen and pulsing electronic tonalities is just wonderfully RIGHT.

Carpenter, who as co-producer must share some of the blame as well as credit, admires Kneale but has never been very comfortable in the domain of IDEAS, which are what Kneale is all about. PRINCE OF DARKNESS is a beautifully-photographed rendition of what a Kneale concept would be like if it didn’t have a concept. The big exception, of course, is THEY LIVE, a rather wonderful genre mash-up which blends Phildickian paranoia with the establishment dread of Kneale’ Quatermass II. Joe Dante, originally touted to direct, who seems to have suggested Kneale in the first place, thrives on eccentric ideas, the more the better, and often involving TV, the media, toys. Indeed, the conspiracy at the heart of LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION carries an echo of Kneale’s Big, Big Giggle. But even Dante may have struggled to keep Kneale on board — now there was a man used to getting his own way. Or, if he didn’t always get it, he could certainly point to the fact that when he did, the results were usually sensationally effective and successful. And when he didn’t, you got a head full of cockroaches.

Mum’s the word

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on March 19, 2011 by dcairns

Fiona and I are in this picture… somewhere.

The Edinburgh Secret Society is… wait, no, I can’t tell you about that.

However, at their most recent monthly gathering, the ESS showed Nigel Kneale’s TV play/ghost story THE STONE TAPE, directed by Peter Sasdy, and Fiona and I attended. The Society meets at different, specially selected venues each time, and for this filmshow Edinburgh Filmhouse was chosen — a cinema which happens to be haunted (just ask Diane Ladd!).

At terrible personal risk, I can exclusively reveal that this was no ordinary screening, but a highly scientific investigation into the nature of fear itself. This deeply psychological and technically unexplainable inquiry was — but I’ve said too much.

What I can talk about is the film itself. I’d seen it before (for all host Professor Richard Wiseman’s protestations as to the film’s obscurity and rarity — it was judged so terrifying in 1972 that it was never shown again — it was released on DVD and is on YouTube), and had found it a little slow and not very scary. What always impressed was the idea — Kneale postulated an explanation for hauntings that has been taken up by the parapsychologists and used as a genuine theory. Briefly, Kneale suggested that buildings can, in certain undefined circumstances, act as recording devices, preserving a record of moments of high emotional trauma. Something like this theory informs Scatman Crothers’ explanation of the Overlook Hotel’s phantom populace in THE SHINING… an explanation which proves, at the very least, incomplete.

The other impressive thing in the show is Michael Bryant, as a pig-headed, macho businessman who latches on to a haunting in his new lab as the possible key to a new recording medium — “Tape is dead!” — “Something to beat Nippon!” The dated racism and casual sexism of the character provoked a certain amount of embarrassed laughter from the sophisticates in the audience, but it struck me as an astute and probably accurate skewering of the awfulness of the unreformed 1970s British male. The true theme of the story emerges through heroine Jane Asher, who’s more “sensitive” to ghosts than those around her, and so sensitive to the obnoxiousness of Bryant and the other swinging dicks of big business as to eventually find life almost unsupportable.

Jane Asher appeared in the first QUATERMASS film as little girl, so it’s especially nice to find her here.

The Stone Tape [DVD] [1972]


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2008 by dcairns

ÉCOUTE LES TEMPS is a moody French drama with supernatural elements. We had a particular interest in the subject because it relates a bit to Fiona’s last feature script, written for the delightful Terry Gross who’s trying to set it up as a low budget production. Both stories deal with supernatural SOUNDS, heard in the home of a dead loved one.

Early in the film there’s a strange black shape visible at the top of frame in a couple of shots. It stays in position as the camera pans, and I realised it’s the matte box, an apparatus on the front of the camera that’s used for attaching filters. It shouldn’t be in shot!

“The DVD must be showing too much of the image — this is stuff that was supposed to be masked out,” I said. Dogwoof Pictures, who released the film, should have taken more care. “If this keeps up, there’ll be some boom mics in shot too,” and sure enough, a little later:

The Shaggy Dog

Check the “shaggy dog” microphone baffler hovering above the guy’s head, top centre. But I thought THIS was going a bit far:

Not really, of course, that last one is deliberate, since our protag, Charlotte (Émilie Dequenne) is a sound recordist investigating her mother’s murder in a cottage that seems to have somehow recorded the events that transpired within: her microphone picks up audio flashbacks from different periods depending where in space she positions it. A rather fascinating idea, akin to Nigel Kneale’s TV play The Stone Tape, which develops very slowly from a methodical, low-key treatment. Our heroine takes to marking out her flat with lengths of twine, stretched through the time-space like an LSD-fuelled spider’s web, or like the elaborate defense mechanism constructed by the hero of Cronenberg’s SPIDER.

The purpose of Charlotte’s web is to pinpoint the exact point in space that stores the sounds of the murder being committed.

I lightly liked this — a reasonably standard Hollywood structure based on a really smart idea, and treated in a gradual, unfussed, very French manner. Hyping stuff up would have hurt it, and rendered it plastic and overfamiliar like the worst aspects of THE ORPHANAGE. What first-time writer/director Alanté Kavaïté loses in moment-by-moment drama, she gains in conviction, and a pace and tone that feel unusual when applied to this kind of material. Although her soundtrack throbs with constant reverberant atmospheres, the film reminded me a tiny bit of Jacques Rivette’s very quiet ghost story L’HISTOIRE DE MARIE ET JULIENNE, which appropriately contains the ghost of a microphone boom.

I shall explain. Early on, Julienne picks up his cat and lies down. The cat sees something overhead — an offscreen mic, is my guess — and its attention is rivetted, if you’ll excuse the pun bollocks. Julienne asks the cat if it can hear somebody moving about upstairs. There’s nobody upstairs, of course — or nobody of this world.