Wednesday, 23 December 2009

British B-Movies at the BFI, Part # 2

For my second dose of British b-pictures, I decided to hit the NFT for a double bill of movies that formed part of an apparently long-running series of low budget films based on the work of famed mystery writer Edgar Wallace. These films, it seems, were always introduced by a wonderfully campy title sequence featuring a bust of the great man slowly rotating toward the camera amid a cloud of mist, as a cut price imitation of The Shadows’ ‘Man of Mystery’ plays on the soundtrack. I can only speak for myself, but I found that bit worth the price of the ticket alone.

The programme notes accompanying the screening initially refer to the Wallace series as being “wildly popular”, but both some contradictory comments later in the same text and the reminiscences of the two old gents sitting behind me would seem to somewhat undermine this assumption. Circumstantial evidence suggests that these homegrown quickies were rarely popular with audiences, with cinema crowds regularly groaning, throwing projectiles at the screen or ducking out for a drink when the lugubrious Wallace title sequence hoved into view. Disrespectful behaviour, you might think, but having now seen a few of these movies, I know exactly where they were coming from. While both the films screened tonight undoubtedly have their points of interest and saving graces, they also can’t help but emerge as spectacularly dull and unengaging pieces of filmmaking. Frankly, if these two have been picked out as the best in the series, it’s small wonder they found little favour with audiences and critics, at a time when Hollywood, bloated though it may have been in the early ‘60s, was still offering romance, decadence, shoot-outs, musical numbers, casts of thousands and Charlton Heston parting the red sea in glorious technicolor.

Flat Two (Alan Cooke, 1962) is a drearily sordid tale in which a sleazy casino boss is found dead in his lavish apartment on the same night that two men with entirely unconnected motives for the crime happened to break in, and a selection of police detectives and barristers proceed to hang around in a gentlemen’s club, casually trying to get to the bottom of things. The main point of interest here is an appearance by the superb John LeMesurier, and as ever he’s a class act, although the script gives him precious little to work with. The mannered British performances and stiff upper lip approach to drama is as hypnotically charming as it ever is in these things, but the rest of the cast is dry to the point of dehydration, and the story – which doles out alibis and motives as dispassionately as cards in a Cluedo game – is a bore for anyone who likes their murder mysteries to carry some sort of emotional weight alongside the logic puzzles. Oh, and the only female character is an empty-headed hussy and all the working class characters are small-time crooks on the make – because that’s the way things were done back then. One best kept for the long, dark teatime of the soul, I fear.

Never Back Losers (Robert Tronson, 1961) is altogether more lively, a tale of a rookie insurance investigator stumbling his way into uncovering a South London race-fixing scam. The plot is hokey and unconvincing, but there are some great attempts here to try and imbue the material with an American sense of hardboiled pulp squalor, as our man traipses through the sordid streets of Soho, doing the rounds of crooked bookies and basement clubs, receiving a beating in a dark alleyway for his troubles and falling down the stairs to land at the feet of sultry, fishnet-clad cigarette girl Jacqueline Ellis. Yowza. Also thoroughly entertaining is the presence of the one and only Patrick Magee, playing menacing gang boss ‘Big’ Ben Black with all the subtlety and restraint you’d expect. One of the funniest things I’ve seen in months is the scene in which our insurance man, his dame and her jockey kid brother leave their house in an archetypally dreary South London suburb, only to find they’re being followed! Turning around, they see Macgee and his goons in extremely slow pursuit, in a gigantic, tailfinned Cadillac Eldorado, with Magee leaning out of the window, cheroot in hand, wobbling along like a big, angry toad! Wonderful! A few more scenes like this raise a chuckle, but can’t quite keep the slight story afloat – especially when most of the film’s enjoyable moments result from the director’s brave but doomed attempts to make exciting and striking things happen within the inherently drab and self-deprecating context of pre-Beatles Britain.

And in a sense, maybe that’s the key to why these British b-pictures so rarely hit the mark. Perhaps it’s just a matter of distance, but when British viewers watch an American crime movie, there’s a sense that *anything* can happen – that we’re watching a bulletin from a world where life is dangerous, where deals go down, tough guys live and bad things happen. What’s more, the minutiae of American life can fit INTO this world – Sam Spade could munch a Hershey bar, and it would be cool. Move things across the Atlantic though, and any attempt to inject a stylised sense of danger and excitement into proceedings is sabotaged by the knowledge that just around the corner there’s Weetabix and Marmite, Morris Minors and policemen with funny moustaches, making anything remotely dramatic or threatening just seem implausible and silly. Of course, the true British crime idiom would come into its own over the course of the next decade, crystallised through iconic films like ‘Performance’ and ‘Get Carter’, a whole universe away from the milieu of these tired and anachronistic Wallace adaptations.

The irony of course is that at the same time as the British studios were knocking out these sub-par timewasters, the German film industry was busy transforming the Edgar Wallace back catalogue into the swathe of far more daring, controversial and exciting movies that comprised the much-loved ‘Krimi’ sub-genre, bringing us such shockers as “The Fellowship of The Frog” (1959), “Strangler of Blackmoor Castle” (1963) and “The Phantom of Soho” (1964), whose titles alone probably tell you all you need to know about the continental approach to the same material that was putting British audiences to sleep, and whose influence eventually helped birth the Giallo in Italy, drawing a direct line between Wallace’s work and some of the most eye-popping excesses of European cult cinema in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Score one for the foreigners I’m afraid, Major. Well at least we had Hammer, eh?

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Deathblog: Dan O'Bannon

I haven’t had much time for writing over the past few days, but thought I owed it to myself to at least get down a few words to mark the passing of Dan O’Bannon, a man who I guess never really quite made the grade as a household name or a big deal auteur, but was nevertheless to be found hovering in the background behind many of the most entertaining and influential sci fi and horror movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and, being some hopeless kind of nerd, his name has certainly been lodged in my mind since I was busy watching ‘em all as a teenager.

I’d imagine most obits will have him down as “guy who wrote ‘Alien’ dies”, and whilst I’m sure it was a fine script and all, he gets eternal respect from me for two other projects he was involved with.

Firstly, there’s his directorial debut from 1985, the kind of directorial debut that would have had me writing cheques for a ten picture deal, although sadly things didn’t work out that way, ‘Return of the Living Dead’!

What can I possibly say about ‘Return of the Living Dead’? For all my love of the strange and wonderful and poetic and obscure in cinema, if you were to feed me enough beer and ask me about the elements that go together to create a GREAT MOVIE (as opposed to a good film), ‘Return..’ is pretty much the dictionary definition. For any Halloween “get drunk and watch movies” type party, it’s always the number one choice, now and forever – satisfaction guaranteed for horror freaks and innocent bystanders alike. Frankly, I think the fact the guy who directed ‘Return..’ died without a long and illustrious string of directing credits to his name speaks very poorly of the human race as a whole.

Over a decade before all that, O’Bannon was also co-writer/editor/production designer/actor etc etc. on John Carpenter’s student film turned directorial debut, ‘Dark Star’ (1970/74), a film I love deeply, however much it bored and baffled me as a fourteen year old. For all its obvious debt to ‘2001’, ‘Dark Star’ is a beautifully strange, stoned, dreamlike, funny and affecting thing, the like of which neither of its creators attempted in their subsequent careers.

In fact, however goofy and low budget it may be, I think this might still be the most beautiful ending to a film I’ve ever seen. It gets me every time, and it’s a perfect way to end an obituary post. R.I.P. Dan O’B, hope Benson’s close by.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

British B-Movies at the BFI, Part # 1

This December, the British Film Institute has seen fit to run a short season of vintage British b-pictures, pulling some choice items from the NFT archives, most of them rarely screened since their initial theatrical release, backing up the big Hollywood items of the day at the bottom of double or even triple bills. Given how familiar we’ve become with the history and conventions of American b-movies, from the heyday of westerns, RKO gangster flicks and poverty row quickies through to the slide into exploitation and horror, I was interested in getting a feel for their unheralded and largely forgotten British equivalents, and managed to make it along to two of the four double bills that the BFI is running.

In an era when information and a critical consensus on even the most obscure movie can be googled up in a few seconds, it was strangely exciting going to the cinema with no idea at all what to expect. Nobody except maybe archivists and British cinema historians have watched some of these films in decades – could they be lost classics, or just total junk? Well, for the most part they’re neither as it turns out, but they are at least entertaining, competently constructed timewasters and great examples of unpretentious popular cinema, not to mention effective “windows into a lost world”, as organisations like the BFI always like to claim, not unreasonably, when screening low budget films of questionable artistic merit.

Oddly, by far the best film I saw was also the earliest one, Penny and the Pownall Case, a rip-roaring comedy-adventure flick directed by the excellently named Harry ‘Slim’ Hand in 1948. Running to barely 45 minutes, the film was inspired by the popular ‘Jane’ newspaper strip – a daily item which, in typically reserved British fashion, traded on the adventures of a pretty lady who was constantly threatening to take her clothes off but never actually did. As such, Peggy Evans here stars as Penny, a ditzy, detective novel obsessed blonde (hey, this was 1948) who models daily for her own comic strip, as drawn by – wait for it – Christopher Lee, in one of his first screen roles! Sir Christopher’s performance here is camp as canvas, with a naive stage school sparkle in his eye that rather undermines his subsequent decades of moody “I’m a serious actOR” posturing, and it’s at least faintly unbelievable when it transpires that his character is also the ruthless kingpin of a criminal gang smuggling Nazi war criminals out of Europe! It also turns out that Penny’s roommate (Diana Dors!) works as secretary to a Scotland Yard bigwig on the trail of said Nazi-smugglers, and as such Penny is recruited by the Yard to help put an end to Lee’s dastardly schemes. The result is a non-stop cavalcade of thrills, spills and comedic antics, taking in desperate tranchcoat-clad villains, a trip to “Spain” (I think they just borrowed some sets from an opera company and hired some swarthy-looking guys as extras), dinner invitations from dashing detectives, and a speeded up chase through the home counties in Austin 10s (“step on it Jones, he’s getting away”). Remember the good old days when an airport was a scout hut with a few yards of runway…? Obviously I don’t, but this film still brings it all back.

One of the things I found most interesting about ‘Penny..’ is that, whilst it is obviously very, very restrained, some of the scenes and set ups seem to prefigure the kind of thing you’d be more likely to see years later in an American sexploitation flick – two pretty girls wrestling in their pyjamas? Penny running around town with a raincoat over her bathing costume? Plenty of ‘changing behind the curtain’ footage? Not much to go on, sure, but it must have raised a few eyebrows in 1948, when most British films still steadfastly refused to offer anything more visually stimulating than a bunch of Edwardian gents sitting around in a drawing room waiting to die. Also worth a mention are the endless succession of ludicrous outfits Peggy Evans is forced to wear – it’s hard to tell whether they’re an honest attempt at contemporary high fashion or a deliberate parody of such, but either way, her every appearance in a new scene was greeted with a roar of laughter from the crowd at the NFT, and understandably so – between the heart-shaped bonnet with matching waist-level patches and the twelve inch Robin Hood hat feather, I think the costume designer for this movie deserves credit as a visionary maniac of some kind.

In addition to this, we get some tough crime action (“what’s the news?”, “not good sir – he’s been shot through the heart, with a Luger I think”, “oh dear”), innuendo so vague it’s positively surreal (“I get the oddest letters from France”, “I’ll bet you do”), and everybody’s home in time for tea. As the title and short running time suggest, ‘Penny and the Pownall Case’ was planned as the first instalment in a series of adventures, and it’s a shame the rest seemingly never came about, because this one’s still a hoot, sixty years after the fact.

Somewhat less enjoyable was The Third Alibi, directed by b-movie stalwart Montgomery Tully in 1961. Quaint as the idea may seem today, Jack Clayton’s ‘Room At The Top’ sparked a veritable revolution in British cinema in 1959 with its frank depictions of extra-marital relationships and class conflict, and ‘The Third Alibi’ follows Clayton’s lead, in regard to the former aspect at least, with a cynical, melodramatic tale of a brooding songwriter carrying on an affair with his wife’s recently divorced sister, a situation that leads to a bungled murder plot when the sister announces her pregnancy and songwriter guy’s wife cruelly refuses his request for a divorce. As essentially a murder mystery with no mystery, it’s hard to know how to really categorise this one – given the Postman/Indemnity style storyline you could call it a noir, if only it had a decent script or any sense of visual style. As it is, it’s a fairly grim, workmanlike affair, conveying a queasy sense of suburban hopelessness, and is chiefly notable for the visual evidence it provides of an England that the bigger budget films of the period were careful to keep from the screen – a world of ugly interior décor, pebbledashed bungalows and cheap modernist furniture that was new when this film was made, and that I remember fading into the past during my own childhood. Also of interest is an excellent musical interlude featuring Cleo Laine – accompanied on the piano by Dudley Moore according to the BFI site, although I didn’t notice him. That aside, following the logic of the plot would waste an hour nicely enough on afternoon TV, and you’ll get a cruel chuckle out of the ‘poetic justice’ conclusion, but ‘The Third Alibi’ is a pretty empty experience on the whole.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The Witchmaker
(William O. Brown, 1969)

A regional oddity written and directed by the otherwise unknown William O. Brown, ‘The Witchmaker’ was filmed partially on location in the Louisiana bayou (I could have sworn it was the Everglades, but it might as well have been shot in the Dagobah System given the quality of the print I saw) in 1968, for release on the drive-in circuit in ’69.

I’m not sure how it fared on initial release, but the film’s unprecedented (for an exploitation movie) running time of nearly two hours, its lack of explicit sex n’ violence, and its steadfast dedication to character-building yakking would not seem to be ingredients destined to make it a horror smash, perhaps resulting in its almost total obscurity even today. From the point of view of the more discerning devotee of low budget horror filmmaking though, (that’s us, in case you were wondering), ‘Witchmaker’ is an outright winner – a smart, well made and grimly atmospheric witchcraft shocker whose frequent descents into outright WTF goofiness only serve to sweeten the brew. So let's dive in...

This is Luther The Beserk:

Luther is a hulking Shakespearean ham who seems preoccupied with stalking around the swamps, slaughtering bathing beauties as and when he finds them. I wouldn’t have thought he was ideally placed for such activity – who the hell goes sunbathing in the middle of an impenetrable swamp? – but nonetheless, we’re told he’s knocked off eight young ladies in the past year – a pretty good score, considering.

The poor victims end up hanging by their feet, drained of blood, with an Egyptian ankh daubed on their bellies. A beastly business, and no mistake.

We get the facts and figures about all this from a well-informed swampboat captain, who is ferrying Dr Ralph Hayes and his team of psychic researchers out to a remote cabin deep in the swamp for a week of… well, at this point who knows – research, presumably. Our captain reckons it’s witches that are the problem, and he seems to know plenty about them too. All these new age kids toying with the occult are a load of baloney, he counsels, but a REAL witch – like the ones local legend says live in the swamps – they’re “damn near immortal”, provided they get a regular supply of blood to keep them alive. And them gurls wuz completely drained of blood, were they not?

Unconvinced by this jovial fellow’s reasoning, smug Dr Hayes sends him packing with $21, and his party – including psychic sensitive Anastasia, inquisitive reporter Victor and his secretary Maggie – start settling into the rat-infested shack that the doctor deems the perfect spot for a bit of psychic research.

Almost as soon as they arrive, the girls set out for a bit of topless sunbathing (my question above neatly answered), and it is here that we begin to see the film’s somewhat confused attitude toward its own exploitation elements. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some disagreement behind the scenes as to whether or not the film should include nudity and bloodshed, but whatever the circumstances, they seem to have ended up with a distinctly peculiar compromise. All the set up and implication is here, and it’s as sleazy as you could ask of a ’69 b-movie – brutal slayings, unclothed ladies, satanic orgies, all present and correct.

But at the same time, someone (or someTHING) seems determined that ‘The Witchmaker’ should remain within the bounds of good taste at all times. Which is fine – I couldn’t care less either way, and the lack of ‘money shots’ in the opening murder sequence is actually extremely effective in its grim restraint. But that’s not something that can be said of perhaps the film’s most obvious laugh-out-loud moment, when a sunbathing Anastasia senses Luther lurking in the undergrowth and flees (in slow motion, no less), guarding her modesty like so;

Chase that PG-13 certificate!

Luther The Beserk, as we’ve no doubt established by now, is quite into his witchcraft, although it turns out he is not a witch himself. As a ‘Beserk’, he is something of a combined handyman and overseer to a coven of immortal diabolists. He lives in a big, dark cave where he worships a bronze effigy of Satan, keeps the random gouts of flame burning, and performs the blood rituals necessary to keep the spectral witches alive.

For connoisseurs of vintage occult ritual action, ‘The Witchmaker’ is a must. It may be none too imaginative (apparently drawing ankhs on stuff and throwing blood around will usually get you the results you’re looking for in the black arts), but with all kinds of blood-curdling flame/altar/dagger/parchment/goblet type shenanigans going on throughout, and a great candlelit seance from our psychics, it’s hard not to just sit back and enjoy.

Witchmaker was filmed in Techniscope, the same process used on many Italian movies, and some low budget American films, including William Huyck and Gloria Katz’ 'Messiah of Evil', oddly enough. Like that film (absolutely fantastic by the way – review coming soon hopefully), 'The Witchmaker' benefits from widescreen framing, rich contrast and a groovy technicolor colour palette, which together with imaginative lighting and great use of the swamp locations create a really unique looking movie.

Sadly though, this uniqueness is often hard to appreciate, partially because the version I’m watching – an .avi downloaded from the now defunct Cultrarare Video site, probably sourced from an ‘80s VHS release - is about as bad as picture quality can get, and partially because, imaginatively lit though it may be, Witchmaker is also one of the darkest films I’ve ever seen, with many scenes seemingly shot night-for-night, lit by torches, solitary spotlights and so on. Not a good combination. Once you clean all the shit off the negative, I suspect the scenes in Luther’s cave might convey a Bava-esque splendour, and the exterior shots around the shack might seem to prefigure woodland atmospherics in “Evil Dead”. But for the moment, many scenes seem to take place in total darkness, with only vague shufflings to let you know what’s going on. Such is life.

I purposefully took screengrabs from lighter moments, but here’s a possibly more representative shot, and the absolute worst title screen ever:

Making up for the paucity of light though, I found the performances in “The Witchmaker” to be an absolute joy. The cast sound unusually committed, and bring a wonderful “local theatre group” feeling to proceedings, whilst the script provides them with some great, no nonsense material to work with – smart, but never clever, writing reminiscent of an above average ‘50s b-movie. Those raised on Hollywood’s huffin’& puffin’, post-Brando idea of what constitutes a good performance may deem the acting here stiff and workmanlike, but formality should not be mistaken for ineptitude, and I think it serves the film perfectly. Cut from a different cloth to the neurotic windbags and cynical losers who began to populate horror movies as the ‘70s went on, our heroes here are likable, reasonable guys and gals – they get along just fine, they make plans, they act in each other’s best interests and they keep it together. How refreshing is that for a daft witchcraft movie?

Alvy Moore, who was also the film’s co-producer, is especially noteworthy in the role of Dr. Hayes, as he makes the transition from smug know-it-all to determined leader, realising the danger he has put himself and his students in, thanks to what turns out to be his own hare-brained scheme to track down a modern day witch using Anastasia’s psychic powers. Laugh all you like, but the scene where he stumbles across the body of one of the girls is a genuinely moving portrayal of grief, and of horrified disbelief that this fucked up shit is actually happening.

By contrast, our villains really are a good laugh, with Luther and chief witch Jesse both taking their acting cues straight from an amateur production of Macbeth, making sure to project to the back of the hall at all times – “Satan, give me my PURPOSE!”

By now, we’re likely wondering why a promising young lad like Luther would dedicate his life to running around a swamp with a car mat draped over his shoulders, slitting people’s throats and arguing with a comedy hag. Must be a pretty miserable existence, right?

The answer comes loud and clear in the final twenty minutes, when Luther’s coven convene for their Candlemass celebration. The summoning rituals complete, a whole gang of voluptuous witchy maidens – and a few shifty sorcerer types, Satanic barbarians etc to make up the numbers – emerge from the shadows, each announced by Luther’s booming tones. Marta of Amsterdam! The Hag of Devon! El-Har Ishma! Ah, good times…

They proceed to get the party started, quaffing wine and making out, to a soundtrack of appropriately bacchanalian horn & kettle drum music! Awesome. In fact I think this has got to be one of the best witch hoedowns in cinema history.

And whilst all that’s going on, our dogged and resourceful heroes are working to bring things to a thrilling and action-packed conclusion, by way of hypnotism, invisibility, pig blood, fireballs and quicksand! Too much man, too much.

What more can I say? Despite being a 111 minute movie full of lengthy dialogue scenes, equally lengthy silences and people wandering around the woods in pitch darkness, 'The Witchmaker' kept me thoroughly entertained and happily weirded out through every one of those minutes. Consider it recommended!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Mistress of Fear
by Hank Janson

(Alexander Moring Ltd, 1958)

Tonight there is a full moon over the UK, and I was looking forward all day to going for a nice walk this evening in the crisp winter air... that is until the sky clouded up mid-afternoon and it started pissing it down. Bah! I was gonna post a full moon-related book cover to tie in with this celestial non-event, but hey, you know what? I feel more like going for a weird, amateurish, totally f-ed up rendering of a woman jumping(?) out of a window.


Hank Janson may have the business of grimly utilitarian thriller names all sewn up ("Murder", "Conflict" etc), but I think he deserves some kind of special recognition for "Sinister Rapture" and "Amorous Captive".

The opening page is spectacularly dull, so if it's alright with you I'm going no further;

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

No Wooden Overcoat
by John Paddy Carstairs

(Consul Books, 1961)

Good grief. Not that I'd wish to undermine my feminist principles for the sake of a cheap gag about a pulp cover, but is there an emoticon for *wolf whistle*?

Ah, for the dark days when you could stick a gratuitous leggy blonde on the front of your book, and then dismiss an entire continental coastline as being "vice-ridden" on the back, without anyone batting an eyelid.

This book also boasts perhaps the greatest opening line in my whole library.... at least until you get to the third paragraph and realise John Paddy Carstairs threw it in for precisely that reason, and is actually hellbent on opening proceedings with a far duller scenario;

Monday, 30 November 2009

This Is The House
by Shelley Smith

(White Circle, no publication date - 50s?)

I read somewhere that today is 'Judge A Book By Its Cover Day', in the spirit of which, we present this wonderful cover, whose menacing art deco spooks prove that the more restrained British pulp industry could on occasion come up with visuals just as striking as its American counterpart;

And if you dig that, check out the Collins Crime Club logo on the title page:

Nice! And meanwhile, on the back...

Pity the poor girl whose fella bought her a wedding ring off the back of a crime paperback for £3.10.

Pity also a book with a cast list like this to deal with:

I should also mention that pretty much every time I open a book like this with an old fashioned list of chapters, I feel an uncontrollable urge to start recording a concept album with matching song titles - surely I can't be the only one?

Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Knife by Hal Ellson
(Lancer Books, 1961)

I'm going to do another 'new pulp scan every day' special this week. All of this week's selections were scored recently from the crime section at Bob's Book Exchange near Liverpool St station - well worth a visit for any London-based paperback fiend.

First up...

I absolutely love the use of the Norman Mailer quote, in which he doesn't seem to be making any reference to the book at all.

"She rolls her head, sticks her tongue in my mouth like mad." Man, you can forget yr "the smell of roasted almonds always reminded me of unrequited love" bullshit - THAT'S some fucking writing!

Actually, from what I've read so far, 'The Knife' is genuinely pretty great - a masterclass in clipped, hardboiled prose with a Sam Fuller-esque b-movie approach to social realism. Here's the opening:

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Weird Tales of Old Japan
by Eisaburo Kusano

(Tokyo News Services Ltd, 1953)

I bought this in Greenwich market today. Wouldn't you..?

It has a beautiful hand-painted (??!!) title page:

And the best contents page ever:

"Ground spider attains occult power; Becomes too ambitious, Killed" absolutely made my day. Can't wait to read some of these.

Oh, and in case you were wondering re: the cover;

I'll leave you with Eisaburo Kusano's dedication;

Amen to that.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The Stone Tape
(Peter Sasdy, 1972)

Featuring eerie, abstract visual effects, a cast rendered distantly familiar by bit parts in Dr Who, music and sound effects by the Radiophonic Workshop, and even a plotline directly concerned with the deterioration of analogue recording media and the search for a digital replacement, it was somewhat inevitable that Nigel Kneale’s 1972 teleplay “The Stone Tape” should emerge as a key text of Britain’s current ‘hauntology’ / analogue era nostalgia movement. (Ok, so I suppose I can’t actually prove its position as such, but c’mon, if the Ghost Box contingent haven’t regularly thrilled to a bootleg VHS of this one on a Sunday evening, I’ll eat my hat.)

Kneale should of course need no introduction as one of the most inventive and uncompromising writers to ever work in television, the man behind “The Year of the Sex Olympics” (1968), and the creator of Professor Bernard Quatermass, whose appearances in Kneale-penned BBC TV serials during the ‘50s, and in particular the hugely influential “Quatermass and the Pit” (1958), far outshone his adventures in Hammer’s series of film adaptations (in my opinion at least).

Like “Quatermass and the Pit”, “The Stone Tape” posits a group of characters who find themselves setting out to investigate a rumour-shrouded haunted site through the ruthless application of scientific method. In this case, it’s a team of researchers working for a consumer electronics firm who have been relocated to the until-recently-derelict Taskerlands house, only to find that the cavernous basement room they’ve earmarked for a computer storage facility is already occupied by a screaming spectre. And, also like “Quatermass..”, the story’s masterstroke lays in the way that, rather than diminishing and defanging the supernatural by dragging it into the light of reason, the results of the team’s investigations simply serve to draw us deeper inside the mystery, exposing new ideas that eventually prove weirder and more threatening than an old fashioned ghost story could ever be.

Conveniently, the researchers, led by loud and hard-headed Peter Brock (Michael Bryant), have been charged with trying to develop a new digital recording medium to help the British electronics industry compete with the Japanese (“give me Wagner’s Ring Cycle encoded onto a ball baring with instant playback”, Peter demands of his colleagues, to hoots of derision and disbelief that seem wonderfully quaint from a 2009 perspective). So when they find themselves confronted with a room that regularly manifests disembodied screams and a hanging phantom lady, the solution is as obvious as it is ingenious: the walls of the room itself are storing information from the past, and projecting it directly into the minds of visitors at irregular intervals… thus potentially making the room the breakthrough the team is looking for!

Initially “The Stone Tape” lays on the haunted house mythology pretty thick, often with direct reference to Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” (a film whose effective, no nonsense style is very much reflected here in both the writing and direction). So we have half-remembered tales of unsuccessful exorcisms, and of a local boy who went insane after being locked in the room overnight, a stairway leading to nowhere and a Victorian servant girl who hanged herself from the top of it. Director Peter Sasdy certainly had a pedigree in the world of horror, having helmed “Taste The Blood of Dracula” and “Hands of the Ripper” for Hammer in the preceding years, but what’s immediately notable here is that the jump-scares and gothic imagery one might expect of a ghost story are almost completely excised in favour of a more subtly malign atmosphere that reflects our characters’ scientific background and, in the case of Peter and psychic sensitive computer programmer Jill (Jane Asher), their respective moral failings and nervous disposition too. As such, The Stone Tape” is realized with a cold and queasy realist inversion of the gothic aesthetic that would find it’s natural home a decade later in David Cronenberg’s early films.

Kneale’s writing is at its absolute best here too, and in fact “The Stone Tape” is as successful as a human drama as it is as an excursion into high concept weirdness. Peter’s character – a mendacious, bullying egotist with a proto-Thatcherite drive to success that sees him grasp the possibilities of his haunting theory with an Ahab-like determination, then drop it like a hot potato as soon as his professionalism is called into question – is oddly fascinating, especially as every aspect of his situation, including his opportunistic affair with the fragile and confused Jill, is sketched out in detail for us. As a sub-plot develops involving Peter’s battle for funding with a rival research team led by an oaf trying to perfect an experimental washing machine (perhaps here Kneale is making a crafty reference to the BBC’s tendency to sideline more forward-thinking projects in favour of low-brow schedule-fillers?), one begins to realize that “The Stone Tape” would be a pretty involving tale with plenty to say about British culture, even without the supernatural elements.

For all its modernism though, “The Stone Tape” still manages to hold true to the gothic formula, essentially boiling things down to a frightened and hyper-sensitive young woman alone amid the ghostly ruins, as the repressive and claustrophobic nature of her situation and the venal and manipulative nature of her companions if given physical form via the supernatural – as per usual. Jane Asher (who you may recall tackled similar territory in Corman’s “Masque of the Red Death”) is superb in the role of Jill – a stricken gothic heroine breaking out from under the skin of an educated and level-headed modern woman.

Also adding a huge amount to “The Stone Tape”s singularly creepy totality are the audio and visual effects, with the spooky-at-the-best-of-times BBC Radiophonic Workshop turning in one of their all-time best unhinged sound designs, full of baleful, echo-laden incidental passages and distorted EVP ghost-chatter that could have been pulled straight off an Eric Zann or Mount Vernon Arts Lab release. The visuals, you’ll be unsurprised to hear, are the perfect match – despite the obvious budgetary constraints, the designers certainly didn’t hesitate to throw in as much beautiful, fluorescent ectoplasmic splurge as they could muster, with split second glimpses of unspeakable, half-formed things, disorientating UV lighting and surreal super-impositions all serving to create a truly startling conclusion.

Prior to the play’s final ten minutes though, it should be noted that the supernatural elements are masterfully underplayed, with the trad ghost story tropes setting us up for shocks and surprises that never really come, and that are all the more unsettling for their absence. In true cosmic horror fashion, even the story’s final, mind-bending conclusions are merely hinted at rather than fully spelled out, left to sink in slowly over preceding hours/days as the full scale of the play’s central concept becomes clear.

When, after a frenzied night spent trying to ‘control’ appearances of the apparition using frequency generators and UV lights, the phenomena seems to disappear completely, the team conclude that they must have accidentally ‘wiped the tape’, and, slightly embarrassed, move back to their original work. It is only Jill who realises that the others are still stuck in an analogue mindset. Rather than a ‘tape’, the stones of the room function as a three dimensional matrix, and as the most recent layers are removed, older voices – characterized by the room’s past victims as “the others” – will begin to emerge, more deteriorated and more malign the further back you go; and how far back CAN you go? – to the laying of foundations in Saxon times, or to the formation of the stones themselves, before the dawn of the earth…?

The answers are left hanging, just like the Victorian servant girl who previously tapped into the voices from the stone, as Kneale demonstrates powerfully the idea that when you try to throw science at a mystery, the mystery is just as liable to magnify and overtake you as it is to recede. Just ask the guys working on the Large Hadron Collider, and file “The Stone Tape” as essential viewing for anyone with an interest in intelligent approaches to science fiction, paranormal phenomena or cosmic horror, or anyone who simply wants to drink in the analogue ghosts of some authentic, high-grade British weirdness.