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Cinematheque Sci-Fi Fest Review: The Undead & The Stone Tape

If you’re a fantasy film fan in Los Angeles who hasn’t been attending the American Cinemathque’s 5th Annual Festival of Fantasy, Horror & Science-Fiction Films, then you’ve been missing a lot of great stuff. There was a wonderful two-day tribute to actress Caroline Munro, with screenings of several of her films from the ’70s, including THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD and THE SPY WHO LOVED ME. There was a great double bill of classic Hammer horror films with THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1963) and THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960).

Besides retrospectives of classics, there have also been several good new movies. I haven’t had a chance to see everything, but a reliable source gave me this rundown of the films I’ve missed: The new Korean animated film SKY BLUE is beautiful to look at but lacking in story. THE TOOL BOX MURDERS (2004) is director “Tobe Hooper’s best film since LIFEFORCE — although that may be a back-handed compliment!” And the French effort  MALEFIQUE is reported to be a wonderfully effective film that deserves U.S. distribution.

Fortunately, I have had a chance to sample several new or rediscovered titles. INCIDENT AT LOCH NESS (which opens at Landmark Theatres in Los Angeles next month) is a gem — a weird combination of LOST IN LA MANCHA and JAWS (if you can imagine such a thing). This weekend’s offerings included a recent film from Australia THE UNDEAD and a rediscovered BBC-TV production from 1972 called THE STONE TAPE.

THE UNDEAD is an amusingly outrageous variation on the familiar zombie theme, played mostly for laughs but with enough exciting action and horrible makeup effects to qualify as a tongue-in-cheek horror film rather than an outright spoof. It’s not quite as funny as it means to be, and some of the character conflict is annoying rather than dramatic, but the stunts and sight gags make it worth sitting through the weaker moments.

THE STONE TAPE was written by Nigel Kneale and directed by Peter Sasdy. Kneale of course is the talents TV writer who created the Quatermas television serials, which were adapted into theatrical features in the ’60s and ’70s by Hammer films. Sasdy achived a small cult status with two good Hammer productions: TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACUAL (1970) and HANDS OF THE RIPPER (1971), although he never realized the early promise of those films. The most familiar name in the case was Jane Asher, who should be known to both Vincent Price fans and Beatles fans. If you now the films of Vincent Price, you remember Asher as the female lead in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, the best of Price’s Poe adaptations. If you know the Beatles, then you remember Asher as Paul’s girlfriend, long before he married Linda.

STONE TAPE suffers from being a televison production; the script keeps things limited to a few sets and tries to accomdate for this with some interesting ideas. Basically, the story is a science-fiction version of a haunted house movie. A group of researchers for a big electronics company move into an old mansion, where they set up shop hoping to discover a new recording medium to replace magnetic tape (this is 1972, remember). Unfortuantley, the workmen refuse to set up the computer storage facility in one room, because (we learn) it’s haunted. As with QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967, known as FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH in the U.S.), Kneale offers a science fiction explanation for phenomena that appear to be supernatural. In this case, the ghosts in the house are not disembodied spirits but “recordings” of traumatic events that happened years — even centuries and millennia — ago.

It’s a clever concept that dovetails nicely with the character’s real-world pursuit to find a better recording medium, but once it’s revealed, there isn’t much room for the story to go any further. Some spooky stuff happens, ending in tragedy, but the conclusion isn’t dramatically satisfying. Still, THE STONE TAPE is worth checking out, if you can find it on video or DVD.

Up this weekend at the festival: a double bill of BAD TASTE (1987) and MEET THE FEEBLES (1989) two early comically gore-laden films from Peter Jackson (LORD OF THE RINGS), show where the makers of THE UNDEAD got their inspiration (besides George Romero, that is). There are also espidoes from the Japanese TV series GHOSTS AT SCHOOL, in the vein of films like RING and JU-ON. There’s a 50th anniversary of THEM, the classic giant ant movie. And producer-director Roger Corman shows up in between a double bill of his Poe adaptations HOUSE OF USHER (1960) and THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964). It’s all great stuff, and highly recommended.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.