I’ve alluded to my love of John Carpenter’s work, as well as the enjoyment I get peeling back the layers of inspiration behind books and film. I’ve also been getting more into exploring old British television serials, so this would be the most opportune moment to touch on the works of Nigel Kneale, one of the most famous British screenwriters of all time – and surely the most famous Manx screenwriter in history. All in all, it has been a highly enjoyable experience investigating his work. It’s a testament to his skill that I refer to it as “his” work, or at least a testament to the times. These days it seems that most screenwriters work via committee, and on the whole seem to be the most loathed members of the television profession, always the first to get the blame when a shows plot starts to go off the rails. I have to admit it does seem that writing is considered an “extra feature” in Hollywood currently, rather than the foundation of good television. And while I never condone bullying, I’d really rather see screenwriters held to account than watch poor actors who had little say in the matter bear the brunt of viewer ire. Needless to say, it was refreshing to watch television where you could see that even if the script had been worked on by more than one person, there was a clear, concise and clever idea making up a strong foundation.
Despite the association of their works, Carpenter and Kneale did not have the best of relationships it seems, with Kneale’s foray into Hollywood being short and disastrous. John Carpenter was a fan of Kneale’s Quatermass series and so recommended him as a scriptwriter for Halloween 3, which Carpenter was producing. As the story goes, Kneale wrote a very ‘psychological’ script, with all the careful restraint found in his serials. Producer, Dino De Laurentiis, always a fan of excess and spectacle, immediately demanded more visible horror and gore, having director Tommy Lee Wallace rework the entire screenplay. In response, Kneale requested his name be removed from the film. In the end Halloween 3 may have been doomed regardless of script. Carpenter envisioned the film series to be a horror anthology, but fans demanded more of the iconic slasher villain Michael Myers from the first two films. (Myers was therefore condemned to return again and again, before finally being beaten into unconsciousness by Paul Rudd. Then the series was rebooted and Myers was finally defeated – again – by Busta Rhymes. He was then reimagined by Rob Zombie, before being rebooted yet again into an ongoing trilogy. You need a diagram to understand Halloween continuity, but for the purpose of this writing all you need to know is that Halloween 3 was a standalone film.)
This interaction would seem to have coloured Kneale’s opinions on Carpenter from then on. When told that there were similarities between his The Stone Tape and Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, Kneale responded in writing:
“For the record I have had nothing to do with the film and I have not seen it. It sounds pretty bad. With an homage like this, one might say, who needs insults? I can only imagine that it is a whimsical riposte for my having my name removed from [Halloween 3]”
I must object! Prince of Darkness is admittedly flawed but underrated! I’ll have to touch on Prince of Darkness at some point in the future, and I’ll return to this comparison in a bit. In any case, we’ve seen how Quatermass and The Stone Tape relate to Carpenter – but how are they as works on their own?
There was an original trio of Quatermass serials, the crown jewel of which is most certainly Quatermass and the Pit. I’ve had experience with serials of that era often having issues with pacing, an understandable concern when faced with a limited budget and schedule. While this is not necessarily a deal breaker, it still is striking how tight the writing and pacing are with The Pit compared to other serials of its era. The premise is that a London construction crew uncovers ancient hominid remains and the titular Pit becomes an archaeological site. There are more eerie discoveries to be made besides just mysterious bones, however. The serial plays out like the archaeological dig itself – layers of the mystery are peeled back, steadily and in detail. The escalation is done superbly, as theories of science and the supernatural slowly intertwine as the danger increases.
The serial also does restraint very well – there are some ant-like aliens, but it only ever shows them as desiccated corpses, or as brief nightmarish glimpses in dreamlike telepathic recordings. Someone with less moderation might have had them jerkily walking around, or worn as suits, but relegating the aliens mostly to the mists of darker human history, and our repressed racial memory, makes them much more unsettling. The restraint also carries into the script itself. Kneale claimed to not be a fan of “science fiction”, but he is careful to frame everything within the script in the realm of plausibility. Indeed, as he would do again with the Stone Tape, in The Pit plausibility is used to make the events more unnerving, as human superstitions are given a tangible, albeit alien, explanation.
If the Pit used realism well, then The Stone Tape flat out weaponized its plausibility. In this television movie, researchers and engineers based out of an old property discover that one of the rooms, an ancient stone tower, appears to be haunted. Instead of simply taking the haunting at face value as a ghost, or as a fabrication, they instead start to study and analyze it, picking apart the haunting from a purely rational standpoint. There is very little of the regular sort of hysteria and purposeful ignorance one finds in such a horror movie set up. Indeed, most of the excitement occours when the group deduces that the “haunting” is simply an imprint upon the very walls of the tower – and promptly start to find a way to replicate the process for commercialization. We are lulled into a false sense of security with the idea that the haunting is “solved”, which makes the grim ending all the more disturbing. Just because we understand something scientifically does not mean we understand the full scope, or the ramifications of what we have uncovered.
The theme of mankind’s inability to maintain our ethics in the face of rapidly advancing scientific and industrial progress is apparent in both of these works. In The Pit, protagonist Quatermass is introduced trying to prevent his peaceful rocketry program from being taken over by the military, who seek to put a missile stockpile on the moon. Throughout the serial he has to fight as much against a stubborn military presence as against alien influence. Inspired by race riots ongoing in England at that time, the serial ends with mass madness and violence dubbed a “Wild Hunt”, man’s pointlessly tribal nature on full display. In The Stone Tape, the British engineers overwork themselves and blunder into supernatural dangers to try and keep up with the unstoppable juggernaut (at the time) of the Japanese electronics industry. In both, human failings are just as danger, if not more so, than the strange and supernatural.
Needless to say, I’d highly recommend both works if you’re into more old-school horror. Lastly, before I forget – what’s the verdict on Prince of Darkness as a Stone Tape rip-off? Was it theft? A homage? A parody? I’ll admit that Prince of Darkness does seem to hold some similarities to Kneale’s style, most obviously the fact that something that would normally be handled in a supernatural manner is approached more scientifically by the experts. However, Prince of Darkness, while it has its problems, does have Carpenter’s signature directing flair and is closer in line to his own canon of films. Indeed, I’ve often joked that Prince of Darkness is like The Thing without a budget. Beyond having scientist type characters in an old building, there really is little difference to The Stone Tape, which is overall something of a cozier experience, with the thrills slowly building until the horror at the climax. Prince of Darkness is much more about survival, both for the researchers, and the fate of the human race, and there are plenty of solid horror moments scattered throughout. Both works end up being very different experiences, and I feel they can’t properly be compared.
All in all, I highly enjoyed dipping into British television history. They move with a different pace and style than we may be used to now, but if you want tight and engaging scripts, I do recommend checking out both works, or anything else that Kneale worked on. I think that in this day and age, a little bit more appreciation for the toil of the screenwriter could go a long way.