“The Form of Things Unknown,” 1.32 (4 May 1964)
By Tony Williams.
Stefano was a master writer for the screen and capable of doing better things had circumstances allowed, as this revealing limited edition collection shows.”
For those who have watched The Outer Limits either from its first transmission in the 1960s or discovered the series over the past few decades, the quality of this short-lived, yet pioneering series needs little elaboration since both print and DVD commentaries have long espoused its quality. The contribution of Joseph Stefano (1922-2006) to the genesis of this important series, especially the first season, needs further acclaim since it is obvious to anyone who has watched this important work from 60s American television, which kills the lie of the “wasteland” definition by lazy experts. Stefano, of course, adapted Robert Bloch’s Psycho (1960) for Alfred Hitchcock. Now that we are fully aware of the nuances of authorship, especially what Joseph McBride defines as “collective authorship” rather than the limited terrains of the 50’s so-called “Auteur theory” coined by Andrew Sarris (1928-2012), then the contributions of those formerly neglected “forgotten men” (and women) become more recognized as time moves on and criticism becomes more sophisticated, mostly thanks to the pioneering efforts of editors such as Dave Rash, with his new collection from Gauntlet Press, who has again engaged in an independent “labor of love” publishing what a mainstream press should have done. But, again, he needed the permission of the Stefano Estate to do this, and one can imagine his personal efforts had much to do with persuading Stefano’s family that the project was worthwhile.
It was more than worthwhile, as this collection of scripts with commentary clearly demonstrates. Despite the appearance of many books on Hollywood screenwriters over the past few decades, most notably Patrick McGilligan’s valuable Backstory series of interviews with prominent Hollywood screenwriters, the tendency still exists to elevate the director above his collaborators. Yet, as Joseph H. Lewis (1907-2000) once stated during his visit to Washington University, St. Louis, “With good screenplay, 75% of a director’s work is done.” Without taking away from Hitchcock’s creative role in directing Psycho, he had a very good script from which to work, written by Stefano (who added the focus on Marion Crane in the film), whose Outer Limits work also captured the dark world of the 1950s that Hitchcock unveiled to reveal its morbid Gothic undercurrents. Despite the fact that Hitchcock wanted Stefano to write the screenplays for The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964), the writer had already committed himself to work with his friend Leslie Stephens on The Outer Limits, and Hitchcock never forgave him for honoring that priority. Ironically, following the dismal nature of two Psycho sequels starring Anthony Perkins, Stefano wrote the best prequel and follow up, the TV movie Psycho IV (1990) directed by Mick Garris that stood head and shoulders above its miserable predecessors. It was a film that should have allowed Norman Bates to finally rest in peace had not Hollywood again jumped on the bandwagon with mediocre follow-ups.
Stefano was capable of doing better things had circumstances allowed, and this 500-copy limited edition (I have #146, thanks to the editor’s generosity) priced at $60 reveals this. Unfortunately, the 52-copy limited edition Special edition priced at $300 a copy has now sold out. Yet, despite its high price, I strongly urge more affluent readers and those less affluent who should begin to bug their libraries to acquire this to acquire it as soon as possible. This is not just to ensure that a promised second edition of other Stefano Outer Limits teleplays will appear but also to disseminate the real literacy behind a talent who has been sadly limited to the still marginalized terrain of the screenplay. Though often regarded as a mere blueprint for the actual film, several scripts can have literary qualities in themselves not only in evoking the final creative product in the minds of the reader but also in terms of articulating aspects of character, psychology, plot development, and socio-historical context moving from print to the visual imagery of the actual film itself.
Stefano was such a master screenwriter as his successful salvage of the earlier Psycho sequels revealed, ending the final one at a point where it reached a successful resolution of the main character’s psychological torment and ensuring he would not end up as another Freddy, Jason, or Michael clone. Stefano was a self-educated talent and expert at many fields who obviously had a deep acquaintance with culture, especially Shakespeare, often giving his characters lines to pronounce in highly poetic ways, like the delivery of lines by Martin Landau and Shirley Knight in the Outer Limits 1963 episode, “The Man who was Never Born” clearly revealed (I hope this script will appear in the proposed second volume). It revealed what could be creatively achieved in television and was for most of the first season, until interference hampered the success of the second. But, by that time Stefano and Stephens had left the project.
This first volume contains Stefano’s teleplays for “Don’t Open Till Doomsday”, “It Crawled out of the Woodwork”, “The Zanti Misfits”, “The Invisibles”, “A Feasibility Study”, and the final version of “The Forms of Things Unknown”, a title derived from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in an episode allowing David McCallum (1933- ) and Sir Cedric Hardwicke (1893-1964) to deliver lines of muted Shakespearean tonality within the context of American television, ones that aptly complement the American hard-boiled delivery and performances of Vera Miles (1929 – ), Barbara Rush (1927 – ), and Scott Marlowe (1932-2001). On one of my DVD features for the pre-Inspector Morse UK cop series The Sweeney (1974-78), one of its actors remarked that it was a pleasure working on a series with such good scripts as opposed to the present when fellow thespians complained to him in tears about the dialogue they were expected to reproduce. I have a feeling that many actors took pleasure in a Stefano teleplay seeing it in it potential for better performance than they usually delivered.
As with his other Outer Limits teleplays, Stefano reveals an acute awareness of the dark side of 1950s and early 60s American culture. One line in “Do Not Open Till Doomsday” contains an uncanny echo of Cassidy’s economic control over his daughter by buying a newly wedded couple a house so he can indirectly control them. Miriam Hopkins’s performance of the abandoned bride combines elements of Miss Havisham from Dickens’ Great Expectations with Bette Davis’s traumatized victims of parental abuse in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1963) and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), two films directed by Robert Aldrich with recognizable Gothic overtones, has similar parallels. “He wanted us under his own roof, where he could keep his cold scientific eye on us” (52). Ironically, she and her newly-wed husband (David Frankham) intended to elope that very night in 1929 to a cabin for privacy. In the modern day, John Hoyt’s ruthless corporate lawyer father pursues his daughter who has run away to marry a non-affluent suitor he disapproves of. Such similarities suggest Stefano as the real author of this element that will play a key part in the 70s family horror film movement. Stefano knew his era since aspects of “A Feasibility Study” reveal his awareness of contemporary issues covered in works such as William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956), David Riesman and Co.’s The Lonely Crowd (1950), and the stifling nature of married life affecting the female that would erupt into the feminist movement a decade later.
In his preface, Rash notices three elements that characterize Stefano’s vision: the obligatory monster or “bear” that characterized each episode; the incorporation of a “gothic theme within his stories” with “dark scenery, startling narrative devices, and an overall atmosphere of fear and terror (more often favoring terror over horror)…Dark corridors, stairways covered in shadows, and an overall claustrophobic atmosphere…” (15). The third involved trapping the reader or viewer in an unsettling nightmare.
This volume includes a recently discovered earlier version of “The Form of Things Unknown” that was never filmed. Included here, it reveals a marked comparison between both versions. Though, it follows the “bear” stipulation with more emphasis on the science fiction aspects than in the filmed version, though it does stand on its own and is by no means an inferior version. Both co-exist for the reader to consider but the final version bears more of the Stefano-Gothic. Gothic has encountered a renaissance in critical work over the past few decades and understanding of its fluid nature reveals there can be no real objection to Stefano’s work now being understood as representing the best examples of television Gothic that future anthologies on the field should now include.
This book concludes with “Small Wonder” Part II, a teleplay never filmed but containing Stefano’s unique vision. Only those lucky and financially well-heeled people have the opportunity of enjoying the bonus section listed at the end of the table of contents.
Dave Rash has undertaken a fine achievement. His work deserves every encouragement and support in bringing to further the work of Stefano, revealing to his estate that there is a demand to read more of his fine work that should be both an inspiration to writers who wish to do fine work in the film and television industry as well as representing a “scarlet letter” that should be firmly implanted on those organization men and women who dominate the media and have no understanding of what quality really means.
Tony Williams is an independent critic and a Contributing Editor to Film International.