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The Front Page: Fear Strikes Out - Joseph Stefano (1922 - 2006)

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Sunday, Sep 3, 2006


To call Joseph Stefano’s writing credits varied is like arguing that his one time collaborator, the Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock, had an ‘interesting’ way with the camera. Brought onto the director’s dynamic Psycho after James P; Cavanaugh’s script was rejected, Stefano seemed an odd choice to adapt a murder mystery. After all, his first few scripts had focused solely on his ethnic Italian heritage - most notable in the 1958 Sophia Loren/Anthony Quinn melodrama The Black Orchid. He had also created an award winning Playhouse 90 piece about racial prejudice in the military (1959’s Made in Japan). But when his agent asked him who he’d like to work with next, Stefano provided a list of names. Hitchcock’s was right near the top. When, shockingly, the famous auteur responded, it was with a copy of the famous low budget slasher film’s screenplay in hand.


With his passing on 25, August, 2006 the legacy of Norman Bates lost its central guiding light. Yet it would be his adaptation of Robert Bloch’s seminal story of an out of the way motel, an unusual desk clerk, and his domineering “mother”, that would also point the scribe in the direction of genre fiction over the next three decades. Though already established, the overwhelming success of Psycho led Stefano to other opportunities. An old friend, Leslie Stevens, asked Stefano to become a supervisory writer and a producer on the seminal speculative series The Outer Limits. Contributing stories and scripts for some of season one’s most memorable episodes (including the creepy “Zanti Misfits”) he helped lay the foundation for Limits’ claim as one of the best sci-fi shows on television.


After rejecting a chance to return to Hitchcock’s fold for The Birds – he supposedly found the idea laughable – Stefano went on to make strides in made for television movies, including A Death of Innocence (a 1971 murder mystery starring Shelley Winters) Home for the Holidays (a 1972 thriller about a husband who fears his wife is poisoning him) and the oddball Live Again, Die Again (Donna Mills is frozen and brought back 30 years later in this 1974 sci-fi effort). After 1977’s Snowbeast (another of the era’s Bigfoot movies), he had grown jaded and cynical. He took the 1980 death of his friend Hitchcock hard. He also hated how Norman Bates (a character he more or less created, avoiding Bloch’s decidedly drunken original) had been marginalized by the two sequels that eventually followed.


In 1991, audiences saw him contribute to the hack horror film The Kindred (1987), and he did do some work on Star Trek: The Next Generation and the Swamp Thing TV series. He would visit his ethnic past once again for the Al Pacino weeper Two Bits (1995), and even returned to the Norman Bates legacy with his prequel effort Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990). Near the end of his career, Stefano was also the unfortunate beneficiary of Hollywood’s remake fever. His “Feasibility Study” (based on a 1964 episode) was redone for the modern update of Outer Limits in 1997, and Gus Van Zant committed the ultimate redux sin, creating a near shot for shot remake of Psycho from Stefano’s original script. After that 1998 fiasco, Stefano turned his back on Tinsel Town, convinced it was bankrupt of originality and ideas. He would stay in the shadows until his death from a heart attack. Yet it is safe to say that no writer had more of an impact on the post-modern horror genre than Joseph Stefano. He helped popularize and legitimize the genre of slice and dice cinema. Yet he should be remembered for much more than Norman’s shower savagery. While iconic, it was not endemic of Stefano’s incredible talents.

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