This week’s episode of the Cinefantastique Round Table Podcast (Volume 2, Episode 8, for those of you keeping count) is even more full of horror, fantasy, and science fiction excitement than usual. Up first, a run down of the the genre’s big winner’s at this year’s Academy Awards, including Rick Baker for THE WOLFMAN’s makeup, Natalia Portman for her role in the artsy horror offering BLACK SWAN, and INCEPTION in numerous technical categories. Then, after the usual round-up of news, events, and home video releases, follow Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski into a new segment of the podcast, titled “The Black Hole Ultra Lounge,” in which you will learn the details of THE HAUNTED and THE UNKNOWN, two rarely seen television pilots scripted and produced by the Joseph Stefano (THE OUTER LIMITS), which recently screened at the UCLA Film & Television Archive. And then listen to Lawrence French recount his sidewalk encounter with STAR WARS mogul George Lucas, while out for a stroll on the streets of San Francisco (not far from where a scene from Hitchcock’s VERTIGO was shot). It’s a week’s worth of epic awesomeness unlike that found in any other podcast, in this galaxy or the next!
The UCLA Film & Television Archive presents a double bill of rare television pilots created by Joseph Stefano, the producer-writer of the classic series THE OUTER LIMITS. The screenings take place on February 25, starting at 7:30pm, in the Billy Wilder Theater of the Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90024.
At the end of the first season of OUTER LIMITS, Stefano (who previously had adapted Robert Bloch’s novel into the Alfred Hitchcock film PSYCHO), wrote a pilot for a spin-off to be called THE UNKNOWN. Although the pilot never aired and the series was never made, Stefano’s script became the final episode of OUTER LIMITS’ first season, retitled “The Form of Things Unknown,” with a science fiction element added to the storyline. This event represents an extremely rare opportunity to see the original version.
Also on the double bill is another pilot crafted by Stefano, THE HAUNTED (a.k.a. “The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre,” 1965), which Stefano also directed. Martin Landau stars; Landau had appeared in two memorable episodes of OUTER LIMITS, “The Bellero Shield” and “The Man Who Was Never Born.”
Admission is free. Marilyn Stefano will be in attendance.
From the website:
THE HAUNTED (a.k.a. The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre, 1965). Martin Landau stars as a Los Angeles-based architect-cum-paranormal investigator who specializes in assessing and exorcising old homes. Stefano here weaves together vengeance, hallucinogens and a “bleeding ghost” in a gothic telefilm that was deemed too frightening to air by network executives. Stefano’s only directorial effort, this extremely rare pilot never aired in the U.S. Producer: Joseph Stefano. Screenplay: Joseph Stefano. Cinematographer: William A. Fraker, Conrad Hall. Editor: Anthony DiMarco. Cast: Martin Landau, Judith Anderson, Diane Baker, Nellie Burt, Tom Simcox. 16mm, b/w, 52 min.
THE UNKNOWN (1964) Directed by Gerd Oswald. With nods to Psycho and Clouzot’s Diabolique, The Unknown unleashes sadism and madness when a wealthy playboy lures two unsuspecting women into a house of horrors. With its nightmarish tone and art-film cinematography, The Unknown pilot was considered too off-beat by ABC and was retooled as an episode of Outer Limits. The original pilot is being screened tonight from a rare 35mm print. Producer: Joseph Stefano. Screenplay: Joseph Stefano. Cinematographer: Conrad Hall. Editor: Anthony DiMarco. Cast: Vera Miles, Barbara Rush, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Scott Marlowe, David McCallum. 35mm, B/W, 45 min.
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One of the proudest moments in the history of Cinefantastique was the October 1986 publication of a double issue (Volume 16, Number 5) devoted to the making of Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. The exhaustive and richly illustrated article was written by Stephen Rebello, who went on to publish an expanded version in book form, under the title of Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of PSYCHO. This June, Open Road Media published a new kindle edition of the book. As part of their promotional efforts, they arranged for horror film buff and thriller novelist Kevin O’Brien (Vicious) to interview the PSYCHO expert about Hitchcock’s horror classic, which will no doubt be playing on countless television sets this Halloween weekend (not to mention a few revival houses around the country). With the horror holiday looming, Open Road Media offered us an opportunity to present the unabridged interview of one horror expert by another.
Kevin O’Brien: I first heard about Psycho in the early 1960s, when I was just a kid. My oldest sister was afraid of taking a shower if no one else was in the house because of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. So—I just had to find out more about this movie and see it. When did you first find out about Psycho? And do you remember what it was like when you saw it for the first time? Did you have any idea of what you were in for?
Stephen Rebello: Well, Kevin, if your sister was one of the many who wouldn’t shower after seeing Psycho, Hitchcock would have advised: “Have her dry cleaned.” As for me, growing up in southeastern Massachusetts, I remember reading in the Boston newspapers these little “teasers” about how the famous director and TV personality Alfred Hitchcock was making this secretive, very different kind of movie. Not the kind of thing he usually did—a full-out shocker-type film. One of these items mentioned that Hitchcock had posted guards at the studio soundstage doors to keep out the prying eyes and ears of the curious. He swore the cast to secrecy about the plot. Well, my young imagination went into overdrive imagining what Hitchcock might be up to.
By the summer of 1960, though, I became obsessed when I saw for the first time the Psycho movie trailer. It played at the most mysterious movie theater around—a slightly eerie, faded, grand, and expansive old movie palace called the Durfee in nearby Fall River, Massachusetts. If Norma Desmond had been a movie theater, this would have been it. Hitchcock taking us on a tour of this motel and scary old house made his movie seem strange, spooky, and grown up as hell; so did the constant TV and radio ads, also narrated by the grand old man himself. And the posters in the lobby, with that cracked, shattered yellow title lettering, Janet Leigh wearing a bra and slip, Anthony Perkins looking tense, a shirtless John Gavin and that tagline: A new—and altogether different—screen excitement. To me, it all spelled: hot stuff.
I wasn’t alone. Kids in my school were talking a lot about Psycho and, once the Legion of Decency forbid any good Catholic from seeing it, everyone wanted to see it. I lied, schemed, and cheated my way into the theater that first day. The place was packed and once Janet Leigh drove up to Bates Motel in the rain, you could feel dread building in this audience of mostly tough, working class, largely immigrant people. Once Leigh flushed the motel bathroom toilet—a first in an American movie!—then, disrobed and stepped into the shower, the theater sounded exactly like a kids’ horror movie matinee, even though it was filled with grownups, authority figures, friends of my parents, even one of my teachers.
They yelled like banshees. As the rest of the film went on, the audience talked to the screen and shouted out warnings to the characters. I saw one of my schoolteachers run up the aisle looking gray and nauseous. People were stunned after the shower murder, though. It was that staggering. And when Martin Balsam as the detective climbed the stairs of the Bates house and when Vera Miles tapped Mrs. Bates’s shoulder in the basement, the place went berserk. I’ve never experienced anything like it before or since in a movie theater. The audience wasn’t self-conscious, faux-hip, or knowing. Nothing then was meta or ironic. The response was primal. Even though I was too young to understand half of Psycho the first time I saw it, it shook me.
O’Brien: Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho is based on the Ed Gein case. Can you tell us about Ed Gein and his crimes?
Rebello: As you have in some of your wonderful books, Robert Bloch took inspiration from the crimes of a real-life, deeply disturbing, and dangerous psychopath. Mr. Bloch, a disciple of H.P. Lovecraft, lived in Wisconsin in 1957, just miles from where police that year discovered almost unimaginable horrors at the dilapidated farm and house of Ed Gein, an unmarried, middle-aged loner who was known as an odd duck by pretty much everyone in his community. The police found the nude, headless, recently slaughtered body of a woman hanging by her heels in a shed. A human heart was in a coffee can on the stove. This unfortunate woman wasn’t Gein’s only female victim, as the search revealed. Gein’s various activities included dressing himself with female human remains, grave-robbing, cannibalism, necrophilia and, very likely, maternal incest. Mind you, this was a guy hired by his neighbors to babysit their little darlings. The case became a national sensation, even though many of the police findings were too sensational and twisted to be reported by the press in those days. Although Bloch claimed that even he didn’t know the grisly details, somehow his creation “Norman Bates” was uncannily like Gein in many ways. So, Gein—who appeared to be a meek, bland, slightly effeminate mama’s boy when he was actually the stuff of nightmares—inadvertently became one of Bloch’s inspirations for writing Psycho.
O’Brien: How did Hitchcock stumble upon the book, Psycho, and why was he interested in making a “horror” movie?
Rebello: Hitchcock had been making films since the 1920s and, by the forties, was pretty much acknowledged as the master architect of motion picture thrillers. By the fifties, he was beginning to feel particularly pigeon-holed in the suspense genre and was always relentlessly pursuing material that was different, unique, attention-getting. He drove his associates and agents insane trying to find things that would ignite his imagination. By 1959, several of his most successful films had been very expensive to make. He didn’t like that. The final straw was when he had lavished time, love, money, and preproduction on a film to star Audrey Hepburn and Laurence Harvey that he had to cancel for various reasons. That was a terrible blow, and that project could have been one of the great Hitchcock films. In a state of agitated frustration, the novel Psycho came to his attention because of an intriguing New York Times review by the respected novelist and critic Anthony Boucher. The book, generally, won strong reviews. Hitchcock had noticed how low-budget, non-star horror movies were making a killing by attracting the younger audiences he was after. Psycho fit in with his idea of trying something bolder, more contemporary, and with economy of scale. He began talking about horror movies with his associates and asking, “What if someone good were to make a horror movie?” But he was one of the few who saw merit in Psycho; many of his associates warned him against making Psycho. They thought it was beneath him.
O’Brien: In the book, Mary Crain (Marion in the movie) isn’t stabbed in that fatal shower. And Norman Bates is not nearly as handsome and charming as Tony Perkins. Can you explain some of these alterations and any other differences between the book and the movie?
Rebello: But she is killed in the shower in the novel. In fact, Hitchcock told many people that he was most attracted by Bloch’s notion of a murder coming out of the blue in an everyday, confined setting—the shower, where we feel relaxed and complacent but where we’re utterly vulnerable. Hitchcock was thrilled with the idea of shocking audiences by casting a major star as the heroine and killing her off so early in the picture. That violated every Hollywood rule. Bloch’s heroine has her head cut off in the shower, not exactly the kind of thing that even Hitchcock could have gotten away with, even if he had been tempted. Bates in the novel is middle-aged, pudgy, alcoholic, brooding, unattractive, repugnant. He also has extensive conversations with his mother, which would have been fatal and a cheat on film. Casting Anthony Perkins was a lucky masterstroke; he’s as charming, attractive, sad, perverse, and lethal as earlier Hitchcock killers like the one Joseph Cotten played in Shadow of a Doubt and Robert Walker played in Strangers on a Train. Perkins had already worked with top directors like William Wyler, Anthony Mann, and Stanley Kramer, and Paramount had spent lots of money promoting him as a successor to the late James Dean or comparing him to the young James Stewart or Henry Fonda. Although he had become a teen idol and even made some hit records, things hadn’t quite clicked and, at the time, Perkins felt typecast and owed Paramount a movie. Hitchcock could hire him inexpensively. It was a perfect storm.
O’Brien: How did screenwriter Joseph Stefano get involved in the movie?
Rebello: Hitchcock had thrown away an earlier draft by James Cavanaugh, a talented young TV writer known for scripts for the series Suspense and Playhouse 90; what got him the Psycho adaptation assignment was his teleplay for the famous 1959 Alfred Hitchcock Presents entry Arthur, in which Hitchcock himself directed Laurence Harvey as a murderous young chicken farmer. No one liked Cavanaugh’s adaptation of Psycho, though, and Hitchcock’s powerful and much-feared agent Lew Wasserman made the case for Joseph Stefano. Hitchcock was amused by Stefano—a talented, offbeat former dancer, singer, and songwriter who regaled and fascinated Hitchcock with intimate revelations from his psychotherapy sessions. They made quite a pair.
O’Brien: I hear Anthony Perkins was Hitchcock’s first choice for Norman Bates. What about the other roles? I hear Eva Marie Saint, Shirley Jones, Carolyn Jones, Stuart Whitman, and Brian Keith were in the running for other major roles. Could you tell us some more about the casting—and who else was in the running?
Rebello: Perkins was pretty much “locked” for Norman Bates, but there were brief discussions about Dean Stockwell, Roddy McDowall, Laurence Harvey, and others. Hitchcock wanted the biggest star possible for the female leading role. Hitchcock associates and top talent agents suggested such stars, appropriate or not, as Lana Turner, Deborah Kerr, Eva Marie Saint, Maureen O’Sullivan, and more. For the heroine’s sister, there was talk of Shirley Jones, Dolores Hart, and Diane Varsi, and for Sam, Marion’s boyfriend, Robert Loggia, Stuart Whitman, Brian Keith, Richard Basehart, and Leslie Nielsen were among those in the running.
O’Brien: I spotted the Psycho house in an Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode, “The Unlocked Window.” How did they come up with that creepy house, and was it in any other films/TV shows?
Rebello: After many discussions with Hitchcock about what he did and didn’t want, art directors Robert Clatworthy and Joseph Hurley designed the house and built it on the Universal backlot, clearly referencing Victorian architecture as typified by Edward Hopper’s haunting 1925 painting House by the Railroad. The art directors appropriated architectural pieces from other standing sets on the Universal backlot, including the house from Harvey. Originally, they built only the front and side of the house because those were all Hitchcock needed to shoot. After Psycho, the house got altered but remained as a standing set and can be seen in several episodes of the Boris Karloff–hosted anthology TV series Thriller, in the Western shows Wagon Train and Laramie, in such feature films as Invitation to a Gunfighter, and, yes, in the Psycho-esque “An Unlocked Window,” among many, many other TV episodes and films.
O’Brien: Why did Hitchcock use his TV show crew to shoot the film (instead of his usual cinematographer, Robert Burks)? And why did he shoot it in black and white?
Rebello: After becoming so well known in the fifties for his big-star, big-budget Technicolor films, Hitchcock tackled Psycho as something of an “experiment” but also a throwback. He loved referring to it as his “30-day picture” and, just as he did in his early filmmaking days in England, he wanted to try new things while keeping the budget low, at around $800,000. One way of accomplishing this was to work with his trusted TV crewmembers, who were accustomed to working fast and with great skill. In those days, the decision to film in color versus black and white could be as much an artistic decision as a financial one. Black and white was as ideal for Psycho as it was for such other movies of the sixties as The Apartment, Anatomy of a Murder, To Kill a Mockingbird, Days of Wine and Roses, Hud, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, Cape Fear, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Haunting, In Cold Blood, and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
O’Brien: Is it true that Janet Leigh gave John Gavin “a helping hand” during their love scene?
Rebello: That’s what the gifted, very classy, and discreet Janet Leigh said, blushing as she did. Hitchcock and the charming, thoroughly professional Janet Leigh got along beautifully, but somehow he wasn’t especially happy with what he was getting out of John Gavin. He wanted passion, sexuality, heat, and he seemed to feel Mr. Gavin was self-conscious and uncomfortable. Hitchcock apparently took Ms. Leigh aside and asked her to take . . . matters . . . into her own hands. Mr. Gavin responded. What a pair of troupers.
O’Brien: Rumors have flown that title designer, Saul Bass, filmed the shower scene. Can you put those rumors to rest?
Rebello: Well, Kevin, those rumors flew but they’ve long since crash-landed. There is no underestimating Mr. Bass’s extraordinary gifts as an artist, but too many key people who were on the set have vehemently denied his assertions. I doubt anyone takes the claim seriously anymore—if they ever did. Saul Bass’s contributions to the movie—his visual concepts for the shower sequence and the Arbogast murder on the stairs, the test footage of the shower sequence that he shot using a nude stand-in—are indelible. Let’s remember that Saul Bass provided Hitchcock with a powerful and evocative roadmap for how to film and edit the shower sequence in an era in which extreme violence and nudity could only be suggested but not shown. But let’s also remember that Hitchcock, Robert Bloch, Joseph Stefano, especially Janet Leigh, film editor George Tomasini, and composer Bernard Herrmann are the stars and authors of that now-iconic scene.
O’Brien: Any interesting stories about filming the famous shower scene?
Rebello: Here are some things that did and didn’t happen during the filming of the shower scene. It was not shot by a Japanese crew. Not a frame of it was filmed in color. Janet Leigh shot the scene virtually nude, which was very brave and completely unheard-of for American movie stars in those days. Hitchcock also hired a nude model to shoot the entire sequence just in case Janet Leigh’s modesty made her guard her body and ruin the shot. That model, Marli Renfro, is definitely visible in the overhead shots. Hitchcock in his elegant dark blue suit and tie would often be seen chatting about wine, travel, and dirty jokes while Marli Renfro sat next to him, completely naked. Male crewmembers on the closed set hung from the rafters to get a better view of Janet Leigh; such a frank, bold scene was unheard of at the time. It was quite an engineering feat to make certain Ms. Leigh had sufficient warm water for the entire length of filming. So, no, Hitchcock did not douse her with cold water to elicit her screams—a silly rumor that undercuts what a skilled actress Janet Leigh was.
Anthony Perkins was not used in the scene in any way; he was already in rehearsals for a Frank Loesser musical on Broadway. Hitchcock wanted to spare Perkins any discomfort or embarrassment and, besides, Perkins had such a distinctive body type that he would have been recognized immediately by audiences. “Mother” was played in the scene by stuntwoman Margo Epper, whose face was blacked-out with makeup to conceal her identity. The sound of the knife stabbing flesh was accomplished by stabbing a casaba melon and also a slab of meat.
O’Brien: Is it true that Hitchcock didn’t want music to accompany the shower scene? Can you tell us about Bernard Herrmann’s contribution to the film?
Rebello: Hitchcock was out to break a lot of new ground this time. That included his wanting Psycho to look, feel, and sound unlike his elegant suspense movies like The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest, or Vertigo, with their romantic, haunting symphonic scores by Bernard Herrmann. Hitchcock dictated precise notes for sound effects and music for his films; for Psycho, he was after a downbeat, cool, strange jazz score perhaps similar to those director Otto Preminger had from Elmer Bernstein for The Man with the Golden Arm and from Duke Ellington on Anatomy of a Murder. He smelled change in the air, the coming of a new, franker, more violent era, and he wanted the film to be modern, to appeal to a new audience. For the shower murder, he was adamant that audiences would hear only the sound of the water, the heroine’s screams and the sounds of the knife ravaging her body. Tough, savage stuff. He resisted Herrmann’s idea of an all-string score and screaming violins but, once he heard the great composer’s work for the shower scene, he apologized—in his own way, that is—by admitting of his no-music dictate, “Improper suggestion, my boy, improper suggestion.”
O’Brien: I’ve seen a few seconds of Janet Leigh actually taking off her bra during that scene in which Tony Perkins spies on her through a peephole. But this didn’t make the US version of the film (check the special features of the DVD). How much trouble did Hitchcock encounter with the censors?
Rebello: Hitchcock had been challenging and tweaking the hypocrisy of censorship from the beginnings of his career. He threw down the gauntlet with Psycho, deliberately upping the ante with suggestive situations, exposed flesh, provocative themes, imagery, and subtext. When Paramount submitted the screenplay to the censors for review, as all major films had to in those days, their decision came back that Hitchcock was skating on extremely thin ice. They demanded less frank dialogue and lots of changes, for instance, in the way he proposed to film such things as the opening sequence with Janet Leigh and John Gavin shacked up in the hotel during her lunch break, the shower sequence, and more. The censors were especially infuriated about suggestions of incest between Bates and his mother. Hitchcock mostly ignored their restrictions and made the film he wanted to make, with some concessions. On the whole, he played the game brilliantly—deliberately inserting things in the script that he knew he wouldn’t get away with but that would distract the censors from things he was willing to fight for. When the censorship board demanded that he recut the shower scene, for instance, he didn’t touch a foot of the film; they didn’t notice. In the end, the censors weren’t a match for him. But make no mistake—this was a major battle. They could have stopped the movie from being released. Hitchcock didn’t get away with everything, though. He wanted Janet Leigh bra-less in the film’s opening, her breasts brushing John Gavin’s bare chest.
O’Brien: Is it true that Hitchcock didn’t have much confidence in Psycho when he viewed the finished product for the first time?
Rebello: The early cast and crew private screening did not go particularly well, although that’s hardly unusual in Hollywood. The film apparently played flat, unexciting; it lacked tension. Hitchcock secretly always held the view that if the film really didn’t work, he’d edit it to an hour and show it on television. A later screening for close associates—this time edited more tightly and accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s score—played much better.
Many people today don’t realize that even more effort and planning went into the scene of the private detective being killed than the heroine’s. It was the stabbing of the detective that brought the early audience right out of their seats with terror. As you know, Kevin, Hitchcock didn’t hold any sneak preview screenings for the public, and there weren’t even advance screenings for the press. Some say that Hitchcock wanted to keep the film’s revelations a complete surprise. Others argue that Hitchcock was unconvinced that Psycho was up to his usual standard and that he wanted to do preemptive damage control. To anyone who questioned him, he’d just shrug it off and say, “It’s only a movie.” Even his personal production assistant tried to calm down people on the set who were worried that Hitchcock was going too far: “Don’t worry. He’s already planning the next movie in his head.”
O’Brien: “No one will be admitted into the theater after the start of the film.” Can you explain this mandate and other marketing strategies Hitchcock used?
Rebello: In those days, the price of a movie ticket bought you not only a feature film, but also newsreels, short subjects, previews of coming attractions, and a second feature film. People would drift in and out of theaters as their interests and schedules permitted. That’s how the old expression originated: “This is where I came in.” Psycho helped change all that. Hitchcock was a master showman and, taking a cue from the publicity campaign for the superb French film Les Diaboliques, he created the aura of an “event” around Psycho.
He made himself the star and centerpiece of the movie’s advertising campaign. At the first-run engagements of Psycho, theater owners were instructed to hire uniformed guards to stand outside theaters to prevent audiences from trying to enter the movie house once the film had begun. Great publicity! Life-sized cardboard cutouts of Hitchcock stood in the lobby, and recorded messages from Hitchcock informed ticket-buyers of the reasons behind his unusual admissions policy and also hyped them to expect to be terrified and stunned. At one showing, audiences waiting to get in were wrapped around the block and, when it started to rain and they wouldn’t leave, Hitchcock was contacted by the theater manager and asked what to do. “Buy them umbrellas,” he said. Before the era of Facebook, Twitter, spoilers, and text messages, audiences loved being surprised and loved the chance to feel that they were part of the ritual that seeing Psycho turned out to be.
O’Brien: What was the public and critical reaction to Psycho when it was first released?
Rebello: American critics gave the film mixed to negative reviews—“a blot on an honorable career” as one called it. Hitchcock himself speculated that he’d put critics’ noses out of joint by refusing to invite them to the usual free advance screenings. Critics actually had to suffer the terrible indignity of having to pay to see the film along with the rest of us—the great, unwashed public. On the other hand, the public response to the movie was phenomenal. Audiences lined up around the block for the very first showings and the film was held over for weeks and weeks in many theaters. Psycho was a cultural phenomenon, the kind of movie that you’d hear people talking about at grocery stores, post offices, everywhere. Interestingly, when the movie turned out to cause a sensation, some of the same critics who panned it suddenly got religion and named it on their end-of-the-year “best lists.” The public “got” Psycho—or, as Hitchcock put it, “went Psycho”—long before the critics did. Over the years, of course, the movie has been acclaimed as a masterpiece.
O’Brien: I couldn’t wait to see Psycho when it was set for its TV premiere on The CBS Friday Night Movies in September 1966. But something happened in Kenilworth, Illinois (one town away from where I lived at the time), that caused the TV premiere of Psycho to be canceled. Can you explain?
Rebello: CBS pulled that network premiere after the September 18th murder of twenty-one-year-old Valerie Percy, who was brutally killed with a hammer and a knife by an unknown assailant in the family home she shared with her twin sister, her mother, and her father, then US Senator Charles H. Percy. You may remember that there was a big international investigation and a $50,000 reward but Ms. Percy’s murder remains an unsolved crime to this day. The film was rescheduled, but pulled again after the tragic fire on the Apollo space mission. In the end, the movie never had a network TV showing. Hitchcock took considerable heat from the press about his “responsibility” in contributing to what some called “the American cult of violence.” When a young man on death row said that he killed his most recent victim after seeing Psycho, Hitchcock said, “He had killed two other women before, so when the press called and asked if I had any comment, I said, “Yes. I want to know the names of the movies he saw before he killed the other two, or did he kill the first one after drinking a glass of milk?”
O’Brien: Finally, can you tell us why you think Psycho continues to scare us and influence so many other thrillers—fifty years later?
Rebello: Psycho continues to scare audiences and inspire filmmakers because the story works, the characters resonate, the dialogue is full of dark little gems, the imagery is stunning, and the mood, subtext—the film’s dark underneath—is troubling, primal, and universal. As directed by Hitchcock, it’s a one-of-a-kind collision of sexy soap opera, crime thriller, old dark house Gothic, black comedy, tragedy, and psychosexual mind warp.
For some, it is a perfectly enjoyable, enthralling, well-made “movie-movie,” yet it also works on deeper subconscious levels in subversive and masterful ways. No wonder we’re still enjoying Psycho, analyzing it, having nightmares about it, quoting it, parodying it, being influenced by it. And here I’ve gotten the privilege of talking with you about it, Kevin, while, later today, I go back to my involvement in preparations for a major feature film set against the making of Psycho that will begin production early next year. Somewhere, Hitchcock is having the last laugh at all those who warned him not to make Psycho. It wasn’t “only a movie,” was it?
O’Brien: Thank you for your time, Stephen! It’s a thrill and an honor to talk with you. Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho is one of my all-time favorite film books.
Rebello: The thrill and honor are also mine, Kevin. Next time, I get to interview you, and we can start with one of my favorites, Vicious.
The man who adapted Robert Block’s novel discusses his contribution to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film.
As told to Steve Biodrowski
Joseph Stefano has a long list of credits of various shapes and sizes (including his work as a songwriter), but he will always be fondly remembered by genre fans for two outstanding projects: he produced and wrote many episodes of the original version of the television show THE OUTER LIMITS, and he adapted the screenplay for the Alfred Hitchcock film PSYCHO from the novel by Robert Bloch. (Stefano’s screenplay was re-used, virtually word for word, in director Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of the film.)
Curiously, Stefano is not a devotee of horror and science-fiction, but he does have an interest in Freudian psychology, which he put to good use in his genre writing. Unfortunately, his success in that area somewhat typecast his as a writer of dark, horrific thrillers and science-fiction, leading to scripts for features like THE KINDRED and stints writing for television’s STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, SWAMP THING, and the revived OUTER LIMITS in the 1990s. Fortunately, he has managed to put some non-genre credits under his belt as well, including 1995’s TWO BITS, a nostalgic drama starring Al Pacino, which Stefano also produced.
In the 1990 interview below (conducted at the time of PSYCHO IV), the Joseph Stefano discusses his contribution to the PSYCHO series, both on the original Hitchcock film and on the 1990 “prequel” that explored the origins of Norman Bates’ neurosis.
When I start writing a movie, I ask myself three questions. Why am I beginning with a certain character? Why on this particular day in his or her life? What crisis will that character confront? Those were the questions on my mind that day in 1959 as I drove to Paramount to meet Hitchcock to discuss adapting Robert Bloch’s Psycho.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Hitch didn’t want to talk to me — he hated meeting with people he might have to reject. As it turned out, someone, maybe his agent, insisted that he interview me.
I read the novel the night before our meeting but was unimpressed. With the exception of the ending, it’s a story that’s weak in writing and characterization. It starts with Norman and focuses on him too much. I was sure that no audience was going to like Norman enough to stay with him throughout an entire movie.
During that car ride, the idea suddenly struck me to begin with Marion, suggesting that the movie would be about a girl who steals $40,000. Audiences would be sucked into a character who did something wrong but was really a good person – they would feel as if they, not Marion, had stolen the $40,000. When she dies, the audience would be the victim!
And that’s just how it worked. With so much early emphasis on Marion, no one dreams she’ll get killed. When it happens, people are blown away. It’s like Hitch and I were saying we’ve stolen your central character!
The idea excited Hitch. And I got the job. Killing the leading lady in the first 20 minutes had never been done before! Hitch suggested a name actress to play Marion because the bigger the star the more unbelievable it would be that we would kill her. From there, the writing was easy. The only difficulty was switching the audience’s sympathies to Norman after Marion’s death. Bloch’s book treats him as a kind of reprobate. When I discussed this with Hitch, he said, “Put that out of your mind and picture Tony Perkins.” I knew then I could write the character.
Hitch wasn’t always patient, but he was helpful and generous; he answered my questions gladly. Before I’d even written a word, we spent four weeks brainstorming the story, especially the shower scene. We talked about having Saul Bass do storyboards, and planned how to film the murder without actually seeing the knife enter the flesh. We were mainly concerned about nudity — how much could be shown in 1959 and how much would convey, without being gratuitous, the terror of being attacked naked and wet.
Hitch was interested in what I had to offer, like one of my background ideas for Norman’s upbringing. I imagined a scene – which people will recognize from Psycho IV – here Norma is horsing around with his mother. When she notices he has an erection, she becomes rabid. To teach him once and for all that’s he’s not supposed to do that, she forces him to put on a dress, smears lipstick on his face, and locks him in a closet. The incident had no place in Psycho, but I told Hitch anyway, and he was fascinated – very curious about things of that nature, Freudian psychological backgrounds.
Hitch asked for only one change in my script: the scene when Marion is stopped by the policeman. I said it might be fun if the cop came on to her, and, of course, she’s terrified because she’s stolen the money. He liked the idea but felt we’d better get on with the suspense. He said, “Why don’t you try him more matter-of-fact.” I said, “How about if he’s menacing?” Hitch thought of putting the officer in dark glasses, which made the cop sinister rather than pleasant.
There was another scene I wrote which was cut for length. It’s where Marion’s sister and fiance become convinced that she’s dead. Taking place at the motel, it would have been a nice touch. The film’s editor, George Tomasini, added a few of his own, like the barely noticeable superimposition of a skull over Norman’s face at the end of the film.
When I signed on, Hitch didn’t know quite what to offer, so he asked my last job’s wage. I told him I’d been getting $1500 a week at Fox, and that’s what Hitch gave me. It was high for 1959, but I only got it for as long as I worked, which was eight weeks. Psycho was such a low-budget movie that almost everybody made scale. Even though the studio grossed a fortune at the box office, Bloch was paid only $6000 total for the rights to his novel and all subsequent options.
I haven’t seen him in years. When I won the Edgar Allen Poe Mystery Writers of America Award for Psycho in 1960, he presented it to me. I wish Bloch still had the rights to Psycho because II and III wouldn’t have turned out so bad. Those films changed Norman from a sensitive and pitiful – if not sympathetic – villain into a laughable figure. Unfortunately, Perkins didn’t help to stop that transformation. Of course, I could never imagine anyone else playing Norman Bates since Tony gave so much to that character, like the stutter and the candy corn – and especially a timidity that can’t really be scripted.
Despite all that, Psycho III is a real tragedy — and I mean that as a movie. That dreadful piece all but buried Hitch’s original concept. Having that severed arm in Norman’s jacket was like something out of a slasher movie. Tony was against the idea, but Universal insisted.
Psycho 11 and III say, in effect, there’s no way to survive with a psychological problem. If you’ve got it, the law can keep you locked up because there’s no chance for cure. I thought, “Vile!” I don’t think l need that message. It’s just not true.
Unless a sequel could bring Norman out and show the effects of 20 years of therapy, I felt it would be nothing more than crass commercialism. When the studio put out floaters to see if I wanted to write Psycho II, I made my feelings clear: I could’ve done it a hundred times. After Psycho’s release, I was bombarded with requests to write similar movies which I refused because I didn’t feel any need to do it again. I’ve spent my career turning those imitations down.
I wasn’t approached for Psycho III because Tony worked with III’s writer, but I was invited to the set. I took up the invitation, and as my wife and I were leaving, I noticed a flat on which one of the crew had jokingly scrawled “Save for Psycho IV.” We laughed, and I said the only way to do it would be to make a prequel. When I was approached a couple of years later, that thought came back. Filming a prequel would be a good opportunity to delve into the past, not just for the occasional flashbacks but for the whole story.
At the same time, I realized a very strong contemporary narrative was needed. Without that, the movie would end with the shower sequence in Psycho. What other high point was there in Norman’s life? Clearly, I had to develop the present-day Norman, which pleased Tony and the producers, who wanted him to reappear.
Gearing up for Psycho IV, I decided to ignore the two sequels – like the business in II about Norman’s mother. Instead, I based my script on background material I’d had in my mind for over 30 years – information that couldn’t be in the original without giving the ending away. I wrote five drafts, making changes because of time and budget constraints. Thanks to the director Mick Garris, my vision was on screen almost intact.
In Psycho IV, the time is five years after III, and Norman is out of the hospital. He’s a married man, and he’s finally learned how to love somebody and have natural sex without killing his lover. But when Norman’s wife becomes pregnant, there’s a crisis. His fear that his illness will be passed on to a new generation prompts him to call into a radio talk show focusing on matricide. As the film progresses, he resorts to the only neurosis that ever worked for him.
The question might be asked why, if Norman is cured, does he revert back to his old ways? I think he explains when he says, “I’m cured, as I’ll ever be, but I’m still me.” No matter how cured we are of certain psychoses, we revert when the chips are down. The film couldn’t just be about Norman getting cured. It had to be about that cure coming undone.
As in the last two sequels, the producers have attempted to drum up a “don’t-tell-the-ending” campaign. I disagree with that policy because it sets up expectations for something that will not be there. It’s not like the original movie where you thought it was the mother committing the murders, but it was actually the son. I don’t think it’s possible to create the kind of shock today that we created in 1959. And I don’t even want to try.
So far, audience reaction has been good, and I’m pleased. With the exception of Variety, which called the movie “Psycho-babble,” the reviews have also been strong. Norman Bates has a crisis, but the resolution leaves everyone glowing – which is not the reaction you’d expect after seeing a Psycho movie.
People may be surprised at the ending I chose, but if you’ve done your homework, I think it will seem natural. Any other way would have been preposterous – just one more dreadful Psycho sequel. It will end as life would have it end.
–Copyright 1990 Steve Biodrowski
This low-budget black-and-white shocker is one of the great achievements in the horror genre, although it eschews the monsters and supernatural trappings usually associated with the genre at that time, in favor of a psychologically based approach to terror. As producer Howard Hawks had done with THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, producer-director Alfred Hitchcock took the familiar horror movie clichés and reused them in a new, contemporary setting. Although a realistic tale (loosely—very loosely—inspired by actual events), the approach to filming is full-blown Gothic. The lonely road and the rain the drives a victim to seek shelter where there is only danger—this is the stuff of classic horror movies, as is the spooky house, a fine 20th Century stand-in for Dracula’s castle. And of course, the lurking menace hiding in the attic or the basement—what more could you ask of a horror movie? Read More