Bright Lights Film Journal

Joseph Stefano Obituary, Part 2: THE OUTER LIMITS

The classic ’60s sci-fi anthology series, The Outer Limits, was conceived by eccentric writer/producer Leslie Stevens. How eccentric?? It was Stevens who later wrote and directed Incubus (1965), starring William Shatner, the only American-produced film ever shot in Esperanto.

In 1963, Stevens wrote and directed The Outer Limits’ pilot episode, The Galaxy Being, and it was Stevens who came up with the idea of the “control voice” that introduced every episode. However, when ABC decided to purchase the series, Stevens (who was busy with another series, Stoney Burke) turned to his friend, the late Joseph Stefano, to produce the subsequent episodes. From that point forward, Stefano became The Outer Limits’ effective auteur.

Not that Stevens lost touch with the project. He retained his role as Executive Producer, and directed two additional episodes. However, it was Stefano as hands-on producer and chief writer who gave the series’ first season its unforgettable look, feel, and tone. Stefano (pictured above with Outer Limits monster) overlaid each episode he produced with the same feeling for Gothic/noir atmosphere and Freudian psychology that had saturated his Psycho screenplay. The first season’s distinctive visual style – for which I believe Stefano was primarily responsible – was due to a combination of first-class art direction, the hiring of veteran film directors (notably, German-born Gerd Oswald, leading a pack that included John Brahm, Laslo Benedek, and Byron Haskin), and the inspired black & white cinematography of future Academy Award-winner Conrad Hall. (Stefano, a Val Lewton admirer, told me he planned to use Cat People director, Jacques Tourneur, during the show’s second season.)

Stefano handpicked his casts, creating a virtual repertory company of great, but relatively unknown-at-the-time actors (among them, Martin Landau, Robert Culp, David McCallum, Robert Duvall, and Stefano discovery Sally Kellerman). The series was also notable for its recurring themes: microwave technology, extraterrestrial contact (which I suspect Stevens and Stefano believed had already taken place), and, most importantly, a consistent, unrelenting critique of America’s military/industrial complex – so consistent it’s not at all surprising the network (sadly) decided to replace Stefano with another less “edgy” producer, Ben Brady, during the show’s second and final season.

The Man Who Was Never Born, the first episode produced by Stefano, is a masterpiece. Martin Landau plays a man from the future, a hideously deformed mutant, one of the only survivors in a world blighted by plague, who travels back in time to prevent the scientist who caused the plague from ever being conceived. When he arrives back in the comparatively beautiful past (our present), he meets and falls in love with the scientist’s future mother (Shirley Knight). Due to hypnosis, Knight’s character – and everyone else in the past – sees the monstrous-looking Landau character as a normal human. Knight is engaged to a soldier (John Considine), but – in a variation on the “Beauty and the Beast” archetype – when she comes to know Landau, she decides to abandon the soldier and return with Landau to the future – even after seeing his true face.

Visually, The Man Who Was Never Born is The Outer Limits’ most lyrical episode. And the language! Stefano is not the credited writer, but some of the lines show unmistakable evidence of his poetic touch. (“When a woman combs her hair, she imitates the motion of the stars.”) When I asked Stevens how he felt on seeing this first Stefano-produced episode, he responded, “Jealous!”

The Bellero Shield is another good example of Stefano’s penchant for psychologically archetypal imagery. As in many of Stefano’s works (including Psycho), the central image is a house – but the house is divided into levels that correspond to the levels of the human mind. The upper level, the house’s observatory (corresponding to the super-ego) is where the scientist protagonist (Landau again) achieves contact with one of The Outer Limits’ “good” extraterrestrials (they come in all types), a veritable “fallen angel.” The house’s mid-level (corresponding to the ego) is where negotiations take place between the scientist’s ambitious wife (Sally Kellerman) and her equally ambitious father-in-law. The house’s basement (corresponding to the id) is where the wife and her servant murder and intend to bury the angelic alien.

Don’t Open Till Doomsday is the most surreal of the Stefano-produced episodes – about a one-eyed alien monster that lives in a gift box. The Form of Things Unknown, directed with brilliant Expressionist flair by Gerd Oswald, is the most gothic episode – about a house (again) in the middle of nowhere, whose central room (heart) is filled with ticking clocks, a sort of time machine presided over by a Norman Bates-like David McCallum. It’s another episode notable for its florid language (“Mr. Hobart tinkers with time – as time has tinkered with Mr. Hobart!“)

Two more episodes must be mentioned in this all-too-brief survey – both with particular relevance to the horrors of our present Bush era. In the very noir O.B.I.T. (directed by Oswald), a military base is seduced and corrupted by an all-pervasive surveillance technology that turns out to have been supplied by evil extraterrestrials. In the spare and abstract Nightmare (featuring, among others, a young Martin Sheen), we watch a group of American soldiers, prisoners of war on an alien planet, gradually broken down by the torture techniques of their demonic-looking alien captors – only to find out that the aliens are conducting this monstrous “psychological experiment” at the behest of the American military. Finally, the aliens balk, because the experiment is “inhuman.”

Such was the legacy of Joseph Stefano (May 5, 1922 – August 25, 2006).