Ed Gein’s name will be instantly familiar to most horror fans; the necrophile’s activities in late 50s rural Wisconsin inspired a few of the most famous films in the genre. Although Gein cannot be classified as a serial killer, having ‘only’ murdered two women, his obsession with death and his macabre craft of making furniture and clothing from corpses he had exhumed really ignited the public’s morbid imagination.
Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) was claimed to be based upon the Gein case but plays fast and loose with the details: the story is relocated to Texas and shows the ordeal of a group of teenagers at the hands of a family of three psychotic brothers; one of whom, like Gein, wears a mask made from a dead person’s face. Like TTCM, William Girdler’s ultra-low budget Three on a Meathook (1973) used the motif of murdered women hanging on, er, meathooks, and the idea of a serial killer wearing victims’ flesh also featured in The Silence of the Lambs. Psycho author Robert Bloch and screenwriter Joseph Stefano were more interested in exploring Gein’s obsessive love for his dead mother and the psychological issues around personality transference than recounting ghoulish details of necrophilia.
A couple of minor biopics aside, the better of which is Chuck Parello’s Ed Gein aka In the Light of the Moon (2000), filmmakers have never attempted to remain faithful to the facts of the Gein case, but Alan Ormsby and Jeff Gillen came closest in the wonderfully out-there Deranged. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre may be the ‘Gein’ movie that everyone has heard of but 1974′s other, largely unknown, Gein-inspired shocker is a must for all true genre fans and this Blu-ray reissue from the reliable Arrow Films stable will bring it much deserved attention.
Alan Ormsby’s first film – as writer, lead actor and make-up artist – was his college friend Bob Clark’s zombie caper Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972). They soon teamed up again as writer and director on Dead of Night aka Deathdream. Clark passed on Ormsby’s next script, Deranged, purportedly because it was too disturbing, so Ormsby took the directing reins with Jeff Gillen, who had acted in Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things and Dead of Night, and was also assistant director on the latter film. Clark became an uncredited producer on Deranged alongside Tom Karr, and the following year he directed the cult favourite horror feature Black Christmas, which has been credited as an influence on John Carpenter’s Halloween.
The early-to-mid 70s was a halcyon period for underground Canadian cinema. Tax breaks and generous government arts funding created opportunities for underground filmmakers; as well as Clark and Ormsby, David Cronenberg began making weird experimental featurettes like Stereo and Crimes of the Future before his existential body horror features Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977) announced him as a major genre talent. Ivan Reitman, who directed the 1973 cheapo horror comedy Cannibal Girls, produced both films before going on to Animal House (1978), Stripes (1981) and Ghostbusters (1984), and a stellar Hollywood career.
The budget for Deranged was just $200,000, roughly the same as Shivers, and the film was shot in Ontario in 1973. After a brief US release through American International Pictures in February 1974 the film disappeared until reappearing briefly in the home video boom of the early 80s.
It seems odd after their assured handling of Deranged that neither Ormsby nor Gillen ever directed another film, but Ormsby continued to write and his credits include Paul Schrader’s cruelly underrated Cat People remake (1982) and Porky’s II: The Next Day (1983), the sequel to Clark’s 1982 smash hit teen sex comedy Porky’s.
Deranged begins in faux documentary fashion with journalist Tom Sims (Leslie Carlson, later Videodrome‘s Barry Convex) delivering a Whicker-style voice over part Texas Chainsaw, part Plan 9 From Outer Space: “Several years ago, I covered first-hand the incredible story you are about to see recreated in this motion picture. It is a human horror story of ghastly proportions and profound reverberations. But because it is human, perhaps we can learn something from it… something of ourselves, of our own fears and needs. But please, let me warn you… the events have been recreated in detail. Nothing has been left to the imagination. It is not a story for the squeamish or the fainthearted. Now that you stand warned, we can proceed with our story.”
The story is that of Ezra Cobb, ‘the butcher of Woodside’. We meet him as he administers pea soup to his dying mother, to whom he has devoted the last twelve years of his life after she suffered a stroke. Amanda Cobb is a real piece of work. Her final words are full of fire and brimstone, cautioning Ezra to stay away from “filthy, black-souled sluts with pus-filled sores” and warning him that “the wages of sin is gonorrhea, syphilis and death.” She has a seizure, bright red blood and pea green coalescing as Ezra attempts pathetically to keep her alive. Like much of the film, this scene plays out in its own good time and wavers perilously close to OTT camp comedy while somehow retaining an edge of pathos and a real horror fascination.
The funeral service proceeds over Amanda’s open coffin with only Ezra and his neighbours Harlan and Jenny Kootz in attendance. Harlan tells him she’s only sleeping, and Ez agrees, believing it. We see Ez taking dinner with the Kootzes, who try to do their best for this eccentric, friendless soul. After a year Ezra’s loneliness becomes too much. He holds conversations with his mother, answering in her voice, and then takes the next step – to liberate her from the grave and bring her back home.
This step inevitably leads to others; mother is badly decomposed and could use better skin. One day the Kootzes son Brad announces that his old Sunday school teacher Miss Johnson has “kicked the bucket,” and Ez sees an opportunity. Later, when Harlan Kootz tries to convince Ezra that he needs some female company, Ez remembers his mother’s dying demand that he should call Maureen Selby, the only woman she ever trusted. “She’s fat, that’s why. A big heifer… but she’s the only good-hearted woman I ever knew.”
The scenes with the Kootzes are infused with a delightful charge, as Ezra talks quite openly about his bizarre, sinister activities while Harlan Kootz laughs like a drain at what he thinks is Ez’s twisted sense of humour.
Harlan and Jenny encourage Ez to visit Maureen, which he does. At first, when he tells her he talks to his dead mother, she thinks he’s making fun of her because she speaks to her dead husband Herbert too. They establish a weird rapport, and the scene when Ez goes back a second time for dinner is a perfect example of Deranged‘s daring, jet-black comic appeal: to reveal any more would require spoilers, but suffice to say that this set piece is a macabre delight, beautifully shot and acted, and one of the high points of the film.
After his encounter with Maureen, Ez decides to search out more attractive female company and to this end he begins to frequent a local bar, where he fixates on blousy waitress Mary Ransom. When he asks her for milk she laughs and returns with whisky, which he has never drunk before. At closing time Mary dishes out a little kindness and helps Ezra, by now completely smashed, to leave the bar, little knowing she has been chosen as his prospective bride-to-be and that he’s already contemplating introducing her to the in-laws…
There is a wonderfully diseased invention evident throughout Deranged. Camerawork, editing and production design all compliment the combination of sinister, gritty horror and cringe-inducing dark humour. The special make up effects were handled by Ormsby and a young Tom Savini; the notorious brain-scooping, eye spooning scene – here included after being initially cut on home video – set him on the path to becoming one of the greats of the genre.
The main ace up the film’s sleeve is Roberts Blossom, whose performance as the skeletal, unhinged Ezra is a bizarre joy to behold: a mass of tics, gurns, and roiling fear and confusion that couldn’t have been bettered even by original choice Harvey Keitel. Blossom was a character actor who never had another leading role, and is probably best known to horror aficionados for his turn as cantankerous old bastard George LeBay in John Carpenter’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Christine.
Deranged belongs alongside other cult black comic horror curios like Motel Hell (also reissued on Blu-ray recently by Arrow) and two films namechecked in Arrow’s publicity blurb, Carnival of Souls and The Honeymoon Killers. The viewer is constantly surprised by jarring turns of tone and sharp juxtapositions of wild humour with tough, uncompromising imagery. While some ideas work better than others, at least this film has them in abundance; with many low budget films from the 60s and 70s, necessity really was the mother of invention, and mavericks with talent and an eye for horror’s sense of wonder could let their imaginations rip. The final sequence lingers long in the memory and delivers the enduring image from the Ed Gein case. According to the blurb, “…this is one of American horror cinema’s great one-offs, an eerie, genuinely unsettling but also darkly comic experience,” and this reviewer can’t disagree with that.
The Arrow BD extras include an audio commentary by Tom Savini; an interview about the film with producer Scott Spiegel (Intruder, Evil Dead II); a featurette on Ed Gein with Laurence Harvey of Human Centipede II; a making of featurette with production footage and an interview with co-director Jeff Gillen (who died in 1995 aged only 52); a reversible sleeve and a collector’s booklet.
Directors: Alan Ormsby and Jeff Gillen
Starring: Roberts Blossom, Cosette Lee, Leslie Carlson
Running time: 82 minutes
Original release date: February 1974 (USA)
Blu-ray and DVD release date: 19 August 2013
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