March 15, 2012
In all the annals of the horror movie archives, perhaps no real person has inspired more films than the serial killer Ed Gein. Gein’s life has provided the basis for such legendary villains as Norman Bates in Psycho, Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. Not nearly as iconic as any of those films, but following Gein’s case much more closely, is another forgotten Canadian splatter film from 1974 called Deranged.
Deranged is the story of Ezra Cobb (Roberts Blossom, better known as Old Man Marley from Home Alone), a socially awkward man who lives with and cares for his elderly, sick mother. When she dies, Ezra is crushed, and, not being able to live without her psychological hold on him, he digs her body up and keeps it at home. Of course, her corpse starts to decompose, and Ezra comes up with a genius idea to dig up fresher corpses, skin them and attach the skin to Ma Cobb to keep her looking young. Grave robbing eventually leads to more heinous crimes, and Ezra finds himself filled with the urge to kill young women in order to gain newer flesh for his mom.
For as sick and demented as it sounds, Deranged is a surprisingly campy film. Written by Alan Ormsby (Cat People, My Bodyguard) and directed by Ormsby and Jeff Gillen (who would go on to play Santa Claus in the “you’ll shoot your eye out” A Christmas Story), the film is full of dark humor and silliness, but the underlying terror of the film is always present.
Comparisons to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are inevitable, not only in the Gein influence, but in the execution itself. Both films are “based on true events,” and have a documentary feel to them; The Texas Chain Saw Massacre achieves the effect through amateur camera work and production values while Deranged features a news reporter who pops up from time to time to help drive the narrative along, dispensing bits and pieces of exposition from the “true-life case.” While the authenticity helps make The Texas Chain Saw Massacre more frightening, the reporter all but ruins the first two-thirds of Deranged, severely damaging the chances of the film being taken seriously as a horror movie. There is one scene in Deranged that is eerily similar to a scene in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; Ezra kidnaps a girl and ties her to a chair in a dining room full of corpses that he has liberated from their graves. Although the scene plays very much like the dinner scene in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, both films were made in 1974, so it’s improbable that one stole from the other – more likely, it’s a case of simultaneous inspiration. In both films, the scene serves as a turning point; in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it marks the point where the film gets surreal and comedic, while in Deranged, it signals the end of the laughs and the start of the horror.
The similarity to other Gein-inspired movie killers is apparent in Ezra’s mummification of his mother (Norman Bates), his grave robbing (Leatherface) and his skinning of victims (Buffalo Bill). The difference is in the film’s treatment of Ezra; Deranged provides a fairly sympathetic view of its anti-hero, reminiscent of the point of view shown in the more disturbing Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Unlike Henry, Ezra is portrayed as a boy trapped in a man’s body, seemingly at the mercy of the more intelligent people surrounding him. In one scene, Ezra is having a séance with a woman named Mrs. Selby (Marion Waldman from Black Christmas and Phobia), him wanting to communicate with his mother and her wanting to communicate with her dead husband. Mrs. Selby seduces Ezra, claiming that her husband is giving his blessing. She treats Ezra like a child, until the inevitable conclusion of the scene where Ezra kills her. Up until the breaking point, Mrs. Selby is in complete control of Ezra, and her treatment of him is not unique; all of the other characters in the film seem to look down on or even feel sorry for Ezra.
Deranged is historically significant in the horror genre in one more way; it marks the debut of the legendary special effects makeup artist Tom Savini (George Romero’s right hand man). Although the effects in Deranged are not some of his best work, the blood is the typical redder-than-red that Savini is known for, and his contribution to the film is noticeably subtle instead of in-your-face splatter. Perhaps the best gore effects scene was cut from the American release – a scene where Ezra is popping the eyes out of a freshly dig up corpse and slicing through the skull to scoop out the brains before he cuts off the face – in order to get the film it’s R rating. With its limited body count (the real Gein only killed two people; Ezra outdoes him, but not by much), there’s not much chance for Savini to get his hands dirty, but the future effects rock star’s potential is evident, and the film does have its sickening moments.
Although not as iconic as the other films that have exploited the Ed Gein case, Deranged is still well worth the watch. It won’t provide nightmares for the rest of the night, but it will supply eighty two minutes of bloody good entertainment.
**Watch Deranged now via instant streaming on Netflix.**