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Monday, July 21, 2014

Deranged (1974) review



Roberts Blossom (Ezra Cobb), Cosette Lee (Amanda Cobb), Marion Waldman (Maureen Selby), Micki Moore (Mary Ransom), Leslie Carlson (Tom Simms)

Directed by Jeff Gillen and Alan Ormsby

The Short Version: This overly gruesome Canadian horror movie is one of the most faithful adaptations about Wisconsin cut-up, Ed Gein, and one of the best about the man that robbed graves, made household appliances out of bones and body parts, and wore women's skin in his spare time. That unique look only found in 1970s cinematic expressions is in abundance here aided to a great degree by that recognizably ghastly Alan Ormsby makeup. There's very little gore, but what's on hand is uniformly grisly, and the macabre atmosphere makes the whole thing about as pleasant as a stomach cramp. This is a recommendation, of course.

Cooped up with his sickly, domineering mother in an old farmhouse, Ezra Cobb is devastated when she passes away. Overcome with grief, he digs up her corpse a year after her burial so as to be closer to her. Ezra then retrieves other moldy corpses to keep his dead mother company. With his mind slipping further into madness, Ezra abandons digging up the dead and begins seeking out living victims.

Wisconsin murderer, alleged cannibal Ed Gein was the source for a small handful of horror films beginning with Hitchcock's PSYCHO in 1960. Gein had been arrested just three years earlier, so the gravity of the man's bizarre, unspeakable crimes was still fresh in the minds of people across the nation. It wasn't until the 1970s that a more graphic exploration of Gein's crimes could be displayed. William Girdler's THREE ON A MEATHOOK (1972) occasionally captured a foreboding rural atmosphere of horror, but it was Tobe Hooper's THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) that became the most famous example. Earlier that same year, DERANGED was released, and unlike those before it, Gillen and Ormsby's co-directorial effort was, at that time, the most faithful adaptation of Ed Gein on screen; and the man tapped to play the lead psycho echoed an incredibly nauseating, occasionally sympathetic portrayal of a man's collapse into madness -- brought on by both a domineering mother, and the death of that matriarchal figure.

To say Roberts Blossom is extraordinary as Gein-in-disguise, Ezra Cobb is an understatement. His mannerisms and body language breathe such life into his character, you can believe that Blossom IS Ezra Cobb. It's a multi-faceted performance that at times is pitiable, and others venomous. As the film progresses, sympathy for this man doting after his long-dead mothers corpse evaporates quickly; and especially once he turns to living victims and wearing their skin. Early on, Blossom engages in some mildly humorous bits of black comedy, but these too are cast to the wind once he claims his first casualty and the picture dives head first into Cobb's sick propensities. It's often been alleged Gein was a cannibal, but this has never been sufficiently proven; and the filmmakers never even tinker with the subject here.

There was something about 70s exploitation movies that felt disturbingly real. Regardless of how cheap the films looked, there was this grimy aura permeating every frame of gritty film stock; and DERANGED is among that class. Much time is spent inside the ghoulish Cobb farmhouse where this repulsive ambiance is exacerbated -- filthy, littered with newspapers and old men's magazines (STAG, anyone?), the mise en scene is completed with a handful of permanent "guests" in the form of Tom Savini's convincing, rotting corpses.

This was the third horror effort that Bob Clark (uncredited producer) and Alan Ormsby worked on, the others being DEATHDREAM and CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (both 1972). Ormsby's uniquely macabre methods as a makeup artist are applied here again, and the results are among his most unsettling work. His depictions of the dead, or dying stood out from the efforts of his colleagues delivering an undeniably sickly pallor when called for. Ormsby's signature 'dead' look was again on display in Ken Weiderhorn's underrated SHOCK WAVES (1976).

Ormsby also wrote the movie. His script is engaging, and populated with a healthy dose of humorous dialog; much of it blackly so. Some of the best exchanges include Ezra talking to his dead mother about his fascination of fat women while dipping fried chicken in a jar of peanut butter. Another occurs when Ezra first meets barmaid Mary. A friend of Ezra's is sitting nearby and crudely relates the sad realities of old age, and the slim to none chance of getting close to an alluring, finely kept female form. Another sequence earlier in the movie starts off funny, but ends catastrophically. Marian Waldman (the house mother in BLACK CHRISTMAS) is the plump, horny lady Ezra's mother mentions he go see in her last dying breath. Coaxing him into a faux seance as a cover for her sexual desires, things ultimately end badly for her.

DERANGED has one major negative against it, and that's an unnecessary onscreen narrator (Leslie Carlson, another BLACK CHRISTMAS alum) who threatens to derail the picture by pulling the viewer out of the moment. Since the movie begins with a "The motion picture you are about to see is absolutely true" title card, the addition of a narrator sends a mixed message that either we're watching a documentary styled re-enactment of Ed Gein's later years, or a faithful interpretation capitalizing on the gruesome events. Thankfully, this intrusiveness in front of the camera only occurs a portion of the time. There's also some voiceover narration that isn't quite the distraction that these rural Rod Serling bits are.

Along with this Canadian production, another similar film also based on Gein was released later in the year; that one being the immortal THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Hooper's far more frenzied film has clearly outlasted the Gillen/Ormsby effort, but there's little denying both pictures have their share of stomach-churning scenes and disturbing subject matter; not to mention striking similarities. One notable difference between the two productions is DERANGED is the "quieter" of the pair. The central focus is on Ezra Cobb and his descent into madness. In some ways, it's just as, if not more unsettling in this less noisy approach. TCM has an erratic, unnerving soundtrack of cacophonous sounds whereas the organ based score of DERANGED magnifies the morbid atmosphere. TCM is a sight and sound symphony of horror, and DERANGED feels like you're spending an hour and a half in a mortuary. 

Both films are classics in this reviewers opinion, but it's clear which of the two gets the most attention. In 2002, MGM released it paired with MOTEL HELL (1980) as part of their 'Midnite Movies' line, but that version was missing the eyeball scooping, head-cleaving, and brain removal sequence (see above). It's since been released in more respectable form from European companies. If you're a fan of Bob Clark's 70s horror movies, this one will complete his early exploitation opuses. Clark was but a producer here, but that same uncomfortable sense of the macabre evident in his prior directorial works is present. There have been other faithful films based on Gein, but this underrated 1974 tale of small town terror is one of the best.

This review is representative of the Arrow Blu-ray.


Aylmer said...

I love this one. Such great atmosphere as well as all the sleaze. Gonna have to pick up this arrow release.

Aylmer said...

Also forgot to mention that even though his presence in this is unnecessary, I really miss Leslie Carlson. One of my favourite Cronenberg character actors from Videodrome, Dead Zone and The Fly!

venoms5 said...

I watched it first time in years a few weeks ago and still found it compelling. The Arrow Blu/DVD release looks great, I only wish they'd of included the docs found on the German release.

Tommy Ross said...

"...makes the whole thing about as pleasant as a stomach cramp. This is a recommendation, of course." LOL!

Yeah I have this one as part of a 2-setter I think with Motel Hell, it's well...different!

venoms5 said...

I have that same double feature with MOTEL HELL, Tommy. After owning an old uncut VHS I was a bit disappointed MGM's version was missing footage, but it looked good, though!

Unknown said...

I love Deranged, it's a far better Gein film than any of the actual Gein "biopics" out there. I do completely agree about how pointless the on-screen narrator is, but at least he isn't cracking terrible puns like Faces of Death.

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