Those rural rednecks are at it again! They just can’t keep out of trouble, can they?
Released at almost the same time as Tobe Hooper’s more outrageous and infamous Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Jeff Gillen, Alan Ormsby and Bob Clark’s Deranged is another in the fertile pantheon of Ed Gein inspired rural shockers, and definitely one of the most faithful to the true story of mother-fixation, necrophilia, DIY skin-fashioning and seedy murder.
Starring the superb Roberts Blossom as the Gein stand-in, Ezra Cobb, and featuring early special makeup effects from Tom Savini, the classic tale of redneck grit ‘n’ gristle now comes to UK Blu in its full uncut form, courtesy of cult label Arrow Video. Yep, that means the gloopy brain-scooping scene is back in, folks!
When his staunchly demonstrative, woman-hating mother (Cosette Lee) dies, aging only child Ezra cannot accept that she’s gone and left him. So he digs her up and brings her back home, to be lovingly preserved by his own hand. Soon, he realizes that she might need some company, so other bodies are hauled out of their graves and used to populate the living room. (Living room – ironic, that.) But, as his mania increases, he finds some other, even more unpleasant urges starting to compel his actions, driving him to further depths of depredation. He begins to dress up in the skins of the dead, don wigs and female attire, his underlying psychosis coming to the surface. Worst of all, he begins to add to the guest list with some bodies that weren’t exactly all that dead to begin with. And all the while, he carries on with his outwardly eccentric attitude, which friends and neighbours all seem to accept, even discussing some of his antics with them who, thinking him to be just a harmless old crank, disbelieve his rambling.
But, as with most serial killers, he finally goes a step too far and attempts something a little bit more outrageous, thus potentially leading to his murderous and necrophiliac ways being discovered.
The parallels to the Gein saga are close enough to have the film offer up a disclaimer at the start stating that the story is based on true events and that only the names and locations have been changed. Well, for once, this is pretty much on the money. Obviously, this account still fictionalizes certain elements and characters, but it still follows Gein’s activities and the appalling conclusion that they have with a clinical eye for detail.
“The wages of sin is gonorrhea, syphilis and death!”
So sayeth the mad old crone!
Well, be the wrath ‘n’ thunder Old Testament rhetoric spouted by the truest demon of all – Ezra’s bitter old dame of a mother - as it may, his tale is told in a measured and unshowy way, the film concisely detailing a mind crumbling into deeper insanity with uncanny perception. The screenplay from Ormsby does not seek to demonise Cobb as Tobe Hooper would do with the cannibal family in Texas, but rather to act as an observer on the sidelines coldly assessing his descent into ever-deadlier passions. In fact, it has much more in relation to the Norman Bates strand of Gein’s legacy – the whole thing revolves around the mother/son relationship and her domineering attitude even from beyond the grave. The set-pieces are exciting, when they come … but this is a slower, more mannered exercise in grueling horror, its exploration of madness far more fly-on-the-wall, which means that the excessive mania and the killings are more shocking when they finally occur. This is not a slaughter-fest in the way that Texas Chainsaw is.
It also takes place over a much longer period, giving the tale a more leisurely pace. An acknowledged misstep, though, is the device in which the story is given a visible on-screen narrative by Leslie Carlson (who went on to portray the mutating Barry Convex in Cronenberg’s Videodrome), playing aggravating and sombre reporter Tom Sims, who talks us through the various stages of Cobb’s mayhem and depravities in a terrible riff on how Rod Serling dealt-out his moralistic précis for each Twilight Zone episode. The camera can move from Blossom to reveal this guy standing there in the background, or in the hall, or at another table in a diner, and the film will then descend into a monotonous strand-connector to emphasise the escalating psychosis. This would have seemed quite audacious at the time, and I am sure that some people even quite like this intrusion which intentionally breaks the fourth wall and addresses us, the audience.
Personally, I think this takes you out of the movie a little too emphatically, and all too often. Although this could have been a crippling, film-destroying move, Deranged is lucky to be good enough in terms of the performances and the sheer bravura of its more horrendous moments to actually skirt around these troublesome vignettes. On a side-note, I absolutely love the celebrated/derided “Werewolf Break” in the ace Amicus lycanthropic detective yarn, The Beast Must Die, in which we, the audience, are invited to guess the identity of the shape-shifter. So I guess such gimmicks are all a matter of personal preference.
Clark and Ormsby had made another low budget independent horror movie, the more-than-decent, but naffly titled Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things in 1973 (which featured Jeff Gillen in a acting role) and they still had the excellent and simply terrifying Margot Kidder yuletide suspenser Black Christmas waiting in the wings. But the late Clark would not find such gruesome productions entirely career conducive, so he actually had his name removed from Deranged after he saw it complete for the first time, and was shocked at how visceral and mean-spirited it had turned out. Something that, in retrospect, he would acknowledge was a knee-jerk reaction to a tone he hadn’t fully expected. He would go on to admit that it is a good movie in its own right. Together with Ormsby, he would go on to make the classic raunchy high school capers of the Porky’s trilogy, which is less of a 180-degree pivot than you might think. Low budget horror and low budget comedy share a lot of creative similarity, other than the lack of the funds to get them off the ground. To nail both genres, however, is a very difficult thing. This estimable pairing proved adept at making audiences both wince and giggle. Incidentally, Porky’s II: The Next Day features a fine “living dead” skit that actually reminds very much of the stuff they did in both Deranged and especially Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things.
Although not as outrageous and balls-to-the-wall terrifying as Hooper’s much more fictional take on the story, Deranged is a grim delight that pulls few punches and doesn’t play strictly by the rules. Blossom is brilliant, and totally convincing as the socially ramshackle loner who just can’t live without his mum. We are probably more inured, by now, to the theme of grave-robbing desperadoes who then populate their homes with such wormy souvenirs – it’s been seen a thousand times now – and the notion of skin-peeling, bodily desecration and wearing another’s flesh has also been done, well, to death. Even The Silence of the Lambs fed off this ghastly practice, albeit for different reasons. But Deranged makes all of this seem so terrible, yet so commonplace and mundane at the same time that it truly makes a mark. It’s cold and miserable Canadian locations made the saga seem all the more isolated and somehow removed from reality.
“You know what God done then, don’t’cha, boy? He burned ‘em in Hell!”
Harvey Keitel apparently auditioned for the role of Cobb, and that would certainly have been something worth seeing, given how deranged Keitel’s performances can be. But Roberts Blossom owns the part here, with a creepy, sympathetic dignity and lots of odd ticks and expressions, and a surprisingly willingness to embrace the most outlandish of scenarios. Blossom would also be seen as the tragically aggrieved finger-severing artist in Eastwood’s great prison-drama, Escape from Alcatraz, another true story. He brings a queer and queasy likeability to Ezra that does, inevitably, make you pity him. I doubt you would ever accept an invitation round to tea at the Cobb house, but Blossom provides a rustic charm to go along with his undoubted eccentricity and oddball demeanor. Yet he also becomes quite terrifying when he has the upper hand. Hardly a threat, you would have thought, unless he has a revolver or a hunting rifle to your head, or is pursuing you in his dead-gal getup, he nevertheless shows the sort of single-minded obsessiveness that makes the blood chill, especially when it all seems to come so casually to him. His victims aren’t just a slew of teens who stumble onto his patch either. This trail of carnage is far more cold and instinctual. He is opportunistic, but we still see the wheels and cogs turning in his mind as he gains more confidence, as he sizes up his next victim, his own impulses growing stronger.
It is surprising how similar one key-sequence is to Hooper’s infamous dining-room set-piece in Texas. A poor girl who has foolishly strayed into the madhouse gets given a prime place at the table, joining a gathering of the dead, whilst our Ezra plays host. The girl who has made the mistake of falling for Ezra’s unlikely charms, played by Micki Moore, is delectable, especially when stripped down to her underwear … so at least the nutter has good taste, even if his despicable groping of her goes totally against his mother’s best advice. But, as with Marilyn Burns, who was almost on the menu for Leatherface and co., the situation becomes skin-crawling, and made all the worse by Ezra’s almost mundane and convivial approach to what is a quite frightful dilemma for the unfortunate waylaid waitress. However, it is pretty wild to see her spirited slow-motion hurling of dead bodies at her persecutor as a last ditch, but futile defence tactic.
Although he had supplied make-up for Clark and Ormsby’s 1972 Vietnam zombie-flick Deathdream, the effects, as you would expect from Savini’s fledgling days in the game – this was his first actual feature film as makeup boss after years of toiling in local theatre – are threadbare, simple and hardly showboating. This said, he does accomplish some unsavoury cranial excavation as Ezra saws into a dead noggin and then, in quite a long scene that doesn’t cut away in this uncensored edition, scoops inside to remove the rotted, putrescent brain. Savini says that the lamb’s head-cheese sunk to the bottom of the skull cavity by accident, but it does look more convincingly decomposed and gelatinized as a consequence. Another sequence, very early on, shows Ezra’s mother convulsing with a bloody fit. Splashy gore shoots out of her nose as her beleaguered, long-suffering son is attempting to shovel pea-soup into her mouth. Savini and Calum Waddell in their excellent accompanying commentary claim not to spot the little bit of tape that is securing the blood-tube that has been stuck onto the off-camera side of the actress’ nose … but I did. In this restored hi-def print, I’m certain that you will too.
The final episode is both the most conventional – a victim stalked in the woods – and the most controversial – a young girl strung up, nude, and upside-down and gutted like a deer. The BBFC goat is severely kicked with the image of pouring blood on naked breasts, but the trouble mainly stems from how young the victim is supposed to be. Without a doubt it is a troubling scene, and one that certainly takes the film to another level.
Although Deranged clearly has a lot more in common with Hooper’s buzzsaw classic and even the likes of Three on a Meathook, I find it has a similar tone and punchy, matter-of-fact style to that of The Black Panther, a low-rent British 1977 thriller from Ian Merrick that told the true story of Donald Nielsen, who raided rural post offices and bungled taking a young heiress hostage for a ransom, leading to her death, during the early seventies. Interestingly, Steve Railsback delivered a bravura performance as the Wisconsin serial killer in the movie Ed Gein and, visually, his incarnation of the character had a lot more in common with Texas’ poster-boy, Leatherface, as depicted by the intimidating Gunnar Hansen.
As far as being influential goes, then look no further than Rob Zombie, who virtually copied and pasted some of the imagery of Ezra bedecked in stitched-up human skin and wearing a wig for The Devil’s Rejects and some of his hallucinatory tableaus are also reminiscent of the bizarre family dining room set-up that Deranged has. Rural horror has always been a huge and extremely fertile genre meadow for filmmakers to cultivate. From 2000 Maniacs to Deliverance, and from Just Before Dawn to Wrong Turn, America has fostered an genuine and pathological fear of those folks who live out in the boondocks. Ormsby, Clark and Gillen modeled their opus on a true story, but it tapped unequivocally into the deep-seated phobia of suburbanites all over the world. This guy, at least, picked on his own people and not the out-of-towners who would go on to become the most heavy-handed staple in such explorations of geographical and metaphorical dark territories.
Deranged is a great little independent horror film.
VerdictDeranged is a great little independent horror film. It takes chances and dares to present some early grue in an unsensational manner and refuses to paint its killer as an out-and-out monster. The intrusive semi-doc narration is a bugbear, however, and Savini wisely insists that he will ditch that device if and when he gets his mooted remake produced. For a long time, the film was relegated to Grindhouse and Drive-ins, usually hooked-up on a double-bill with something far more trashy. It was always considered to be a good movie, a boundary-pusher that tackled a taboo subject with a daring and unflinching eye. But it just couldn’t compete with the juggernaut of Texas Chainsaw, and was understandably, though unfairly, left dawdling in its wake. Now it a terrific time to re-evaluate it and experience its sheer grungy power, thanks to this fine release on UK Region B Blu.
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