“Pretty Sally Mae died a very unnatural death! … But the worst hasn’t happened to her yet! DERANGED … confessions of a necrophile”
Director: Jeff Gillen, Alan Ormsby
Cast: Roberts Blossom, Cosette Lee, Leslie Carlson
Synopsis: Based on the Ed Gein case, a deranged rural farmer becomes a grave robber and murderer after the death of his possessive mother whom he keeps her corpse, among others, as his companions in his decaying farmhouse
Although most horror movies feature as their source of evil some purely fictional figure (Dracula, Freddy, Jason, etc), for my money it’s those which turn to real people for their inspiration that are the most effective. The likes of Gacy, Gein, Bundy — biologically, at least, they were just like you and me; the only difference is that their wiring was just a little mixed up, and reflecting on that brings home just how close we live to potential killers in our everyday lives. Ed Gein was one of the earliest mad men to gain widespread notoriety, and Hollywood has been retelling his story ever since Anthony Perkins first pulled on a dress back in 1960. However, it was Jeff Gillen and Alan Ormsby’s cheap exploitation picture Deranged that first attempted to tell Gein’s story rather than use it as inspiration for some fictional piece of horror. They did a pretty good job too, considering the budget they had to work with (an estimated $200,000), and struck gold in their casting of Roberts Blossom (Christine) in the lead role.
Blossom plays Ezra Cobb (quite why writer Ormsby felt it necessary to change the name from Gein is unclear), a creepy middle-aged man who lives with his mother (Cosette Lee) on the farm they’ve worked together since the death of his father when Ezra was a boy. Ezra’s led a sheltered life, and is unnaturally close to his mother, so it hits him hard when she finally goes to meet her maker. In fact, Ezra’s panicked refusal to accept her death sees him vainly attempting to scoop pea green soup into the dead woman’s mouth only to see it dribble out to mix with the copious amount of blood that burst forth from her nose at the moment of death, and gives an early indication of Ezra’s confused notion of the difference between living and dead. A year after her passing on, Ezra is still so distraught that he’s taken to talking to himself in her voice, and one night he feels compelled to bring her home. But he didn’t allow for the inevitable decay that would have occurred in the months since her death, and has to resort to peeling the skin from the corpses of recently deceased women in order to fashion a new face for his dearly missed mother.
On paper, Deranged really should be something of a mess. The tone of the movie veers wildly from sly, morbid humour (‘Shh, don’t stay too long now!’ whispers Ezra to the skull of a victim as he places it on his mother’s bedpost for a visit) to extreme gore — at one point we see Ezra scooping out an eyeball from the socket of a purloined corpse before taking a hacksaw to its skull and removing its brains — while never really making anything menacing out of Ezra’s behaviour. He never comes across as anything other than simple and eccentric and just a little creepy. Despite all this — and the distracting appearance of an on-screen narrator — Deranged manages to stage some impressively powerful moments, not least of which is the sequence during which local waitress Mary (Micki Moore) awakens in her underwear to find herself the guest at a particularly gruesome dinner party staged by Ezra. Ezra’s gunning down of his second victim in a hardware store (despite his notoriety, Gein only ever killed two people, which means he doesn’t even qualify as a serial killer) is also quite chilling in its matter-of-factness.
The success of Deranged is mainly down to a clever script from Alan Ormsby, which is probably more successful when it hints at the horrors of Ezra’s mind — ‘that ain’t catgut,’ he casually informs Mary after plucking at the strings of a violin — rather than when it shows us his gruesome pastimes. The film’s other strength is Roberts Blossom, probably familiar to most viewers as the old man in Home Alone, or the crazy old dude with a car to sell in Christine, who delivers a note-perfect performance as Ezra. In a role that could so easily have strayed into the eye-rolling realms of parody, Blossom keeps things low-key and understated, and while he never earns our sympathy, neither does he revolt us completely. We sense there’s still a human being behind those wild eyes — just one whose wiring has become a little snarled…
(Reviewed 21st June 2014)