The Grindhouse cult classic “Deranged” is very much the disreputable twin brother of Tobe Hooper’s horror masterpiece “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, both films having gone into production simultaneously and emerging into a shell-shocked world in the same year -- 1974. Rarely sufficiently acknowledged in public, and even less frequently permitted to see the light of day in a fully uncut form, the film was nevertheless clearly cooked up from exactly the same raw ingredients as its better known sibling -- with both taking as their inspiration, just as Robert Bloch’s “Psycho” had before each of them, the crimes of Wisconsin based double murderer and grave robber Ed Gein. While Hooper fashioned some of the macabre details of that gruesome case into a compelling scenario that takes place against a broiling rural Southern Gothic backdrop, in a ‘Hansel & Gretel’ house full of outlandish nightmare characters like the film’s iconic Leatherface – and who ultimately all seem to belong to the world of the imagination, however real their provenance -- “Deranged” builds its demented, grimy atmosphere from closely following the disturbing facts of the Ed Gein case, while never shying away from embroidering them, for the sake of ghoulish entertainment, with ideas taken from Bloch’s pulp treatment of the material in both the novel and Hitchcock film versions of “Psycho”, which sometimes even allow for it to take a garishly inappropriate detour into the land of the absurd and the semi-comical along the way.
At the same time, its uncanny how often production, writing and directing team Alan Ormsby and Bob Clark hit upon the same images and formulations as those which occurred to the makers of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”: the sight of a wigged figure in a mask made of human skin, surrounded by ornaments and objects constructed from the rotting detritus and bones of exhumed bodies; or of a traditional, round-the-table dinner scene given a macabre, mockingly humorous spin; or even in just the simple image of a young, screaming girl being carried away in the back of a pick-up truck -- we’re reminded often in images such as these that each film owes its existence to the madness that lies behind the appalling acts of their true life inspiration. However, co-directors Ormsby and Jeff Gillen always end up taking these nods to reality that much farther into the waters of pure exploitation than was comfortable for ratings boards or audiences of the day back when the film first did the rounds in theatres. While Hooper’s film has, almost apologetically, built up a reputation for being scary but not as graphic as you think it was, “Deranged” is far more graphic than you ever imagined it could be as a film made in the middle-seventies and even provides the template for John McNaughton’s “Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer” with its dark mixture of faux documentary realism leavened with a mordant humour.
Orsmby had written and starred in Bob Clarke’s two previous low budget features, “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things” and “Deathdream”, both works already demonstrating a marked preoccupation with the subject of grave-mould and the business of exhuming putrid corpses -- and each containing vaguely necrophiliac associations in their depiction of the dead returning to life; now that Clarke was handing over the directing reins to Ormsby and Gillen for this project, these obsessions seem have been allowed to run riot, with Orsmby’s screenplay dwelling on the morbid details of Gein’s twisted obsessions to such deliriously excessive effect that Clarke ended up feeling compelled to remove his name from the credits of the movie, believing that an association with the work could only damage his career in the film industry (in fact, he went on to direct the all-time slasher classic “Black Christmas”). The film’s star, Roberts Blossom, refused to discuss his work on the movie for the remainder of his life, despite giving what many regard as a superlative performance in it. Blossom also went on to become a hugely respected character actor, following this early starring role with a succession of supporting artist appearances in profile raising films such as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Escape from Alcatraz” and “Home Alone”; but his talents are nowhere better displayed than in his utterly committed performance in “Deranged” as Ezra Cobb – Orsmby’s fictional counterpart to Ed Gein, whose fictitious life follows in broad outline the trajectory of the real-life killer, while simultaneously adorning itself of some horrific add-ons dreamt up purely for the benefit of the Grindhouse crowds.
“Deranged” belongs to that special category of classic, eccentric American indie horror that also provides a home to quirks of the genre such as “Herk Harvey’s “Carnival of Lost Souls”, Jack Hill’s “Spider Baby”, and Richard Blackburn’s “Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural”, among others. It thrives on the same air of disjointed, slightly wonky, low budget awkwardness tilting towards amateurishness, that endows these other films with their distinctive edge, adding a predilection for grand guignol imagery to its vaguely docudrama-ish evocation of the impoverished circumstances pertaining to Cobb’s pinched life, lived for 15 years alone with his aged infirm mother on a un-kept rundown farm in the middle of flat, rural, Midwestern backwater surroundings. The atmosphere of remote isolation that exudes from a cold and unforgiving and relentlessly bleak landscape -- often buried under snow for most of the winter months -- is palpable (the movie was mostly shot in snowy Ontario, Canada) and is worth more for the sense of place it lends the movie than any amount of money a bigger budgeted feature might have been able to throw at the same material. A numbingly repetitive organ score by Carl Zittrer also adds to the ambiance of low-rent delirium which sloshes through the movie’s leathery veins like stale embalming fluid. One of the film’s more contested quirks is the decision to structure it as though it were a True Crime documentary reconstruction of events, with prolific character actor Leslie Carlson (“Videodrome”) delivering monologues on the background to the case directly to camera, and claiming to be newspaper columnist Tom Sims: the hack who originally attended and reported on the crime scene after the third of Cobb’s three murder victims was discovered, strung up in a shed and gutted like a deer. Throughout the first two thirds of the movie (the device is dropped once we reach the morbidly bizarre final act in which the latter event concludes the drama) Sims often wanders into the middle of some of the most intense scenes -- such as when Cobb mourns at his deceased mother’s deathbed or, later, is pictured in the middle of nocturnally exhuming her now year-old body from its burial place -- to talk about the on-screen action and add more background detail to it.
It’s a technique that seems calculated to take the viewer out of the scene in question each time it occurs, and has been robustly criticised by many on that count. On the other hand it’s also one of the film’s many odd, distinguishing features, helping to make it stand out even more among its peers and adding to the faux documentary feel of the enactment, at the same time as removing us from the intensity of some of its more unpalatable material, thus allowing itself the space for some of the imagery it proffers to venture much farther into the realm of exploitation than we expect from the supposed reverential tone the bespectacled Sims brings to his ‘testimony’ on the case. The reporter first appears, floridly promising us ‘a human horror story of ghastly proportions and profound reverberations’, and justifies the feast of visual excess to come by appealing to the need for documentary verisimilitude to be observed (even though some of the gorier details portrayed in the film have been made up anyway!) while warning the squeamish to be prepared: it’s classic sensationalistic ballyhoo incorporated into the text of the film itself instead of its advertising, and excused by way of some amusingly spurious claims that the movie is providing a public good by the inclusion of such lurid material: ‘perhaps we can learn something from it,’ Sims solemnly intones at the end of his opening monologue, before the gruesomeness gets underway proper.
A general air of tawdriness and squalor prevails throughout the first half of the movie, which details the paltry contents of Cobb’s life of arrested development; a life that has been largely spent caring for his dying, stroke-suffering mom (Cosette Lee) while she sets about insidiously poisoning his mind against all womankind (‘filthy, black-souled sluts!’) from her sickbed, reminding him at every opportunity how the wages of Sin are ‘Gomorrah, Syphilis and Death!’ Art designer Albert Fisher and cinematographer Jack McGowan should be given their due here for establishing the depressing interiors of grimy, semi-dilapidated, flyblown clutter in which the retarded Cobb’s twisted education takes place: random piles of junk and yellowing magazines infest every damp & dusty corner, piled against peeling surfaces and unpainted, mould-stained walls; and, in Ma Cobb’s permanently semi-darkened bedroom, soot-besmirched flock wallpaper of the most garish pattern surrounds the antique brass bedstead on which the woman’s frail body is recumbent. Before finally expiring in a blood hemorrhaging fit whilst Cobb attempts, pathetically, to force fed her mouthfuls of his lumpy homemade pea soup, Mrs Cobb gazes upon her dishevelled, ill-groomed son, Ezra -- a stick tin, rat-faced, beady eyed little man, permanently encased in a plaid lumber jacket -- and predicts he’ll ‘have great attraction for the opposite sex,’ and must therefore be constantly on his guard after she’s gone against the deceptions of this untrustworthy race of devilish hell spawn.
There is a bleakly ironic comic intent behind much of the material here of course, deliberately contrasted with the deadpan commentary provided by Carlson’s ever-serious narrator. Ormsby’s dialogue is slyly primed to acknowledge and highlight the absurdist humour at the centre of the sheer awfulness of the lives being documented, and the results anticipate that delicious dark strain of comedy that also marks the worlds of “The League of Gentlemen” and “Psychoville”. Cobb’s subsequent descent into complete and utter lip-quivering madness is boldly and disturbingly essayed in Roberts Blossom’s uncompromising performance: with the death of his mother, Cobb takes a menial job as general handyman for his oblivious neighbour Harlon Kootz (Robert Warner), taking his meals with the Kootz family in the daytime and innocently playing with their son Brad (who ages from a ten-year-old to a young man over the course of the movie, thus indicating the passage of time). In fact he becomes like a second son to them, his remedial nature often requiring the most basic facts of life to be painstakingly explained to him. During all this time, none of them notices anything wrong as Ezra Cobb starts to have conversations with his dead mom, Norma Bates style, when he goes back to the old farm in the evenings, and ends up secretly digging her up and ‘bringing her home’ in the middle of the night. Soon half the local graveyard has also been disinterred (including his former schoolteacher Mrs Johnson) to join Mrs Cobb’s putrefying remains (Oh Mama … you’re in terrible shape!’) for the most grotesque dining club ever assembled. Ezra carries Mom back to her bed in the evenings and serves her meals on a tray decorated with a human skull; and after he diligently bones up on taxidermy and embalming methods, ‘human ornaments’ begin to add to the bric-a-brac decorating the Cobb household.
The imagery here is certainly macabre, gruesome and unwholesomely disturbing, and doesn’t pull back from showing us exactly what Ezra Cobb gets up to in his spare time: ‘He was a ghoul, a necromantic; a defiler of the dead!’ observes Carlson, and the man primarily responsible for making “Deranged” as notorious as it once was, goes on to illustrate Cobb’s past-times with a collection of memorable special makeup effects that continue to resonate despite being fashioned through vastly more primitive means than are available to him these days. That man was Tom Savini, here taking his first film credit as lead makeup effects artist (he’d previously worked as a makeup assistant on Bob Clark’s “Deathdream”). Although the assemblage of rotting cadavers and decaying corpses which come to surround Ezra when he’s at home were merely fashioned by Savini from toy skulls and chicken wire encased in latex, they’re unnaturally realistic and look completely convincing. Savini was already taking the time to reproduce in hideous detail the corporeal results that mark out the reality behind the processes at work in the pathology of death, and the strain of harsh truth his work injects into the film adds a layer of unsettling starkness to Ormsby’s often darkly humorous and sometimes even playful screenplay.
Savini’s effects work for the film reaches the pinnacle of its capacity for nastiness in the infamous ‘brain scooping’ scene – a sequence often cut from theatrical showings, but now fully restored for Arrow Video’s Blu-ray outing. In it, Cobb lovingly removes the eyeball from a severed head using a teaspoon (prompting a discharge of slimy green fluid from the socket), slices through the top of the skull with a hacksaw and then digs out the brain from its grungy casing. Coming in 1974, years before Lucio Fulci would habitually dwell on similarly gory imagery in his zombie horror films, this was unbelievably unpleasant stuff, all served up, without cutting away, in meticulously ghoulish detail. Such sights may be par for the course nowadays, but back then this level of bloody realism was unprecedented, outstripping anything sixties exploitation merchants such as Herschell Gordon Lewis had previously been capable of producing.
The second half of the film chronicles what happens when Cobb, newly encouraged by his neighbours’ exasperated efforts to get him out of their house, is prompted to start thinking about settling down with a nice lady, and finally enters the world beyond the confines of the local graveyard and the dank ossuary he’s now made out of his home: remembering his Mom’s insistence that the only woman he should turn to for help was a former friend of hers called Maureen Selby (Marion Waldman), Cobb pays the obese widow a visit in her lonely apartment and becomes pray to her dormant carnal desires in scenes that are played entirely for Carry On style comic effect. After Ezra guilelessly admits to regularly chatting with his dead mother when he’s at home, instead of responding by running a mile Maureen offers her services in a four-way séance during which each of them will get to commune with their departed loved ones. This turns out to be a ruse on her part, intended to fool Cobb into indulging her sexual urges after the supposed spirit of Maureen’s departed husband takes over her body during the séance in order to implore Ezra to service his living wife’s needs.
This comic vignette brings Ezra his first taste of living female flesh but, unfortunately, also tips him completely over the edge, for his mom’s words reverberate through his head during the act, facilitating Ezra’s first kill – a swift bullet to the head of the unsuspecting widow delivered through a feather pillow. From here, Blossom is by turns childlike and sinister as Ezra Cobb’s newly awakened sexuality competes with his ghoulish proclivities for dominance of his skinny frame. One of the clever things about the final demented twenty-five minutes of “Deranged” is the way in which Ormsby’s screenplay fashions the form Cobb’s murderous madness takes from elements of the everyday culture (boozing, leering at women in bars and hunting deer) of his surroundings. Blossom plays Ezra like a naïve innocent, venturing out into the world for the first time on a great adventure. When he first enters the seedy downmarket ‘Goldie’s Bar where he is to develop an obsession with the middle-aged barmaid who works and serves him beer there, Ezra is so removed from the experience of day-to-day living that he attempts to order a glass of milk. Mary Ransum (Micki Moore) educates him in the pleasures of alcohol but inadvertently sparks his interest sexually as well. Ormsby takes time out to give one of the other elderly patrons of the bar some juicy dialogue in which he mourns his inability, because of infirmity and impotence, to do to the unfortunate barmaid what he would most like to do to her: ‘Look at that ass. Look at those tits … both of them!’ he sadly whispers to an interested Cobb. ‘Those are tits with a capital T!’ The depersonalising ‘meat market’ talk about women informs Ezra’s own inability to relate to Mary as anything other than an object to be used for his own perverse gratification, and after he manages to concoct a sly plot to get her back to his house, Mary finds herself trapped in a nightmare similar to the one Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) ended up in during “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” -- except that for poor Mary there is no way out of it.
Possibly the movie’s most memorable sequence appears at this point, when Mary encounters Cobb lurking amid a collection of disinterred corpses in a back room of his house, dressed in a wig and the decomposing skin of a former victim, while manually winding a gramophone player (the way in which this is initially framed makes it look like his hand movements are intended to portray masturbation). The film essays another outlandish dinner table scene, but unlike Leatherface and the other occupants of the Sawyer household, the transvestite, skin-suited Cobb definitely has sex on his mind as well, stripping his victim down to her underwear and then feeling her up in front of the corpse of his mother and her cadaverous ‘friends’ (‘I think she likes you!’) who have been dressed up to the nines by Cobb and seated around the dining table especially for the occasion.
Although we sympathise with the sad plight of Cobb’s victims, unlike in Hooper’s classic film there is no escape forthcoming -- and the madman is able to go about his business without interruption or suspicion, despite openly boasting to Kootz at one point that he has the missing Ransum woman at home. So ineffectual and hopeless does Cobb appear to the world at large that no one takes any of his confessions remotely seriously. This has terrible consequences for the now grown-up Brad Kootz when Cobb next takes a lecherous shine to his pretty young girlfriend, a hardware store clerk called Sally Mae (Pat Orr), who ends up having to endure an even nastier experience at the hands of the demented Cobb, and is shot at with a hunting rifle and hunted through a snowy copse before being caught in a deer trap ironically set earlier by her own boyfriend and his dad! Ormsby and Gillen have no qualms about taking the film to the edge of Grindehouse exploitation when they reproduce the fate of Ed Gein’s final victim in the concluding moments of the film, with the poor young actress employed to play Sally (her only other IMB entry is for a 1970 episode of “Doomwatch”) being required to hang upside-down completely naked while Cobb slits her open like a deer.
The HD transfer used for this fabulous edition of the film released on Blu-ray from Arrow Video, is so clear that you can see the puckered goose-flesh on the raw skin of the naked final victim as she hangs from the rafters of Cobb’s outdoor barn. This is an exceptional looking treatment of a nearly forty-year old film, looking clear as a bell and with strong colours that always remain true to the original look of the film, reproducing the grainy qualities of the gritty, low budget aesthetic from the original movie, while the mono audio track remains clear throughout. There are optional English SDH subtitles for the hard-of-hearing included with the main feature – a welcome addition that now seems to be a regular part of all Arrow Video releases.
The accompanying audio commentary, moderated by the knowledgeable and enthusiastic Calum Waddell, is a treasure trove of anecdote if you’re a fan of Tom Savini’s career, although it only touches lightly on the work the great man provided for the film it accompanies. You can learn what Savini thinks about the “Friday the 13th” franchise and the recent “Maniac” remake, and he talks about the various projects he’s been involved with throughout his lengthy career at some length, often getting caught up in a labyrinth of entwining anecdotes relating to about six different subjects he’s trying to talk about at the same time! It also turns out that he may be directing a proposed remake of “Deranged” in the near future, although such a venture seems somewhat misguided since the specific circumstances and low budget charm of the original are the very qualities that make it worthwhile.
There are three short featurettes accompanying the film. High Rising Productions provide an entertaining appreciation of the movie by Scott Spiegel, who recounts his memories of working with Roberts Blossom on “The Quick and the Dead” and of giving him a VHS of “Deranged” because the actor had never seen it, only to have Blossom return the tape the next morning in disgust. The second featurette appears to be somewhat random at first, being an interview with “Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)” star Lawrence R. Harvey. But it turns out that Harvey has some extremely interesting observations to relay on the Ed Gein case, the cult of the serial killer in movies and how his own approach to his role in the Human Centipede film was inspired by Roberts Blossom’s work in “Deranged”. Finally Arrow have put together a short Making Of featurette by combining some 16mm behind-the-scenes footage of the original shoot with an interview given by co-director Jeff Gillen. A trailer, a short introduction to the film by Tom Savini and a Trailers from Hell commentary by filmmaker Adam Rifkin round off the disc extras but the package also features a reversible sleeve featuring original artwork and a new cover design by Nathanael Marsh plus a collector’s booklet with a new piece on the film by the inestimable Stephen Thrower (author of “Nightmare USA”); an article reprinted from Rue Morgue on the cinematic legacy of Ed Gein; and an archive interview with the late Bob Clark illustrated with archive stills and posters.
“Deranged” is one of the all-time great cult classics of horror cinema and deserves to be much more widely recognised than it previously has been. This excellent release just might play a big part in bringing this gruesome treasure to a much bigger audience. Highly recommended.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!