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July 14, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #80 - Deranged

One of the great bits of trivia in the history of horror cinema states that both Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre were based on the same real life killer - a Wisconsin man by the name of Ed Gein.  If you're just hearing that for the first time, I'm sure you're as perplexed as I was the first time I did.  After all, Norman Bates and Leatherface couldn't be more different. Right? 
If you have any information on the connection between these movies, please call Unsolved Mysteries at 1 (800) 876-5353.
The truth about the real world Gein definitely falls somewhere between the two films, with the main connections being his love of taxidermy and the effect losing his mother had on him (Psycho) and his decision to keep trophies that he took from graves and victims, including masks made of human skin (TCM).  Oh, and did I mention that Ed Gein also wanted a sex change and was making himself a "female suit" out of skin? Yep, he was the inspiration for The Silence of the Lambs' "Buffalo Bill" too.
If you've ever wanted proof that both Psycho and TCM are based on the same character, Deranged exists as the thematic bridge between the two horror classics.  Produced by rock music promoter Tom Karr (who used his earnings from concerts to fund the film) and released by the legendary American International Pictures, Deranged opens and closes with reminders that the things that occur in the film are based on true events.  And, despite many changes (including the character's name), the film manages to mimic much of Gein's infamous life.
The star of the film - playing the disturbed Midwestern killer Ezra Cobb - is Roberts Blossom, who sadly passed away at the age of 87 last Friday.  Blossom is most likely most known to the younger generation of film fans as the creepy old man from Home Alone, and is also known to horror fans as the man who sells a red car to a nerdy teenager in John Carpenter's Christine.  But Deranged - for better or worse - is certainly his most iconic performance.  The soft-spoken actor certainly doesn't look like someone who would be caught up in such brutal affairs, but he shows often that he's able to slip into the primal side as an aggressor.  It's the kind of role that most actors wouldn't take, but Blossom seems very natural in the dual-purpose role.  (What that says about the man, who I'd like to believe was as sweet as his Home Alone character, is something I'll leave to your interpretation.)
That's co-director Alan Ormsby, cameo-ing via photo. Ormsby would go on to write FMWL favorite Popcorn.
Co-directed by Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things alumni Jeff Gillen and Alan Ormsby (Speaking of Christmas movies: Gillen would go on to play the department store Santa in A Christmas Story!), Deranged is a raw little chiller that definitely plants its roots in reality.  A "journalist" narrates the film and occasionally shows up on screen to relay plot details and Ezra's inner turmoil, making us feel like the film is letting us in on some kind of dark and twisted secret.  The special effects team, which was led by a young Tom Savini, also do their part to make the rotting corpses and loose flesh that we see around Ezra's estate seem realistic, and there's a strange and fascinating charm to just how ugly the sets can become.   
There's something really haunting about just how unpolished this film is.  The Texas Chain Saw Massacre also benefited from its gritty nature but, unlike Hooper's take on Gein, the filmmakers never really push Deranged to move more quickly and to turn into a race for your life.  Ormsby and Gillen prefer to unravel the plot slowly by giving us only small doses of Ezra's violence, which are surrounded by the character being a helpless, tragic soul. It's hard to really dislike the guy, because we don't see him as someone who's plotting out vicious crimes for most of the film - he's just a deeply disturbed dude who goes a little mad (sometimes).
When the carnage does occur, Savini and crew bring their best stuff to the table.  The reveal of Ezra covered in a skin mask is certainly an unsettling sight, and his final victim's demise (which is taken almost directly from the real Gein case) shocked even me.  I'm not saying the brutality on screen matches up with today's CGI standards, but I will say that it complements the true crime feel of the film wonderfully.  We know what the film's end game is from the first time our narrator walks on screen, but even then there's no way our narrator could have prepared us for what we do see in the second half of the film.
Norman Bates, Buffalo Bill and Leatherface may have re-written history in the name of horror, but there's still something to be said for Ezra Cobb's place in history.  This is "true" horror at its grittiest, and the film has survived as a great drive-in horror film that is carried by a powerful lead performance.  These days, Deranged is available to watch instantly on Netflix (and is part of an awesome Midnite Movies Double Feature DVD with Motel Hell!), and I urge anyone who is a fan of '70s horror, true crime stories, and/or Home Alone to seek it out soon.  This is the unique kind of '70s horror film that is worth finding.


Unknown said...

I Just watched this last week and freaking loved it.

Will Errickson said...

RIP Roberts Blossom! This is a must-see flick for fans of vintage '70s horror.

JohnBem said...

Thanks for reminding me of this one. Time to unearth the VCR for a re-watch.