By Brandon Engel.
The film Deranged came out in 1974, the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Both films were inspired by the Wisconsin murderer and body snatcher, Ed Gein, and both films were pivotal in terms of establishing the so-called hixploitation subgenre, which toys with stereotypical portrayals of rural whites or hillbillies in low-budget horror films. And while Deranged has largely fallen off the radar in comparison to the immensely successful Chainsaw, it bears revisiting now, as Deranged offered a more direct telling of the Gein case than any film that had been released prior.
Countless horror films, including Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs, were also inspired by Gein. The real life Gein lived on a farm just outside of the very small town of Plainfield, Wisconsin. He grew up under the influence of his fervently religious mother who taught her sons that the rest of the world was innately evil and that all women besides her were naturally prostitutes and instruments of the devil. She deliberately isolated them from the rest of the townsfolk. Their father died of alcoholism and the other son died suspiciously during a fire on the property (some theorize that Gein murdered his own brother, although this has never been substantiated).
His mother died from a series of strokes, leaving Gein alone. He boarded up the parts of the house she had used and lived in just the remaining parts. In the 1950s, he was suspected of the murder of a local store owner, and police found her body gutted like a deer in his shed. Police also discovered the head of another woman who had gone missing years before. Beyond the two murders and his suspected killing of his brother, Gein had been digging up bodies from the local graveyard and turned fragments of bodies into various gruesome objects and appliances littered throughout his ramshackle chamber of horrors. Gein was working on creating himself a “woman suit,” so he could pretend to be his mother.
Ed Gein was eventually found to be legally insane and spent the rest of his life in a mental institution, but the facts of his case have continued to provide the inspiration for a whole genre of horror films featuring a crazy farmer living in isolation who turns out to be a serial killer.
While The Texas Chainsaw Massacre only took some details from the Ed Gein story and integrated them into completely fictional narrative, the film Deranged sticks pretty closely to the original tale. The film does change the characters’ names, but only very slightly. Ed Gein becomes Ezra Cobb, who everyone calls “Ez.” The character named Mary only has her last name changed. The film stick so closely to the actual events that anyone with any knowledge about the Ed Gein story already knows what will happen and the suspense is largely lost. Modern viewers will recognize the actor playing Ezra Cobb as Roberts Blossom, who also played the seemingly creepy Old Man Marley from the movie Home Alone.
The film isn’t without its shortcomings, though. There are many moments where it’s sort of ambiguous whether the film is actually trying to be funny. One particularly peculiar device used in Deranged is the narrator. The movie isn’t a mockumentary and doesn’t pretend to be, but a man acting like a reporter breaks into the film every now and then to comment on the story and Erza’s actions while sitting next to him. This somewhat oddly humorous narration has the effect of distancing the audience from what’s happening in the film, which was perhaps the point —calling attention to the artifice of the film itself to reduce tension.
And even though the film doesn’t quite get the same level of recognition that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre does, it is getting a little more recognition now thanks to DVD reissues and online streaming. Viewers of the film should pay attention to the special effects, because it is one of the first films worked on by the famous special effects and makeup artist Tom Savini. One of his gags in the movie features Ezra feeding his mother soup until she begins coughing up blood and he tries to spoon it back into her mouth. He said later that the bodies in the film were made with plastic skull kits glued onto bodies made of chicken wire and painted cotton.
Where to find out more and purchase Deranged: