Written by Alan Ormsby
Directed by Jeff Gillen, Alan Ormsby
Starring Roberts Blossom, Cosette Lee, Leslie Carlson, Robert Warner, Marian Waldman, Pat Orr
Released March 6, 1974 (San Francisco)
RT 84 min.
Home Video Kino Lorber (Blu-ray) Note: playing this month on Comet TV
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)
Alan Ormsby began his career in feature films working on a trio of B-movies with Bob Clark, who’s probably best known for writing (with Jean Shepherd) and directing A Christmas Story (1983), although fans of classic horror may appreciate him most for his other holiday film, Black Christmas (1974). Ormsby co-wrote, created the makeup and starred in Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972); he wrote Deathdream aka Dead of Night (1974); and, in between those two, he wrote and co-directed Deranged (1974), with Jeff Gillen.
I provide this history because if you’ve seen either, or both, of his other movies, you’ll have a good idea of what Deranged is like. They’re all low budget; that goes without saying. However, they’re able to accomplish something special within their financial constraints. It isn’t through quality or style, but through execution. That is to say, the movies don’t look as if they’ve gone beyond their means; they definitely look cheap and dirty. But, they are creepily effective and surprisingly humorous, at least a notch or two above other early-70s horror fare.
Deranged is one of many movies “loosely based” on the crimes of Ed Gein, although I’ve read that it’s one of the most accurate cinematic depictions of the famous murderer and body snatcher from Plainfield, Wisconsin, also known as “The Butcher of Plainfield.” Roberts Blossom plays Ezra Cobb, a middle-aged, somewhat “simple,” rural farmer who begins a life of crime one year after the death of his domineering mother, by digging up her body and bringing it back home. That leads to other grave-robbings and, eventually, murder.
The movie uses the gimmick of an onscreen narrator, a fictional reporter named Tom Sims (Leslie Carlson), who supposedly covered this “human horror story of ghastly proportions.” He tells us that “events have been recreated in detail” so that “perhaps we can learn something from it.” I enjoyed the use of this storytelling device. Sometimes Tom steps into a scene, such as one in which Ezra is with Ma in her bedroom. By the time Tom walks down the hall and into the dining room, Ezra is now seated at the table. It’s a unique, creative and continuous shot.
Ormsby and his crew create a genuinely suspenseful series of events when Ezra chases one of his potential victims, Sally (Pat Orr), through the woods. It’s predictable, but set up with great precision. At the same time Sally’s boyfriend, Brad Koontz (Brian Smeagle) and his father, Harlon (Robert Warner) are going hunting and set a trap, Sally escapes from Ezra’s pickup and gets caught in it. She hides under some tree branches, but Ezra spots the chain and slowly pulls her out. This leads to the movie’s most sexually disturbing and graphic scenes.
Into the horrific elements is mixed some purposeful humor. When Ezra is transporting his mother’s body and is pulled over for speeding, he explains to the officer that he just butchered a hog; then, when the officer leaves, he says, “I apologize for calling you a hog, Mama.” After an encounter with Maureen Selby (Marian Waldman), Ezra says, “She’s fat, Mama, just like you said. I’d hate to get stuck in all that fat and not be able to get out.” OK, the humor in that is questionable; but, it’s not when he ironically proclaims, “I don’t think she’s all there… upstairs.”
Blossoms is excellent as Ezra. In a role that was supposedly denied both Harvey Keitel and Christopher Walken, he perfectly embodies a lonely man who’s not all there mentally, but effortlessly hides an evil behind his innocence. Nobody thinks twice when good ol’ Ezra feigns ignorance of obituaries, but acknowledges they’ll be helpful to him. When Maureen mentions the “carnal” aspect of their relationship, he asks, “Carnival?” From subtle to obvious, he later uses a femur to play a drum (before using it to bludgeon another victim.)
I’ve recently declared that there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure; if you like a movie, you like it, and you don’t have to feel guilty. I may contradict myself here, though, because I’m almost embarassed to say I like a movie as gritty, and sometimes as unsettling, as Deranged. What would you think of me, that I’m as mentally unstable as Ezra Cobb? On the 70s “dirt scale,” it rests not too far above Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive (1976). Deranged has, though, a certain charm and creative effort that Eaten Alive doesn’t. I appreciate it for what it is.