Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Wisconsin lunatic Ed Gein (1906-1984) remains horror cinema's gift that keeps on giving.  The Plainfield Ghoul's grotesque legacy can be traced through such pictures as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), William Girdler's Three on a Meathook (1973), Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1990), as well as those thrillers' various and sundry sequels and/or remakes.  Steve Railsback portrayed the killer in Chuck Parillo's 2002 Spanish-Portugese import In the Light of the Moon (quite sensibly retitled Ed Gein for U.S. and Australian audiences), but my favorite of all the movies inspired by the Mad Butcher is Alan Ormsby and Jeff Gillen's Deranged (1974), which stars character actor Roberts Blossom (resembling the unholy offspring of William Burroughs and John Cazale) in a superb performance as Gein surrogate Ezra Cobb.  The film follows Gein's story fairly closely--"Only the names and the locations have been changed," we are assured before the titles--and it abides, even at the distance of four decades, as both a viscerally frightening and a truly heartbreaking viewing experience.

Deranged is narrated onscreen by fictitious newspaper columnist Tom Sims (Les Carlson), who claims to have "covered firsthand" the weird tale of the "Butcher of Woodside."  Sims serves as the film's chorus, breaking the fourth wall from time to time in an occasionally awkward but oddly effective structural device, watching us as we watch him.  Cobb's life and crimes constitute, as Sims asserts in the best ballyhoo fashion, "a human horror story of ghastly proportions and profound reverberations.  But because it is human, perhaps we can learn something from it.  Something of ourselves, of our own fears and needs."  This, of course, is also in the best ballyhoo tradition, as we innocent viewers prepare to plunge ourselves into all that ghastliness purely in the interests of enlightenment and moral instruction.  Let us proceed.

Cobb lives--or, more precisely, exists--on a Midwestern farm with his fanatically fundamentalist Christian, paralyzed-from-the-waist-down mother Amanda (Cosette Lee), who teaches her son to despise and avoid the fair sex.  (I am reminded here of H.L. Mencken's amusing definition of a misogynist as "a man who hates women as much as women hate one another.")  Cobb's father died when the boy was ten; fifteen years later, Amanda suffered a stroke, and her dutiful son has looked after her for the last dozen years.  "To his neighbors," Sims intones, "he was a devoted son.  But that devotion masked a growing psychosis which came to the surface when his mother died."  Indeed, Amanda expires in the film's first few minutes, but before she goes gentle into that good night, she urges Cobb to contact her friend Maureen Selby (Marian Waldman) if he needs help.  "Maureen's the only woman I ever did trust," she explains.  "She's fat, that's why.  A big heffer.  But she's the only goodhearted woman I ever knew."

Amanda fervently maintains that the rest of the female population is nothing more than "a lot of filthy black-souled sluts with pus-filled sores."  Furthermore, she fears that "some money-stealing bitch is gonna come along and try to take advantage of" her precious Ezra, whom she worries, rather late in the game if you ask me, that she has perhaps "sheltered...too much."  She implores him to remember that "the wages of sin is gonorrhea, syphilis, and death," and that women will "steal your life and your soul....Most of 'em are filled with diseases that tick!"  The dying creature, clutching the Good Book, becomes positively ecstatic as she waxes apocalyptic: "God'll wash 'em away, like he did in the time of Noah.  'God looked upon the earth and behold! it was corrupt.  For all flesh had corrupted His way upon the Earth.  Then God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh has come before Me.'"  It's high time for another Great Flood, she reckons, regretting that she won't be around to witness Jehovah's cataclysmic wrath.

A year after Amanda's death, we find Ezra unable to move on, obsessively visiting her grave and even arranging an artificial version of "Mama"--consisting of a black dress, purse, shoes, and a black-and-white head shot of the woman--to lie as if sleeping on her bed.  (Every time I see this image, I'm reminded in the best Freudian fashion of the monochrome cardboard cutout of a topless Jane Asher that John Moulder-Brown moons over in Jerzy Skolimowski's Deep End [1970].)  Cobb faithfully cleans Amanda's room and keeps the home fires burning for her, imagining that his mother is "only away on a trip," even writing the dead woman letters.  He stops farming altogether and works as a handyman for his childhood friend, avid hunter Harlan Kootz (Robert Warner), all the while retreating into insanity.  Desperately lonely in their old frame house in the spider's web of winter, he tells his departed mother that "there's nothing but snow and snow and snow.  And the wind blows and blows and blows.  And it's so cold.  And I miss you with all my heart."

Suddenly, Amanda answers him in Cobb's voice as he closes his anguished eyes.  "If you miss me so much," she demands, "why don't you come and bring me home?  You should be ashamed of yourself, leaving me here."  The next thing you know, Cobb is humming "Rock of Ages" as he motors to the cemetery and digs Amanda up, hallucinating that she looks like her old self again.  Reality intrudes in the form of rotting flesh, but Cobb hugs Amanda to him regardless and promises her that he is indeed taking her home.  The local sheriff (Robert McHeady) stops him for speeding on the way back to the farm (Cobb stashes the corpse down in the floorboard and covers it with a blanket), but, leaning into the vehicle to smell the ghoul's breath, the lawman is repulsed by the strong smell, which Ez assures him is "just a hog I butchered, is all."  (He subsequently apologizes to Amanda for his irreverence.)

The sheriff lets him go, and Cobb sets about reconstructing his mother, boning up, as it were, on embalming and taxidermy.  At first he attempts to repair Amanda with fish skin, then he advances to wax and any substance suggesting human flesh, before Ez finally decides to employ the genuine article, courtesy of Miss Johnson (Arlene Gillen), a recently-deceased spinster whose newspaper obituary Kootz's wife Jenny (Marcia Diamond) innocently shows him.  Thus inspired, Cobb exhumes his and Kootz's old Sunday school teacher (whom they affectionately used to call "Miss Flannel Face"), placing her skull on Amanda's bedpost so that his mother will have a visitor.  Soon she will have plenty of company as Ez commences to dig up the countryside.

Jenny, however, worries that Cobb is always alone, so she and Kootz convince him to get out and meet a woman.  Ez is initially resistant ("I don't trust 'em"), but decides that he can in fact trust his mother's friend the widowed Maureen because she is, after all, fat.  (Kootz even suggests that Cobb can help her shed some pounds, nudge-nudge-wink-wink.)  The duded-up necromaniac visits Maureen at her apartment, and the sex-starved woman is immediately drawn to him.  Although she and Amanda were "once as close as two webbed fingers," Cobb's mother "always had a grudge going against somebody" and the ladies stopped speaking to each other.  When Maureen learns that Cobb talks to Amanda, she at first assumes that he is mocking her, because she speaks to her late husband Herbert (who perished in a car crash) all the time.  When she realizes that Ez is sincere, she suggests they conduct a seance the next time they meet, to which Cobb reluctantly assents.

Back at home, Cobb informs Amanda's corpse that, although he is attracted to Maureen (whose legs are "big and round, like big old drumsticks"), he worries that the widow isn't exactly "all there.  In upstairs."  Nevertheless, Ez joins Maureen for her ritual, bringing a pistol along for the date.  In a hilariously campy counterpoint to Cobb's own contrasexual channeling, the woman pretends to speak in Herbert's voice as she unbuttons her night gown and urges him to "feel how soft she is."  They retreat to the bedroom, but Ez flashes back to Amanda's wages-of-sin soliloquy, and--suitably chastened--he covers Maureen's face with a pillow and shoots her.

Cobb now begins to frequent Goldie's Tavern, fixating on flirtatious cocktail waitress Mary Ransom (Micki Moore), who, Sims reports, "was thirty-four years old, and if truth were told, a little over the hill."  Several nights later, after staking out the bar, Cobb slashes one of Mary's tires just before closing time, and offers the distressed woman a ride home.  He takes her to his house instead, leaving her to wait in his pickup while he supposedly searches for a spare tire inside.  When Cobb doesn't return, she enters the darkened house where Ez, disguised in a corpse's skin and hair, patiently waits with Amanda and her companions.

Cobb strips Mary to her underclothes so she won't escape, and ties her to a chair in the kitchen where the bodies are assembled around the dinner table.  He confides to his prisoner that his mother and her friends believe that she'll make him "a fine wife," whether she's a little over the hill or not.  Ez attempts to demonstrate his do-it-yourself artistry by plucking a tuneless, homemade guitar ("That ain't catgut"), and banging on a bellyskin drum with a leg bone.  Cobb tells Mary that he loves her, untying her so she can caress him.  When she attempts to escape, however, after smashing a bottle over his head, he bludgeons her to death.

Cobb next sets his sights--literally--on Sally (Pat Orr), the delicate girlfriend of Kootz's son and fellow hunter, Brad (Brian Smeagle).  The lass, who's uncomfortable with the very idea of hunting, works in a hardware store where Kootz and Brad pop in for supplies before terrorizing the local deer population. Cobb, who has also turned up at the shop on the pretext of buying antifreeze, loads a display rifle that Kootz has earlier admired ("You just snuggle up to that, Ez"), and shoots Sally when the pair depart, knocking her out.  She regains consciousness in the back of Cobb's truck and escapes, hysterically dashing through the snowy woods, but snags her ankle in a deer trap set earlier in the picture by none other than Kootz and Brad.  Cobb tracks and kills her.

Returning to the hardware store and discovering the bloody mess, Kootz and Brad (who, despite Harlan's protestations, immediately suspects Ez) contact the police.  The men arrive with the sheriff at Cobb's farm, where the fiend has strung up and gutted Sally's naked corpse in the barn--an act that causes the killer to once again flash back to Amanda's wages-of-sin warning.  He retreats to the house, emitting a horrible moaning laugh/laughing moan as the film frame freezes.  "Several nights later," Sims concludes, "a group of townspeople, lead by Harlan Kootz, under cover of night, burned the Cobb farm to the ground."

This is disturbing stuff, and it's appropriately set in a wasteland worthy of a Fisher King.  The soundtrack's perpetually wailing winds reinforce the barrenness of wintry Woodside, well-rendered as it is by Jack McGowan's deliberately washed-out cinematography, in which Ontario masquerades for tax purposes as the American Midwest.  The film's religious framework is relentlessly negative:  Carl Zittrer's score incorporates ironic organ renditions of "Rock of Ages" and "The Old Rugged Cross," while the spiteful zealotry of Amanda Cobb is so oppressive that it looms over the narrative like the wrathful God of the Old Testament Himself.  Cobb's first name, of course, comes from the Bible, and he functions here as an obscene Christ figure, resurrecting Lazarus over and over--most pointedly, one of his resurrectees is none other than his former Sunday school teacher.  His desire for wedlock with promiscuous Mary (who wears a cross necklace, which does her no earthly good) parodies the myth of Mary Magdalene.  The murder of Sally, meanwhile, is tantamount to the death of a Grail maiden and represents Deranged's single most devastating moment.

Sexuality is, obviously, a complete wasteland.  Domineering Amanda is physically and spiritually paralyzed from the waist down, as symbolically deformed as any character in a Tod Browning film; for all intents and purposes, her son is, too.  Amanda's end-of-all-flesh mania burlesques the true believer's hatred of matter for its imprisonment of the soul, while Cobb's robbing of womblike graves is the violation of (Mother) Earth.  Cobb's greatest love is for Amanda; he even croons "Girl of My Dreams" to her corpse as he transports it back to the farm.  Ez may well be physically drawn to Maureen's chubbiness, but he would also "hate to be stuck in all that fat and not be able to get out."  His protection is not a condom but a firearm; the fatal gunshot is a surrogate ejaculation in which feathers spurt like semen from Maureen's pillow.  Cobb's evisceration of Sally constitutes a surgical rape, while his wearing of the skins and hair of his female victims is an act of shamanic transvestism.  The psychosexual bleakness of the entire scenario is perfectly summarized by one of the tavern regulars, a bitter and impotent old man (Jack Mather) who tells Cobb that "Life's a pain and God's a sadist."

The friendship of Cobb and Kootz is the most interesting "normal" relationship in Deranged for both the parallels and the differences between the two men, who have known each other for twenty-five years.  The childlike Cobb cannot let go of Amanda's memory, while the more adult Kootz calls his wife "Mother."  Where Cobb kills women, Kootz exhibits a chauvinistic attitude towards them, referring to Mary as "that dang-fool barmaid" and being a bit condescending to the sensitive Sally (telling her, "Honey, if we didn't shoot 'em [i.e., deer], they'd starve to death.  Got to keep that balance, you know?").  He hunts four-legged beasts, while Cobb stalks the two-legged kind.  Kootz inadvertently gives his friend the idea for digging up fresh corpses, and sets with his son the trap that ensnares poor Sally.  He is also unswervingly loyal to Cobb until the climax of the picture.  When Ez tells him that Mary isn't really missing, that she's at the farm with Amanda and Miss Flannel Face, Kootz, believing his simpleminded friend to be making a tasteless joke, urges him to "cut out that kinda talk" or he might wind up in jail.  But he doesn't take him seriously, any more than the rest of the townspeople do.

Reporter Sims, repeatedly popping up in the first half of Deranged a la Rod Serling submitting something for our approval in an episode of The Twilight Zone, adds a documentary flavor to the film.  (At one point, Sims even enters the frame and talks to us while Cobb sits with Amanda's exhumed corpse, which must have stupefied the few grindhouse audiences who were fortunate enough to see the movie during its brief release.)  Actor Carlson's line readings are sometimes unintentionally comical--he tends to pause where he really shouldn't--but his Sims is as much a character in this picture as Cobb himself; in fact, I can scarcely imagine it without him, and by the picture's end I was lamenting his onscreen absence.

Deranged is impeccably edited, particularly in the sequence where Mary first enters the room of corpses;  the quick shock cuts as she realizes what she's actually seeing convey the mounting horror of her predicament, battering the viewer like blows to the solar plexus.  Filmmakers Ormsby and Gillen had previously collaborated on the Night of the Living Dead-inspired Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things (1972)--one of the most traumatic films of my childhood--as well as the superb Deathdream  (1973), which transposed W.W. Jacobs' classic tale "The Monkey's Paw" to Vietnam-era America.  Gillen was primarily an actor; Deranged was the only picture he directed.  Ormsby later wrote the screenplay for Paul Schraeder's 1982 Cat People remake, but will forever be remembered for creating Kenner's Hugo, Man of a Thousand Faces doll in the mid-Seventies.  (I received one for Christmas 1975.)  Bob Clark, who directed both Children and Deathdream, co-produced the film but was uncredited.  A young Tom Savini contributed to the picture's marvelous makeup effects.

Deranged was shorn of nearly two minutes by distributor American International, but the film was released on cassette in a complete, eighty-two minute Director's Cut by Moore Video in 1993.  The restored footage consists of a queasy sequence in which Cobb removes the top of Miss Johnson's skull and scoops out her brain and eyeballs, marking the first time that audiences could view Ormsby and Gillen's film the way it was intended to be seen.  The Moore tape, which was letterboxed at 1.55:1 and contained as a supplement Richard Sarno's lurid twenty-three minute documentary, Ed Gein: American Maniac (1981), is long out of print.  Alas, MGM utilized the eighty-one minute theatrical cut for its 2002 Midnite Movies double feature DVD, making me grateful that I have held on to my old cassette.  (The film is fittingly paired with Kevin Conner's Grand Guignol farce Motel Hell [1980].)  MGM's anamorphic rendition is matted at 1.85:1 and is of superior quality to Moore's worn-looking transfer.  The Director's Cut was also released in Germany in 2004 by Legend Home Entertainment and Universum Film, but I've not seen this version.  The Midnite Movies disc offers sixteen chapter stops, optional subtitles in English, French, and Spanish, and contains the film's hair-raising theatrical trailer, which you can enjoy below.  Happy Halloween!