Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Film Appreciation - Not for the Squeamish


Cody Hamman digs up some Film Appreciation for 1974's Deranged.

It's not rare that, often by complete happenstance, two separate filmmaking groups will begin developing similar projects at the same time. Two horror movies that came out in 1974 are an example of such a situation. Everyone knows of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a movie which first saw release in the United States in October of 1974 after being filmed in the summer of 1973 on a budget of "less than $300,000". Not everyone is familiar with Deranged (subtitled "Confessions of a Necrophile" on publicity materials), a Canadian production that was shot on a budget in the range of $200,000 at around the same time as TCM and was first shown in the U.S. in February of 1974.

What do Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Deranged have in common? Both draw inspiration for the true story of Ed Gein, a graverobbing murderer from Wisconsin whose crimes shocked the world when they came to light after his arrest in November of 1957. While TCM only picked bits and pieces of the Gein facts to fill in details about its household of madmen (graveyard desecrations, furniture and decorations made of human body parts, the Leatherface character wearing masks of human flesh) and director/co-writer Tobe Hooper claims to have not been aware of where these ideas came from while he was making the movie, they were just things that stuck in his subconscious from reading about them fifteen years earlier, Deranged is much closer to being an accurate portrayal of Gein's story.

Co-directed by Alan Ormsby and Jeff Gillen from a screenplay by Ormsby, Deranged changes the names of the people and places involved in the true story, with the Ed Gein character being renamed Ezra Cobb. Fantastic character actor Roberts Blossom, probably best known for his later roles in John Carpenter's Christine, Doc Hollywood, and Home Alone, stars as Ezra, a rather simpleminded middle-aged farmer who has never left his childhood home. After his father passed away, Ez continued to work the farm with his domineering, "fire and brimstone" religious mother Amanda, who eventually suffered a debilitating stroke. For twelve years, Ezra cared for his stricken mother, the only woman he ever had in his life... He never sought out the company of any others because Amanda spent years filling his mind with the notion that outsider women were not to be trusted, they're all disease-ridden, money-hungry sluts with black souls.

The film begins with the death of Amanda Cobb, an event that sets her son off on a slow descent into madness. Unable to accept the loss of his beloved mother, Ezra Cobb continues on with life as if she's just gone away somewhere on a trip and will soon return, keeping everything in the house as it was on the day she died... More than a year after her death, his loneliness and grief causes Ezra's mind to crack completely and he begins talking to himself in the voice of his mother. A voice that demands he come out to the cemetery and dig up her body to bring her back home.

Mama isn't in good condition when she gets back to the old homestead, so Ezra has to find a way to keep her rotting corpse fixed up... and he discovers a method when he finds out about the obituary section of the newspaper. He seeks out fresh corpses to dig up and use to make repairs to his mother's body, replacing her flesh with theirs. Soon the Cobb house is populated with several corpses, which Ezra considers company for him and his mother, and pieces of corpses, which he begins fashioning into craft works. Not being a smart man, Ezra will often make comments about what he's been up to to acquaintances, who just take them as dark-humored jokes. To the outside world, Ezra Cobb is a nice, harmless guy, a trusted handyman.

The sort of humor his friends think Ezra has is a sense of humor the film itself has overall, as the filmmakers still manage to find ways to draw chuckles out of viewers amidst the grotesque horror on display. The most outright comedic sequence is one that has no basis in the reality of the Ed Gein case - an interlude with an older woman that ends with Ezra Cobb committing his first murder.

Played by Black Christmas '74's Marian Waldman, this woman is Maureen Selby, a former friend of Amanda Cobb and the one woman she told Ezra he could trust. What makes her trustworthy? "She's fat, a big heifer." When Ezra meets up with Maureen one evening, a comment that he still spends time talking to his mother is misinterpreted by Maureen to mean that he communes with her spirit. She talks to the spirit of her dead husband, too! A ridiculous séance ensues, which results in Maureen trying to get Ezra to jump her bones. Ezra can't have sex, that's not an activity for a good and pure soul like him, so he shoots Maureen instead.

Once the movie has established Ezra's homicidal capabilities, it moves on to showing versions of the two murders Ed Gein was confirmed to have committed. In the first of these segments, showing the ordeal a barmaid named Mary goes through with Ezra, Deranged comes its closest to Texas Chainsaw territory. After bar hours one night, Ezra slashes the tires on Mary's car, a way to get her to take a ride with him in his truck... a ride which turns into an abduction. Stripping Mary down to her underwear, Ezra sits her down at the table to have dinner with him and his collection of corpses. Meanwhile in Texas, Tobe Hooper and his Chainsaw crew were shooting a dinner scene of their own.

The fact that Mary plays her final moments in her underwear is evidence of the film's exploitation sensibilities. While Ed Gein's victims were women in their fifties, the cinematic version of Mary the barmaid is thirty-something, and Ezra's second victim is de-aged even further, made to be her in her late teens. Thus, when the film makes its attempt to show how one of the most infamously horrific crime scene photos of the Gein case came to be, Ormsby and Gillen have blood pouring down the nude body of fit young actress. This is a drive-in horror movie, not a documentary.

The narrator of the film warns viewers up front that the events have been "recreated in detail", a fact which brings about some really disgusting sights, especially if you have the uncut version, like the work Ezra does on the head of a corpse; scooping out its eyeballs with a spoon, sawing its skull open, removing the brain. These gory grossouts are the work of an up-and-coming special effects artist named Tom Savini, who had previously worked with Ormsby and Deranged's uncredited producer Bob Clark (director of Black Christmas '74) on 1972's Deathdream and would go on to become the biggest name in the business.

The head work is one of the showier effects in the movie, but for me the most unnerving bit of blood is in Amanda Cobb's death scene. While Ezra attempts to feed his mother some pea soup, Amanda starts coughing up blood... and Ezra is so freaked out that he tries to spoon it back into his mother's mouth, as if she'll be all better if she just swallows that blood back inside her where it belongs. It's such a messed up moment.

I don't often enjoy movies that are based on true crimes, I usually avoid serial killer biopics like the plague. But ever since I was a child, there has been something about the Ed Gein case that I have found fascinating. I first rented Deranged on VHS when I was in my late preteens, and on that video cassette the feature was followed by a short documentary on the facts. I loved the movie upon first viewing, instantly becoming a lifelong fan, and the following documentary captivated and disturbed.

The life and crimes of Ed Gein have been the base inspiration for a lot of pop culture icons; Leatherface and family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, Norman Bates in Psycho. There have also been movies based directly on the case, starring the likes of Steve Railsback or the strange casting choice of Kane Hodder. Of the films that purport to stick closer to telling the true story, it's my opinion that Deranged is by far the best of the bunch. Enjoy the Chainsaw Psycho twists on the tale, but when you want to watch something that shows more of the real Ed Gein, I highly recommend that you go with Deranged.

No comments:

Post a Comment