Deranged is the story of Ezra Cobb, a Midwestern handyman who lives with his domineering mother. When she dies, Ezra is at first uncomprehending but then obsessed with the idea of her being merely asleep and anxious to return home. He digs up her body a year later and, alarmed by the process of decay, begins to replace her skin with that taken from other, fresher corpses. Encouraged by his friends to find a girlfriend, he meets up with his mother’s friend Maureen Selby (Marian Waldman) but his attempts to consummate the relationship are confounded by his memories of his mother’s immortal words – “The wages of sin are syphilis, gonorrhoea and death”. Needless to say, that’s it for Maureen but she’s certainly not the last woman in Ezra’s life.
This is all based on the life of Ed Gein , a Wisconsin man who was, like Ezra, devoted to his mother and devastated when she died. In 1957, he confessed to the killing of two women and to nine counts of body snatching. Around the house were various body parts and trophies fashioned from them, including, most notoriously, a lampshade made out of human skin. His crimes were the inspiration for the character of Norman Bates in Psycho and Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre among others. He also suffered from gender confusion and gained sexual pleasure from body parts and dressing in the skin of women.. Deranged soft-pedals some of the more outlandish details and makes a few changes – such as the removal of the mother from her grave - but is otherwise a fairly accurate depiction of Gein and his acts. The American subtitle for the film, The Confessions of a Necrophile confuses the issue a bit however - strictly speaking, Gein wasn’t a necrophiliac although it depends on how you define the term
The film is a little rough around the edges but the inconsistency is fascinating in itself. One minute, you’re watching a badly staged conversation which shows little sign of inspiration and the next you’re looking at a carefully devised tracking shot., it has some marvellous moments of pure filmmaking. When Ezra’s dead mother first talks to him, it’s shot as part of a 360 degrees pan which reveals the sordid state in which the bereaved son is now living – not dissimilar from the one featured in the contemporary film Death Line. The camera angles are often very interesting and unexpected, particularly in the graveyard scene and the bizarre “party scene” where Ezra hides among his victims. Some of the best visual ideas are very simple like the lighting contrasts between Ezra’s increasingly dingy and dishevelled house and that of his friends. Throughout the film, Tom Savini’s make-up effects are very inventive although the special effects techniques are occasionally a bit rough and ready.
What isn’t rough at all, however, is the central performance by the great actor and poet, Roberts Blossom. Beginning in avant-garde theatre, he didn’t start appearing in films until he was in his forties and is perhaps best remembered by mainstream viewers for his appearances in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, relating his encounter with Bigfoot, and Home Alone where he managed to inject a note of genuine emotion into the general slush. But every actor has one role which they seemed born to play and in Blossom’s case it turned out to be Ezra Cobb. He seems to have realised that the tone of the film has to be carefully judged if it is to walk the borderline between horror and black comedy and he turns Ezra into a figure who is a combination of the comically grotesque, the tragic, and the misogynistic and unnervingly dangerous. When he starts becoming truly demented, you want to laugh and you do, but it’s not without a lurking discomfort. Sometimes though, he’s at his best when he’s just sitting and reacting to what’s going on around him, such as during the seance. The comic highlight of his performance is his courting of “fat and friendly” Maureen Selby where he cuts an unforgettable figure in a funeral suit topped off by a straw boater. Needless to say, he didn’t get anywhere near an Oscar nomination for Best Actor but I suggest that he more than deserved one, if the Oscar voters took this kind of film seriously enough to give it another look.
Unfortunately, this interesting and effective piece of exploitation filmmaking is severely damaged by the presence of an on-screen narrator, Tom Simms played by Leslie Carlson. Now, Leslie Carlson – or Les as he was later known – is a perfectly good actor in usual circumstances and he was iconic as Barry Convex in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. But the dialogue is so banal and delivered with such tedious gravitas that the presence of the narrator threatens to ruin the film. Thankfully, he doesn’t appear too much after the first half hour but the damage is already done. We’re meant to believe that Simms is narrating the events of thirty years previously – making the film something of a mock-documentary – but, for one thing, he’s clearly too young to have reported on events which happened during the late 1940s or early 50s.
Still, Deranged generally lives up to its title and stays in your head as a very disquieting film. Ezra Cobb is depicted as a complex and fascinating character who is a lot more than just another movie monster while the suffering he inflicted on his victims is vividly evoked. It’s a film which xists just on the verge of hysteria without quite falling over and it deserves a wider audience than it has previously received.
Deranged is another fine release from the increasingly reliable team at Arrow and this new presentation is now completely uncut. This means that you can now see the eye scooping scene followed by the brain scooping scene in all their gory glory.
The transfer, framed at 1.85:1, is a beauty and the improvement from the Region 1 MGM DVD is like night and day. It’s not just a question of clarity, although that is naturally superior, but the overall contrast which is vast advantage with the dingier interior scenes. Colours are very good – the film tends towards the brown and blue-grey but the occasional splashes of bright primary colour, particularly red, are welcome and vivid. Detail is exceptional throughout and if there has been any DNR applied, it’s been done with a very subtle hand. Occasional minor damage aside, the image is beautiful.
The same goes for the LPCM mono soundtrack. Nothing too spectacular, as you’d expect for a film made in limited surroundings on a very low budget, but it does the job very nicely. Dialogue is crisp and clear and the music, based partly on a spooky organ rendition of The Old Rugged Cross, occasionally dominates.
As usual, Arrow have provided a number of extras for this Blu-Ray and DVD combo release. Tom Savini appears twice, to good effect. First off, he’s present for an optional introduction which dwells on the film’s weirdness and secondly, he appears on a commentary track alongside Calum Waddell. Mr Waddell’s experiences on the commentary for The Car might have been enough to drive anyone else into hermitude but he does very well here, basically letting Savini talk his head off to very entertaining effect. We learn that Savini is going to direct a remake of the film along with his thoughts on the performance of Roberts Blossom and, most fascinatingly, his special effects techniques. He also discusses his other work. This is a model of a good commentary which informs you about both the film and the person commentating.
Three featurettes are present which go into the film in some detail – their brief running time belies the fact they are packed with information. The most interesting for fans of the film is the first one, The Wages of Sin which is an interview with the co-director Jeff Gillen accompanied by some excellent 16mm footage from the set. There is also a piece with actor Laurence R. Harvey – well known to followers of more esoteric cinema as the star of The Human Centipede 2 - about Ed Gein , a subject about which he has considerable knowledge. Finally, A Blossoming Brilliance features Scott Spiegel enthusing about the film – occasionally a little annoyingly - and discussing some of the other films that Roberts Blossom appeared in, along with Ed Gein’s cinematic legacy.
Finally, we get a stills gallery, the original trailer and a version of the trailer with a commentary by Adam Rifkin.