Sunday, June 16, 2013

Underrated Horror Movie Gems--"Deranged" (Also Ed Gein info)

     “Deranged” is a 1974 low budget movie based on real life killer Ed Gein.  Before I get into the movie, a short biography of Gein is probably in order.
     Ed Gein was born in 1906 to George and Augusta Gein.  Their family, which also included an older brother Henry, was extremely dysfunctional and unhappy.  George was a weak willed alcoholic, while Augusta was a fanatically religious, controlling, hateful woman.  Augusta had a dim view of humanity in general, and of women in particular.  When Ed was still a boy Augusta had saved enough money to buy an isolated farm in the tiny Wisconsin town of Plainfield.  Except for school, the boys were forbidden to leave the farm, and friendships and especially relationships with girls were expressly forbidden.  After George died in 1940 the boys became handymen to help pay the bills, and Ed excelled at babysitting, being rather childlike himself.  Older brother Henry began to stand up to Augusta a little, while Ed remained properly cowed by her.  In 1944, while fighting a fire that threatened to reach the house, Henry was found dead.  His body’s condition was somewhat suspicious, but the police didn’t suspect foul play.  Augusta succumbed to a series of strokes in late 1945, leaving Ed alone, without his only real friend and love.
     Ed’s reaction to his mother’s death was strange.  He boarded up the upstairs and the downstairs parlor and living room, and lived in the house’s kitchen and one small room off of it.  He continued to read the magazines and books he was fascinated with, which dealt with morbid subject matter like the Nazis, South Sea headhunters, and human anatomy.  Ed also continued to do odd jobs and babysitting around town, where he was regarded as weird but decent, and trustworthy.  A shrunken head shown to a local boy, and jokes about having human remains were laughed off as being examples of his odd sense of humor. 
     Starting in about 1947, Ed began to visit and rob from graves, and also bring back human body parts.  A series of missing persons cases in the Plainfield area in the late 1940’s and 1950’s baffled police.  Finally, in 1957, after the disappearance of hardware store owner Bernice Worden, police investigated the Gein home.  There they found the remains of Worden, 1954 disappearance victim Mary Hogan, and at least ten other women.  The remains had been tanned and preserved, and some were made into things—a skull cap bowl, human skin lampshades and an armchair, a belt made from nipples, and human skin masks and a suit.
     Gein was found to be not guilty due to insanity, and confined to a mental institution.  In 1968 he was declared mentally competent, and initially found guilty of Worden’s murder.  However, eventually he was found not guilty because he was judged insane when he committed the murder, so he was returned to the mental hospital.  While there he was considered an ideal patient—friendly, happy, and nonviolent.  He died from conditions related to cancer in 1984, aged 77.
     Ed became one of the most infamous killers of all time.  Partly due to the time period—he was caught before many of the more notorious killers from the 1970’s and beyond, like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, etc.  And part of it probably is due to the nature of his crimes, since he killed and did such disturbing things with human body parts.  He was one of the early examples of hybristophilia, meaning many women were sexually attracted to him after his exploits were known, and proposed marriage, etc.  He also fostered a cottage industry of “Geiners,” morbidly bad taste jokes.  (Examples—“Why won’t anyone play poker with Ed Gein?  He might come up with a good hand.”  And, “Why did they keep the heat on in Ed Gein’s house?  So the furniture wouldn’t get goose bumps.”)
     It’s odd that one of the more known killers isn’t even technically a “serial” killer, since he’s “only” been proven to have killed two people (Bernice Worden and Mary Hogan).  He was, of course, suspected in the disappearances of others (and of killing his brother), but no firm evidence for these could be found.  Finally, while he denied being a cannibal, he may have been, and even one by proxy—he was known to have delivered “venison” to neighbors, but later denied ever hunting deer.
     Many famous movies have been inspired, at least in part, by Ed’s story.  Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960), (based on Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name) keeps many of the details accurate, while changing “Ed” (Norman Bates) into a hotel owner, and eliminating most of the grave robbing/body part usage.  “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974), borrows the grave robbing/body part usage details while changing the solitary villain into a three generation cannibal family who prefers using chainsaws instead of Ed’s bullets.  “Silence of the Lambs” (1991), mixes details of several real life killer (Gary Heidnik, Ted Bundy) while including a Gein-like killer fascinated with “becoming” a woman by making a suit made from women’s preserved skin.
     Which leads, finally, to “Deranged.”  This movie’s story sticks much closer to the real events than those other films.  Ed Gein becomes “Ezra Cobb,” his mother Augusta becomes “Amanda,” and Plainfield is renamed “Woodside,” but most of the other details are pretty realistic.  The most notable changes are a couple of Ezra’s victims are pretty and young, instead of being the unattractive middle-aged or old women that Ed preferred, since they were better stand-ins for his mother.  (This was probably a financial decision, as the audience would surely be more interested in seeing hot, younger women in various states of undress.)  The movie is low budget, and this shows, but as in other movies of this type, this seems to help, as it seems more realistic and thus more unsettling than a slick, polished production would be.  The special effects, though obviously done on the cheap, were nevertheless well done and quite appropriately disgusting.
     (SPOILERS AHEAD)  “Deranged” has an effective disturbing feel to it throughout.  Early on, Ezra announces his intention to rob graves for body parts in front of his friend Harlan’s family.  They’re amused, and assume he’s just making one of his bizarre jokes, but the audience can guess he was being quite sincere.  The circumstances surrounding Ezra’s first murder are pathetically eerie, too.  The one woman his mother said wasn’t a “slut, money-stealing bitch,” “Filled with diseases like gonorrhea and syphilis” (evidently a point in her favor is that’s she fat) is Maureen Selby.  Alas, Maureen’s now a lonely widow, and when contacted by Ezra she sets her romantic sights on him.  She channels the voice of her deceased husband in a séance, and “he” implores Ezra to have sex with Maureen.  Ezra begins to comply, but, predictably, he remembers his mother’s position on sex, and instead he ends up shooting her.
     His murder of barmaid Mary Ransom is similarly darkly compelling.  He tricks her back to his home by flattening her tire, and then he ties her up and announces she’s to be his wife.  She sees the extent of his grave robbing activities—a violin strung with human gut, a human skin drum and human bone drumstick, masks and suits made from human skin, and the other guests at the dinner party are preserved corpses.  When she tries to escape he beats her to death with a human bone.
     And finally, there’s the death of poor Sally, girlfriend of his friend Harlan’s son Brad.  After he shoots her (knocking her out, and wounding her) at her workplace, he then drives her toward his home.  Along the way, she comes to, and jumps out of his truck, coincidently near where her boyfriend and his father are hunting deer.  By further irony, instead of the animals they were targeting, the snare the hunters set catches the fleeing Sally, and enables Ezra to kill her and get her home.  The hunters and the police arrive in time to view her gutted, hanging corpse.
     Obviously, “Deranged” is pretty grim stuff, so the filmmakers wisely injected a few light hearted moments.  For example, when he’s caught speeding with his mother’s decaying corpse in his vehicle, Ezra explains the odor to the cop by saying that he had a butchered hog in there, for which he later apologizes to his mother’s body.  Also, Ezra has doubts about Maureen’s mental stability, even says she’s “not all there upstairs.”  However, since he’s saying this in a conversation with his mother’s preserved corpse, it’s darkly humorous.  And finally, while Maureen is channeling her husband, Ezra addresses the voice as “Yes Sir,” then, “Yes Ma’am,” unsure of the etiquette of a woman talking in a (dead) man’s voice.
     One weird part of the movie’s structure itself is the outside narrator.  Most movies have the narrator either be a central character talking over the action, or if shown, in scenes before and after, or at least separated from the story.  “Deranged” narrator, “Tom Simms,” is actually in the scenes—at one point he’s actually sitting in the bedroom while Ezra is “fixing” his dead mother’s decayed face(!).  It’s jarringly surreal, and kind of detracts from the suspension of disbelief needed when watching a movie.
     (END SPOILERS)  Acting in low budget horror films is often mediocre at best, and crappy at worst.  But those in “Deranged” do a decent job.  Most of the supporting actors aren’t required to do much more than act oblivious and/or scream as they’re being brutalized, but they do this competently, I thought.  But Ezra’s portrayer (Roberts Blossom), is quite good.  He’s quite believable.  Oddly sympathetic, in that he’s rather childlike and innocent in some ways, but then terrifying when he’s single mindedly stalking his prey.
     Of the filmmakers, co-director Jeff Gillen’s career was mostly that of a supporting actor, as he appeared in “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things” (1972), “Deathdream” (1974), “Absence of Malice” (1981), and as Santa in “A Christmas Story” (1983), among others.  The other co-director, Alan Ormsby, was better known as a makeup effects artist and writer, doing, among others, “Shock Waves” (1977), “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things” (1972), and “Deathdream” (1974) for the former, and “My Bodyguard” (1980), “The Substitute” (1996), “Mulan” (1998, co-writer), as well as TV’s “Nash Bridges” for the latter.  Both were frequent collaborators with Bob Clark, known for his horror movies like “Deathdream,” “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things,” “Black Christmas” (1974), as well as the teen sex comedy series “Porky’s” (1982 and beyond), and family fare like “A Christmas Story.”
     Star Roberts Blossom was busy, acting in, among others, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), “Escape From Alcatraz” (1979), “Christine” (1983), and probably most notably as Old Man Marley in “Home Alone” (1990).  Leslie Carlson (Tom Simms) acted in movies like “Black Christmas” (1974), “Videodrome” (1983), “The Fly” (1986), and the X Files, among others.  Most of the other actors had brief, supporting actor-only careers.  Famous actor Harvey Keitel unsuccessfully auditioned for the Ezra Cobb role.
     Two further movies have since been made about Ed Gein, (and presumably are fairly accurate), “In the Light of the Moon” (2000) and “Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield” (2007).  I haven’t seen them, but have read mediocre to bad reviews of them.

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