The notorious Ed Gein has been the inspiration for some of the most famous horror films of all time, including Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. However, it is this made-in-Canada grindhouse effort that actually comes the closest to presenting an authentic portrayal of Gein’s life and the world that he lived in. Deranged starts off with one of those cheesy “The events you are about to witness are true. Names and locations have been changed to protect the innocent” title cards that every other horror film from the seventies seemed to have, but in this case, the statement is more or less accurate. The film doesn’t exactly get off to a rousing start by presenting a hokey narrator who speaks directly to the camera about the horrors of the case and keeps popping up in random scenes to provide an unnecessary running commentary. However, this proves to be the only major flaw of the film as Deranged quickly establishes itself as one hell of a horror movie which provides a very effective look into the mindset of a maniac. Unfortunately, the film was hampered by the fact that it happened to come out the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is probably why Deranged is not widely known and is only recognized as a horror classic by the most devout fans of the genre.
Like the title card stated, the names have been changed, so Ed Gein is known as Ezra Cobb here. The character is an eccentric “momma’s boy” at the beginning of the movie, but is a pretty harmless person until his mother dies. Ezra’s loneliness and isolation eventually compel him to him to dig up his mother’s corpse and mummify her and things spiral out of control from there. He soon decides to start to digging up more corpses in order to keep his mother company and it isn’t long before he turns to murder. Ezra is played by Roberts Blossom, who is best known for playing the scary neighbour with the snow shovel in Home Alone. Here, he delivers what is quite simply one of the greatest performances in horror film history, which I seriously believe would be worthy of an Oscar nomination if the Academy ever gave films like this the time of day. Unlike most horror films that were made before it, Deranged is not told from the perspective of a hero or heroine who just happens to come into contact with a psychopath. It’s told entirely from the point-of-view of Ezra Cobb and the movie essentially sinks or swims on the performance of the actor playing him. Thankfully, Blossom is more than up to the task and chooses to portray Ezra as a strangely likable childlike innocent who legitimately does not find anything weird about what he’s doing. Despite being based on horrifying true events, Deranged makes the surprising decision to play a lot of its material in the form of a black comedy and is quite funny a lot of the time. This moment involving drunken dirty old man never fails to make me crack up.
The film garners a lot of its humour from how clueless the other characters seem to be. They find Ezra to be an odd, but completely harmless individual, and could never envision him doing anything horrific. In one hilarious scene, he openly tells a family about his grave-robbing activities and they all just think he’s joking and laugh it off. The circumstances involving Ezra’s first victim are quite humourous as well, as Ezra joins a female friend of his mother for a seance. She pretends to be possessed by the spirit of her dead husband, who tells Ezra to have sex with his wife and make her into a woman! Blossom does such a great job at turning Ezra into a fun character to watch that the movie works remarkably well on its dark comic level. However, Deranged wouldn’t work as a horror movie if it played all of its material completely for laughs, so when the second half rolls around and Ezra starts to slip further into insanity, the film provides some genuinely frightening moments. Ezra may be so mentally ill that he doesn’t understand what he’s doing, but that doesn’t mean he’s not capable of doing terrible things. This sequence, where Ezra brings a waitress he likes back to his home and she finally learns how crazy this eccentric oddball really is, is truly chilling and provides as unsettling an atmosphere as you will ever find in a horror film.
There are a few memorable gore effects in the film, which are a nice showcase of great things to come for the legendary Tom Savini, working his first-ever make-up job in the business! Deranged had two directors at the helm, Jeff Gillen and Alan Ormsby, neither of whom ever directed a feature film again! Ormsby would go on to write several notable movies, including the Cat People remake, and the rest of Gillen’s career would mostly consist of small acting roles, one of which was playing the mall Santa in A Christmas Story! The presence of two directors may be the reason Deranged seems a bit uneven when trying to balance its horror and dark humour, but it still works brilliantly on both those levels. The film is one incredibly demented comedy, but its horror setpieces are as good as any that you will find in this genre. In 2002, a straight-to-video horror film called Ed Gein was released that starred Steve Railsback in the title role and claimed to be the definitive account of the notorious psycho’s life. However, the whole effort was rather mediocre and while Railsback was decent in the role, his performance was nowhere near as memorable as Roberts Blossom’s was. Even though the “names have been changed”, Deranged is still the definitive Ed Gein movie and one of the more underrated grindhouse classics of the seventies.