The Film: 4/5
Let us all now raise our glasses in a toast to Roberts Blossom, the wonderful gaunt character actor whose pale, bony face and piercing blue eyes made him perfect to play convincing creeps. Then when he opened his mouth and spoke in a rich, whiskey-soaked voice with the power and authority of a genteel Southern politician Blossom could be seen portraying men of great integrity. He always added a complexity to his characters even when there was none to be found on the scripted page. When Blossom died of natural causes on July 8, 2011 the world lost an amazing actor of the stage and screens both big and small. Among the roles he played on the big screen he was only ever given one true leading part, and it was little surprise to those who knew his work that Blossom was characteristically great.
The movie was Deranged, a long-neglected true crime horror feature that was inspired by the story of Wisconsin murderer, grave robber, and necrophile Ed Gein. Gein's horrific exploits in the 1950's gave rise to many nightmares and also helped lead to the creation of such classics of modern terror as Psycho (novel and film), The Silence of the Lambs (same), and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There were also several movies made about Gein, including one released in 2001 starring Steve Railsback. Though the better-known films incorporated various aspects of Gein's life and crimes into their own narratives Deranged is the only movie that feels like a real and honest depiction of one of the most notorious figures in the annals of American crime. Events in the film are similar to how they played out in reality, but the names were changed.
Ezra Cobb (Blossom) lives in an unnamed small town in the Midwest with his mother Amanda (Cosette Lee), who has been confined to her bed for twelve years as the movie begins. Despite Ezra's best efforts his mother dies but not before warning her son of the evils of women. Ezra refuses to believe she has died, even at her own funeral, and after a year passes the lonely and friendless man begins to speak in his mother's voice. He digs up her grave and brings her shriveled corpse back home to her old bed, as if nothing happened. Noticing that his mother is now more than a little worse for wear Ezra takes on the study of taxidermy as a hobby. Inspired by a friend telling him about obituaries he begins to dig up newly dead female corpses and remove parts of their bodies to restore his mother's complexion, among other things. Eventually his obsessions lead to stalking and murdering several women in the area including an overweight former friend of his mother's (Marion Waldman) and a sympathetic barmaid (Pat Orr). Ezra isn't very proficient at concealing his crimes, even openly admitting to having the missing women in his custody to friends who laugh him off. When he next sets his sights on the girlfriend of a family friend (Micki Moore) Ezra's carelessness leads to his downfall. The story is narrated by Tom Sims (Les Carlson), a local reporter who covered Cobb's arrest and trial and appears as an omnipresent figure in several scenes.
Making its debut on Blu-ray finally in its uncut form with the infamous "brain scooping" scene no longer a casualty of the censors, Deranged is 1970's horror at its rawest and most unnerving. It might not have the intensity and audience-pleasing staying power of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but what Deranged lacks in nerve-shredding insanity it makes up with colorful dark comedy and a implacable mood of stark rural terror, all of which is anchored in reality by Blossom’s forceful, grounded performance. Lesser actors would take the material and play it to the cheap seats without hesitation, but what Blossom does in bringing the character of Ezra Cobb to full-blooded life is nothing short of remarkable. You can see the madness behind Cobb’s eyes, but also the heartbreak and the feeling of helplessness when faced with his beloved mother’s mortality. Ezra’s actions are not those of a demented weirdo out to satisfy his diseased urges but that of a loving son who just wants to have his family back. But what makes Ezra a somewhat tragic figure is his inability to distinguish right from wrong, a character trait he was never taught nor did it come to him naturally. His entire life was centered around caring for his mother and it was her that became his heart, soul, and moral compass. He adapted her worldview and carried on with it long after she departed this mortal coil spewing bile and blood (one of several well-executed effects by the great Tom Savini in one of his first feature film make-up jobs). Poor Ezra never stood a chance without dear ol’ Mother dictating his every move. You could almost feel sorry for the guy if you could dismiss the actions he took once his mother died, but in the end Cobb deserves not a shred of our sympathy. It’s that dichotomy that makes Blossom’s performance a real winner. He’s even amusing in his scenes with the eccentric Maureen Selby; when she begs Ezra to participate in a sťance to contact her dead husband and the husband’s disembodied spirit makes an unusual request Blossom’s reactions are priceless.
Deranged was co-directed by the team of Jeff Gillen and Alan Ormsby from a screenplay by Ormsby. Gillen, who passed away in June 1995 at the age of 52, was known mostly as an actor (his greatest credit was probably playing the asshole Santa Claus in A Christmas Story) but by the time of his death he had tried his hand playing different roles behind the camera as well. His only credit as a director was Deranged and he shared that with the more experienced Ormsby, who had previously written Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things and Deathdream (a.k.a. Dead of Night) - the first two horror films directed by Deranged’s uncredited producer Bob Clark - as well as the script for Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake of Cat People and the Tom Berenger action drama The Substitute (the latter he co-wrote with Roy Frumkes and Rocco Simonelli). The directing duo collectively did a superb job with Deranged by staying mostly true to the real-life events that gave the project life and prioritizing character development and atmosphere over grisly effects and shocks. There are a few of those obviously but they never take precedent over what truly matters in making a memorable film.
With a budget of $200,000 and some superlative production design work from Deathdream alum Albert Fisher and the bleak cinematography by Jack McGowan (Zaat), Deranged looks and feels like true horror - the kind we read about with morbid fascination in newspapers, magazines, and online or on numerous television documentaries - rather than fly-by-night exploitation. It has some inventive but sparingly used gore effects (the brain scooping scene and roomful of cadavers are highlights of young Savini‘s contribution) and a scene towards the end with a woman stripped to her underwear fleeing in horror from the insane Ezra, but Deranged never goes overboard with empty-headed thrills. For a movie about a man who makes musical instruments, furniture, and clothing out of the flesh and bones of female cadavers it is astoundingly discreet and sophisticated.
Presented for the first time in 1080p high definition, Deranged looks really good on home video for a change. Arrow’s transfer of the movie in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio retains a good amount of the grain content in the print that preserves the gritty docudrama look of the film, but in other areas the picture quality has been cleaned, sharpened, and greatly improved. The English 2.0 PCM Stereo track gives a strong presentation to the low-pitched dialogue and Carl Zittrer’s haunting, church organ-driven music score. Audio distortion is minimal at worse but hardly detectable. English subtitles have also been included.
Deranged had been released on DVD by MGM Home Entertainment over a decade earlier as part of a "Midnite Movies" double feature release with Motel Hell, another darkly comic tale of backwoods horror. The only extra on that disc was the film's theatrical trailer, but for its Blu-ray debut on Region B Arrow Video has created some interesting and insightful new bonus features, the first of which is an audio commentary with Savini moderated by Calum Waddell. Prodded by the moderator's line of questioning Savini shares his memories of working on the production of Deranged and creating the movie's many disgusting special effects. His recollections are funny, candid, and continues to prove how entertaining Savini can be even without his bag of gory tricks.
In lieu of producing retrospective interviews with other members of the film's cast and crew Arrow instead brings us two featurettes with well-known Deranged fans and a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the filming. First off, "A Blossoming Brilliance" (10 minutes) features Evil Dead 2 co-writer and Intruder director Scott Spiegel recalling his brief working relationship with Deranged star Blossom on Sam Raimi's 1995 western The Quick and the Dead (the story about how made Blossom a copy of Deranged is a keeper), talking Ed Gein with Psycho novelist Robert Bloch, his personal recollections of Bob Clark and Tom Savini, and his own feelings regarding Deranged.
Human Centipede II star Laurence R. Harvey is the subject of "Ed Gein: From Murderer to Movies" (15 minutes). In it Harvey shares his own thoughts about the many films inspired by the Gein case and his opinion that Deranged is the most authentic of the lot, to which I wholeheartedly agree.
"The Wages of Sin" (12 minutes) intermingles silent home videos from the filming of Deranged with co-director Gillen's memories of the shoot via vintage interview footage. We get to see footage of the gut-churning dinner scene being shot as well as Blossom getting outfitted for his skin mask.
Two versions of the Deranged trailer are included, one of which features a Trailers from Hell commentary from Adam Rifkin, writer and director of The Dark Backward, The Chase, and Detroit Rock City. Nothing Rifkin shares in his trailer commentary will be of much surprise to anyone with a basic knowledge of Deranged but it still makes for a fun listen regardless. A small still gallery featuring black & white production and behind-the-scenes photos and poster art wraps up the bonus features on this disc.
Arrow has also included its customary reversible cover sleeve with the original poster art for Deranged on one side and a new image commissioned for this released and created by Nathanael Marsh on the other. Inside the case you'll find a collector's booklet featuring a new essay on the film written by Nightmare USA author Stephen Thrower, an article about Ed Gein originally published in Rue Morgue magazine, and an archival interview with Bob Clark. The booklet is illustrated with original film stills and posters.
Oddly subdued when compared to other movies based in part on the Ed Gein legend, Deranged is nonetheless a compelling work of 70’s horror cinema with a strong lead performance by the late Roberts Blossom, good special effects by a young Tom Savini, and an unrelenting atmosphere of dread. Another underrated genre entry resurrected and restored by the home entertainment wizards at Arrow Video, the Deranged Blu-ray comes with a strong recommendation but only for the strongest stomachs.