A quick tour through horror cinema during the last half of the 20th century reveals that one of the most used real-life stories comes from the life and times of the real Ed Gein, The Plainfield Butcher. Everything from Psycho (1960) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) owes some credit this saga. Another lesser known film from 1974 called Deranged also owes credit to the story of Ed Gein. Being cinematically inferior to the barbaric Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deranged slipped through the proverbial cracks. However, its actually a really neat film in it own right, and a must for the discerning horror fan.
Directed by Alan Ormsby of Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972) fame, Deranged tells the story of a man named Ezra Cobb. Using the most subtle of black humor, Ormsby creates an awkward caricature of a man that garners sympathy despite his heinous acts.
There’s Something Wrong with Mother
Those familiar with the tale of Ed Gein understand that his unhealthy relationship with his mother provided an incubator for his mental illness. Ezra Cobb’s story follows a similar path. Portrayed by Roberts Blossom, Ezra cares for his bed ridden mother. She abhors women, and repeatedly implants misogynistic thoughts in Ezra’s head. The only woman good enough for Ezra is mother. When Ezra witnesses her die horribly on his watch, the burden is too much to bear. Soon after her passing, Ezra begins a strange relationship with the bodies of the dead and their decomposing flesh.
Another Bit About Ed
Though often imitated, only a few horror entries ever tried to really tell the story of Ed Gein. Most others offered only a single facet of the man cast in a new story. This makes it fascinating to compare and contrast the archetype through different films. For example, those that recognize Roberts Blossom, he’s a very slight man that projects a gentle aura. Accordingly, Ezra Cobb carries those traits into the role. It’s a far cry from the brutish behemoth of a man played by Gunnar Hansen in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The comparison is even more interesting when Blossom’s character is cast against Norman Bates cunning and articulate nature. Ezra Cobb is nothing of the sort. However, Blossom’s portrayal may be the most genuine of the three. Ed Gein by all accounts was described as a gentle man and unassuming man. the townspeople of Plainfield even trusted their children with him. Roberts Blossom portrays his character with the same affable and approachable innocence.
Alan Ormsby uses an interesting narrative device to drive the story. Investigative reporter Tom Simms, played by Leslie Carlson, introduces the tale and moves it along throughout out the course of the film. On the surface it feels a bit cliche, but this device really meshes with the time period, and the grainy 70’s feel of the film. Tom Simms provides many of the best lines in the film, and his introduction give a bit of competition to that of John Larroquette’s legendary opening to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Its a human horror story of ghastly proportions and profound reverberations.
But, because it is human, maybe we can learn something from it, something of ourselves, our own fears, and needs.
. . .
It is the story of Ezra Cobb, murderer, graverobber, necrophiliac perhaps.
Or, as you may remember him from those stories long ago… The Butcher of Woodside!
Tip Toeing Through the Graveyard
Ezra’s makes his first ghoulish move by digging up his mother rotting corpse from the grave. Badly decomposed, Ezra must figure out how to fix her. At first he uses wax, fish skin, and anything that he can find to fix her. He quickly becomes a student of taxidermy. Learning how to scope out the obituaries, he then graduates to the robbing the graves of the recently deceased members of Woodside. Soon, he would set his depraved sights higher. He would ultimately murder his victims to ensure the freshest of raw materials.
Her names was Mary Ransum, she was 34 years old, and if truth were told… a little over the hill
One of the standout sequences in the film involves the death of Mary Ransum, played by Micki Moore. Ezra takes a shine to her at the local tavern. He already had blood on his hands at this point, but he wanted more from Mary than just another victim. One night, Ezra slashers Mary’s tire and waits patiently for her to close the tavern. Seemingly harmless, he offers her a hand. He tricks her into going home with him. This remainder of this scene really punctuates the insanity of Ezra Cobb.
As Mary slowly beings to realize that she is in trouble, she stumbles on Ezra’s shrine of death. The results of the Ezra’s sick fascination decay at they are arranged in a tea party for the dead. As Mary scans the room, something seems amiss. One of the bodies stirs slightly as it slowly turns the crank on an old organ grinder. Peering behind the tattered and decaying skin of a corpse are the eyes of Ezra Cobb wearing the clothes and skin of dead women. For a film that makes a point of not taking itself too seriously, Alan Ormsby effectively creates a horrific display of madness.
Having been released a full 7 months earlier, it is striking that Alan Ormsby foreshadows the coming dinner events in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Ezra binds Mary to a chair at a table surrounded by the dead as Ezra plays Master of Ceremonies. Ezra intends to take Mary for a wife, in life and death and whatever that means, until she tricks him into untying her. She buys mere moments by hurling corpses at Ezra, but unfortunately she fails to escape. Mary Ransum joins the dinner party of the dead.
Punching Above Its Weight
Make no mistake, Deranged is a low budget film at a mere $200,000 in production costs. Yet, Alan Ormsby and Producer Tom Karr manage a consistent feeling of steady competence for the duration of the film. The supporting actors, while not superb, provide enough help to Roberts Blossom to hold the film together. From a special effects perspective, Deranged offers nothing to behold. In fact, many of the special effects are rather campy and primitive. However, the charm of the film isn’t extreme gore; but rather the menacing insanity of the man next-door.
Ormsby’s sprinkle of dark humor makes any transgressions forgivable in the end.
Deranged shouldn’t get a totally free pass on its budget. By our estimates it actually enjoyed a higher budget that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Undoubtedly, the later is the much stronger of the two. To say another way, Alan Ormsby is no Tobe Hooper, but he is still hopelessly entangled in some of my favorite late 70s horror films.
If you can only watch one film…
If you can only watch one film cast in the mold of the Ed Gein murders, Deranged would not be our first choice. Fortunately that’s ridiculous constraint. We can watch whatever we want, and we SHOULD watch Deranged. Often overshadowed by the 800 pound gorilla in the room, it’s a fun little film that does what it sets out to do. It actually does rather respectable job telling the real story of the Butcher of Plainfield.
Deranged (1974) - Quirky, Fun and Overshadowed - Malevolent Dark
Director: Alan Ormsby
Date Created: 1974-01-01 00:00