A.J.’s Solid ’70s Horrorthon #7: “Deranged” (1974)
by A.J. Hakari
Growing up in Wisconsin makes it hard to escape the shadow of Ed Gein. Fortunately, I wasn’t filled in on all the gory details of Gein’s grave-robbing exploits, but it was at a tender age that I was made aware of who the fella was. Much of the world knows of him as well, through movies including Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Silence of the Lambs that were inspired by the case. Each of these pictures used Gein as a jumping-off point for their own respective narratives, but 1974’s Deranged is quite possibly the truest to life that any of them got. Liberties are certainly taken, but it’s fueled by an authenticity, a pitch-black sense of humor, and a powerful sadness that make it as captivating a depiction of the real story as we’ll ever get.
As a title card assures us, Deranged is based on true events — only the names and corpses have been changed to protect the innocent. A newspaper columnist (Leslie Carlson) narrates to us viewers the life and times of Ezra Cobb (Roberts Blossom), whom you’d swear could never hurt even a fly. Having spent a large part of his life caring for and bonding closely with his religious fanatic mother (Cosette Lee), Ezra’s world is absolutely shattered when she passes away. Life just isn’t the same without Ma Cobb around…so after a year of loneliness, her faithful boy just digs up her coffin and carries her decayed body back to the old homestead. With his mama back where she “belongs,” Ezra finds his attentions turning to the town’s women, whom he is soon inspired to abduct and bring home to join Mrs. Cobb in a ghoulish (and growing) menagerie.
It hit theaters the same year as the original Texas Chainsaw, but Deranged gets barely a fraction of the press these days. If you know me, you’ve probably heard me vent myself hoarse about how I’m no fan of Tobe Hooper’s grungy horror favorite; it’s disturbing, yes, but it’s also 90 minutes of repetitive screeching that dulled me into indifference. The shocks in Hooper’s film seldom broke the surface, worn thin somewhere into the dozenth cackling hillbilly, but Deranged operates on a different and much more somber level. It’s not something that goes for cheap thrills or merely presents the concept of a creepy old dude defiling gravesites and finding unspeakable uses for human skin to be reviled, without actually doing anything interesting with it. The flick aims to hypothesize what makes someone like Ezra Cobb tick, an endeavor with miles of unsettling ground to tread that co-directors Jeff Gillen and Alan Ormsby are well-equipped to execute.
Deranged doesn’t excuse Cobb’s crimes for a second, but by the end, you understand perfectly what inspired his sickness in the first place. We’re introduced to the man as he lives in virtual isolation on a snow-covered farm, tending to his mother on her deathbed. A few short moments is all it takes for us to empathize with his sorrow, to witness his psyche break to the point of being unable to comprehend just how horrendous the acts he’s committing are. The stark photography certainly sets the right mood for Cobb’s bleak existence, but the real reason he’s such an enthralling character is Blossom’s performance. There’s no other way to put it other than that the man is perfect; when the occasion calls for him to be intimidating, tortured, and amusingly puzzled during the few instances of gallows humor, Blossom is up to the task and then some. There are other elements at play that keep the movie’s respectability in check, but Blossom is what secures the whole thing from ever being taken for shallow exploitation crud.
It’s as cold, dreary, and uninviting as the Cobb residence itself, but Deranged is fascinating all the same. This is the sort of lurid that I can appreciate, as it doesn’t rest at giving me a swirlie in the toilet of the macabre but adds in thought and an emotional center for my troubles, as well. Though it’s not the pulse-pounding, gag-inducing freak show some viewers might demand of it, the lingering unease Deranged leaves behind is all thanks to it taking the slow and steady approach.