Deep within America’s rural Midwest the dutiful and devoted Ezra Cobb (Roberts Blossom) looks after his elderly, overbearing and bed-ridden mother (Cosette Lee) in a secluded farmhouse. Fanatically religious and slightly insane, Ezra’s mother believes that the wages of sin are gonorrhoea, syphilis and death, and has instilled in Ezra a hatred for all women. Following her own death, Ezra sinks into deep despair, and as loneliness pushes him further towards madness, he decides to dig up her body and carry on as if nothing has changed.
In an attempt to restore his mother to her former self, Ezra begins to study taxidermy in the hope of creating a new skin for his deceased parent. At first he experiments with animal skins, and then resorts to stitching together the flesh scraped from recently deceased corpses. But when the results are less than perfect, Ezra’s morbid pursuit becomes homicidal when he decides that he needs younger, fresher material to work with.
Released the same year as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Alan Ormsby and Jeff Gillen’s cult horror Deranged also took its inspiration from the horrific exploits of legendary serial killer Ed Gein. Although not as well known and revered as Tobe Hooper’s seminal slasher, Deranged certainly deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as its contemporary. It has also been noted that Deranged is far more faithful to the life of Ed Gein and his dreadful crimes.
Unforgettably foreboding and with a deep sense of the macabre, it’s also surprisingly well paced and directed. Much like Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead (1968), it’s a master class in pragmatic B-movie aesthetics and how to be as effective as possible within the constraints of an extremely limited budget, crew, cast and locations. The minimal sets, small clutch of characters, and the device of an omnipresent journalist who randomly appears to narrate the story and fill in the gaps add to the surreal atmosphere, rather than hindering the film. There are also some incredibly garish and grimy interiors that give the film that authentically 70s feel of opaque gloom.
As we witness one man’s bizarre descent into psychopathic madness, the film effortlessly progresses from pitch-black gallows humour to something far more harrowing and nightmarish. Along with the deadpan dialogue, the scenes involving Ezra driving his mother back from the graveyard and a bizarre date with a sex-craved clairvoyant are the most overtly humorous. But it’s Ezra’s rotting dinner guests, his banal, workmanlike attitude towards his actions, and his cold-blooded and predatory hunt for his final victim that linger in the mind long after the credits have rolled.
The previously censored brain-scooping scene (created by the legendary Tom Savini) may be the film’s most notorious aspect, but its most unsettling and effective element has to be Roberts Blossom’s perfectly judged performance as the unhinged Ezra, turning Deranged into one of the few 70s exploitation horror films that actually lives up to its title.
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