Despite being one of American history’s most notorious serial killers, Ed Gein didn’t amass a huge body count, as Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer did. Yet Gein’s desecration of corpses remains a subject of morbid fascination. Before actually killing people (he was convicted of two murders), Gein exhumed bodies and transformed them into home decorations, masks, and other items; he also propped corpses in chairs as if he believed he could communicate with them. When discovered by police in 1957, Gein’s Wisconsin home was the quintessential chamber of horrors. The long shadow that Gein has cast over popular culture began in 1959, when Robert Bloch published the novel Psycho, featuring a fictional killer inspired by Gein. Hitchcock’s legendary film adaptation of Bloch’s book followed a year later. Then, in 1974, two very different movies presented fictionalized versions of Gein. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre transformed Gein into the superhuman monster known as Leatherface, while the American-Canadian coproduction Deranged re-created the grisly highlights of Gein’s crime spree, changing the locations and names. Hooper’s movie is superior on every level excerpt for veracity, but Deranged is noteworthy as the most faithful telling of Gein’s tale up to the time of its release.
Cowritten and codirected by Alan Ormsby, an eclectic film professional who later wrote the charming youth saga My Bodyguard (1982), Deranged is presented as a quasi-mockumentary. Reporter Tom Sims (Leslie Carlson) appears onscreen periodically to provide melodramatic commentary, and dramatic scenes are shot in an unglamorous style. When the movie begins, fiftysomething simpleton Ezra Cobb (Roberts Blossom) sits at the deathbed of his beloved mother (Cosette Lee), a Bible-thumping loony who has convinced her son that all women are whores. (“The wages of sin is gonorrhea, syphilis, and death!”) When she dies, Ezra descends into grief and madness, so a year later, he digs up Dear Old Mom’s corpse. Ezra studies taxidermy to help preserve the body, and then starts robbing graves for replacement parts. As he becomes more and more detached from reality, Ezra escalates to kidnapping and killing women, so by the end of his cycle, he’s a monster who walks around wearing a mask made of human skin, using a thigh bone to bang a drum made from a human stomach.
Deranged isn’t particularly scary, but the gross-out factor is high, and it’s impossible not to get nervous when Ezra lures unsuspecting women into his lair. Excepting perhaps the grotesque makeup and production design, Blossom is the best thing about this inexpensive and sensationalistic project. Twitchy and wiry, Blossom had a long and relatively undistinguished career, occasionally landing great supporting roles (as in 1979’s Escape from Alcatraz) in between bit parts. Throughout Deranged, he’s effectively off-kilter, bulging his eyes and pursing his lips in a disorienting way. And if his performance sometimes seems overwrought, one need merely remember how detached the real Gein grew from everyday human experience. Even though Deranged is way too gory and sleazy to pass muster as a real movie, the adherence to facts (more or less) gives it a smidgen more credibility than the average drive-in shocker.