True crime enthusiasts will know that Ed Gein was one of America’s most notorious killers. He was known as the “Butcher of Plainfield” and notoriously robbed graves and kept skeletal artefacts around his Wisconsin farmhouse. Some of the more salacious details of his exploits include bowls made from human skulls, lampshades made from human skin and a long assortment of monstrosities too graphic to recount here.
Cinefiles would also know that Gein’s story has been told many times over – in various ways – in Hollywood, the first film being the Alfred Hitchcock classic Psycho. The other film to take its cue from Gein was Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which of course went on to become a seminal picture and one of the most influential horror films of all time. In the year of Chainsaw‘s release (1974), another film based on Ed Gein’s life was released, and one that would be overshadowed and overwhelmed by the chainsaw-wielding whirlwind that was sweeping across the nation.
That film was Deranged (subtitled “Confessions of a Necrophile”) and its story was a shocking and mostly accurate account of the events that took place. Ed Gein’s name was changed to Ezra Cobb and the location was relocated to an unspecified town to avoid accusations of exploitation. Aspects of the real story were moderately fictionalised and liberties were taken to present the film as horror, rather than biopic, and the result is one of the most underrated and terrifying films that the wider audience has never seen.
Character actor Roberts Blossom plays Cobb in what can only be described as a chilling and haunting portrayal, and his take on the simple farmer-turned-serial killer showcases his unquestionable talent. His on-screen presence is chilling and his mark on cinema undeniably potent. One particular scene where he lures a woman into his home and chases her while wearing the skin of a victim is amongst the scariest things I have ever seen on film, and to this day, upon repeat viewings, it still terrifies me. Going to bed immediately after viewing this is simply not an option.
The film was directed by Alan Ormsby and Jeff Gillen, who were regular collaborators with director Bob Clark; the three had previously worked together on the comedy-horror flick Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972). Interestingly, Clark turned down the opportunity to direct Deranged due to its material being far too grim – he chose to produce it instead. Their work on Deranged was bold, and given the time, was one of the most confronting cinematic experiences to ever hit the screen.
Where Texas Chainsaw Massacre relied on a perpetual sense of dread and an aggressive atmosphere (without much actual violence at all), Deranged took on a macabre direction, chronicling its horror in gruesome detail. It is highly sexual and viscerally repulsive, and has an unnerving comical undertone that leaves the viewer uneasy.
A strange convention to the storytelling is a series of documentary-style interludes in which a reporter talks directly to camera. He is often placed within the film, standing in the foreground of an impending scene, and he attempts to inject social commentary and reason into the story. These moments are designed to lend the film authenticity, although I would argue that they upset the flow of the narrative. Nevertheless, the confronting story, supported with an incredible performance, makes Deranged a film for the ages. It is as disturbing now as it was then, and deserves a position as one of the greatest horror films of all time.