"Life's a Pain and God's a Sadist": Alan Ormsby's DERANGED (1974)
With Bonnie and Clyde (1967) signaling the death knell of the Production Code, thus loosening prudish creative restrictions on American cinema, the subsequent decade delivered a 180-degree pivot from the relative lightheartedness of domestic horror pictures. Along with this new tone came a collective filmic gumption to stare down the demons that haunt us all.
From The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) to When A Stranger Calls (1979), the '70s brought forth celluloid vibe-checks either directly or loosely based upon real life heinous crimes and killers. In his canonical tome Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents, author Stephen Thrower vividly sketches the era's landscape:
“The horror genre is a place where fantasies and morbid wish-fulfillment can cavort unshackled, but as we vicariously dance around in the moonlight with our imaginary victim’s face and tits strapped to ours, it’s perhaps worth glancing over at the real world, in which most of us conspicuously fail to get a kick from torture and murder. For all the thrill of a truly nasty horror film, how many of us really want murder and mutilation to play a part in our lives?”
The Me Decade’s barbaric genre output cavorts with glee in this sandbox, interrogating our sense of safety and poking our sensitivities’ ribs. Combat veterans such as Tom Savini returned from the jungles of Vietnam to pick up a makeup brush and push the boundaries of propriety, gifting audiences more realistic reflections of the violence they witnessed every night on the evening news. Others came home with their innocence as hollowed-out as the pagan Midsommar (2019) bear. Nationwide, Americans had horrors to confront and a big screen realism to embrace before the 80s slasher boom distilled those fears into a stalk and slash formula, leaving a mass grave of dead teens in its wake.
Some of the most apt meditations on the hollowed-out men of ‘70s America came courtesy of Canadians; from Bob Clark’s anti-Vietnam zombie agitprop Deathdream (1974) to Alan Ormsby’s Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile (1974). To be fair, the latter’s pitch-black humor and slightly empathetic eye towards its Ed Gein stand-in makes evaluation…complicated (to say the least). Even with Roberts Blossom’s phenomenal central performance (which plays in the same lunacy league as Jonas Dassler’s Fritz Honka in The Golden Glove ), it’s hard to know how to receive a film that doesn’t readily tell you how to feel about its subject matter. It’s dark, it’s mean, and don’t you dare look away.
Deranged is a roman à clef through-and-through; simultaneously the tonal kin of Joseph Ellison's grim, low budget shocker, Don’t Go in the House (1979), and the bastard offspring of both Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Producer Tom Karr recruited director Alan Ormsby while Ormsby was promoting Clark’s Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972), which he’d co-written. Karr’s request was simple: he wanted to do a picture about Ed Gein.
“Once I decided to do it,” Ormsby states on the Arrow Blu-ray commentary for Deranged, “I went to the library and looked up everything I could find about [Gein]. Frankly, the story was so horrific that I didn’t see how we could do it straight. It seemed like it would be laughable if we did it straight, so I kind of made a black comedy out of it.” With jarring juxtapositions of inappropriate giggling-at-the-funeral humor, and sobering gore courtesy of a greenhorn Tom Savini sitting in the makeup chair, Ormsby succeeds in crafting what critic Stephen Thrower labels (in the Blu’s accompanying essay), “a journey not only into voyeuristic exploitation, but into abjection, sorrow and pity.”
At its core, Deranged is the story of a very lonely man. Reporting live from the scene of these heinous crimes,Tom Sims (regular Cronenberg Player Les Carlson), a newspaper columnist, stands and narrates the “human horror story of ghastly proportions and profound reverberations.” Presented as truth just as Texas Chain Saw was the very same year, Sims observes that the story is necessary to behold:
“... because it is human, perhaps we can learn something from it -- something of ourselves, of our own fears and needs. But please let me warn you: the events have been recreated in detail. Nothing has been left to the imagination. It is not a story for the squeamish or faint-hearted.”
A peaceful, rustically winter vignette ensues, juxtaposed against this cautionary preamble to present an attitude of “America, interrupted” straight out the gate.
Ezra Cobb (Blossom) is a solitary man in psyche and spirit, but not completely isolated when he’s introduced. Mama Cobb (Cosette Lee) is shuffling off this mortal coil, bedridden with a phlegm-riddled, hacking cough. She acts as an in-house Old Testament harbinger, preaching to her adult son that women are diseased, money-stealing whores driven by nefarious intent. She preaches from her deathbed that “God’ll wash ‘em away”; a homebody sermon in line with Travis Bickle’s internalized musings regarding a proverbial "real rain to wash the scum off the streets” just two years later in Taxi Driver (1976), and four years after John G. Avildsen’s Joe (1970) heralded an eerily similar sentiment. Discontent was becoming a brand name brand product in American movie houses, and business was booming.
As with so many heartfelt cinematic moments of the Watergate era, the sincerity of Mama’s monologue is tempered by an innate foulness. Her nose bleeds into the green soup she chokes down, creating a veritable vile gazpacho of split-pea and soured spirited. Eighty minutes later, as Ezra crosses over into psychosis and carves up the fresh young form of Sally Mae (Pat Orr), Mama’s voice reminds him that “the wages of sin is gonorrhea, syphilis, and death.” She’s a one woman Greek chorus of condemnation, waging a crusade against the flesh.
With Mama's homegrown sermons fomenting distrust of the world at large, Ezra displays a unique brand of loneliness — one that’s externally imposed rather than self-inflicted. Her inevitable death rocks his world. Hell, she was his world. Mama's funeral scene is a fantastic set piece straight out of German expressionism: Ezra center-frame before a tableau of skewed geometric shapes (from the casket door to memorial candelabras). It’s a visual tip-off that a void is being carved out of Ezra’s psyche in his mother's wake. Family and friends express their condolences, saying she looks asleep in her coffin. He agrees, visibly gutted like a hairless imitation of one of his furry, inanimate hunting trophies.
As the titular necrophile, Blossom channels a sincere darkness not unlike Anthony Perkins’ turn as cross-dressing, mommy-plagued Norman Bates. In a fascinating bit of “casting what-if”, Christopher Walken read for Deranged’s lead but the filmmakers thought he was too young and weird. Instead, Ormsby felt Roberts owned a gaunt “big bad wolf” look that was right for the role (the director/actor duo ended up collaborating again on the drag-queen cruise ship drug smuggling cheapie, The Great Masquerade ). Saying the most with the least amount of dialogue, Blossom oscillates between an aw-shucks aloofness and deadened brutality, possessed almost entirely in his piercing bright eyes. Meanwhile, narration leaves no room for doubt. “The loneliness within him had grown to a vast abyss,” Sims reports, “and the pain of his loss at last pushed him over the precipice and into madness.”
Eventually, Ezra widens his social circle, albeit with unorthodox companions. First: Mama. In a more perverse reverberation of Psycho (later to be discovered in disco-Psycho joint Don’t Go in the House ) Ma Cobb cries, “if you miss me so much, why don’t you come and bring me home?” A pan around Ezra’s quarters as his mother speaks sets the scene for the man’s disarrayed state of mind, right before the camera returns, finding it's actually Ezra’s mouth that’s been speaking her words, in her voice -- an intimate meld of prey, predator and progeny. Here, Ormsby walks a fine line. While efforts are made to distance the audience from this warped loner through ostentatious narration and black humor, it’s clear that the movie also sees Ezra Cobb as a tormented victim of sorts.
In an age of zealous media consumption, when critical verdicts are barely chewed upon before rapid regurgitation on the dreaded blue bird app, stories like Deranged, Spit, Last House and the monsters they contain provide an opportunity to pump the brakes and truly evaluate the nature of their beasts, all of whom represent some universal blemish on society’s weathered visage. It’s not as easy as pushing up one’s spectacles and deeming the "bad man" as "bad" and thus unrelatable, conflating depiction with endorsement, and demanding just desserts served swiftly and soundly in some sort of cosmic binary. That’s how we got the garbage ending of The Bad Seed (1956); not to mention how we unconsciously aligned ourselves with the censors of yesteryear.
Anyway, Ezra brings Mama home, just as Gein did. The grown boy digs up his beloved parent’s corpse and drives her back to his farmhouse. The local sheriff stops him on the way and complains about the stench in Cobb’s truck, but Ezra talks his way out of it by pretending that his decomposing cargo was simply an animal. Again, his arc isn’t fully internal; from the trusting law dog, to the family friend who clues him in to the wonders of taxidermy, to the local who refuses to believe that gentle Ezra could ever even harm a fly (as the townie’s daughter is being abducted miles away), a cadre of enablers fast-track Ezra’s trajectory into murder and mayhem. His evil is perpetuated by accepting neighbors. They give him the tools and the inspiration, from checking the obituaries for grave-robbing purposes to handing him a rifle. “He picks up on things and takes them literally,” Ormsby says in the commentary. For a lonely, disturbed man, it’s a perfect storm of influence and indifference.
Ezra quickly devolves from grave-robber to predator, as he’s once again aided by his oblivious community while being introduced to one Maureen Selby, an eccentric middle-aged local psychic. Heads will recognize Maureen as being played by Marian Waldman, the boozy den mother in Black Christmas (1972), which Bob Clark was shooting simultaneously as he edited Deranged. One night, Maureen conducts a séance to contact her late husband (Ormsby himself!) and attempts to finesse the ritual to launch some hanky panky with Ezra. It goes about as well as expected, with Mama not only spiritually cock-blocking the proceedings, but spurring her twisted son to kill both Selby and a slew of women.
Despite its public perception, Deranged contains only a couple onscreen slayings, which parallels Gein’s real life accomplishments (as his preference was relatively passive grave-robbing). Ed only killed two people, with his infamy primarily being achieved via necrophilia. The film’s tagline sensationalizes these post-mortem violations as well: “Pretty Sally Mae died a very unnatural death...but the worst hasn’t happened to her yet!” Indeed. Shock Value author Jason Zinoman observes that serial killers like Ted Bundy and David Berkowitz received media coverage akin to celebrity worship: “the press added glamour to these characters, making them objects of fascination that the movies picked up on.” Perhaps this complicates the reception of Ormsby’s film; a work that undoubtedly takes itself seriously while also recognizing (and sticking to) its perverted lane.
Now that the cheese has fully slid off of Ezra’s saltine, he heads to a local watering hole, where he commiserates with the joint’s odd barflys. One drunkenly slurs a biblical reflection of Ezra’s social estrangement and the cosmic realism of the entire film: “life’s a pain and God’s a sadist.” Soon after, Ezra speaks to a pretty waitress, Mary (Micki Moore). While the diegetic tunes of Stompin’ Tom Connors’ “She Don’t Speak English” blare in the background, Ezra attempts to flirt with the live girl and actually gains her reluctant trust, before eventually sabotaging Mary’s car and luring her back to his farm.
To the nerve-racking organ blare of Carl Zitterer’s gonzo American Gothic score (to save money, the filmmakers use mutilated minor-key variations on “The Old Rugged Cross” throughout the runtime), Deranged’s tone jaggedly morphs as the camera goes handheld. All of a sudden, we are watching an intentional horror movie. In his house, Mary discovers Ezra, donning a human flesh mask and flanked by the corpses of the world’s worst folk band, Mama Cobb and the Good Ol’ Boy Victims. Mary is attacked by the homely homeowner and awakens, just as Sally Hardesty did on that sweltering Texas day in ‘74, strapped to a chair at the most terrifying family table imaginable.
Traditionally, the dinner scene is a cinematic space where people take in communion with one another, and we learn about the characters and their relationship dynamics. Horror usually interprets this with macabre elements, and Deranged is no different. We get an intense glimpse into just how self-isolated Ezra is. His victims sit at the table, each more decomposed than the last. A severed arm hangs pinned to the wall like a family heirloom. He proudly presents instruments composed from human bodies in a bizarre courting ritual. “I’m just trying to show you I got talents, too,” he croons. It all adds to the narrative's tragic undertow, possessing a devastating rip tide of desolation.
Naturally, Mary is racking up trauma points with every passing second. She tries to calm Ezra enough to untie her, promising that she won’t run. He does, she does, and, in the process, Mary commits her greatest crime against her admirer (however ironically) by desecrating the dead friends he's gathered. Sound the alarms. Being a woman and deceiving him is one thing, but using the bodies as human shields is going too far for the farmer. Thus, Ezra proceeds to beat Mary to death with a comically large human femur.
Mary’s murder and the final sequence are the only real suspense scenes in the film, but the last fifteen minutes of Deranged deserve the same notorious rep as the climaxes of Bill Lustig's Maniac (1980) and John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). It’s now hunting season for Ezra, as he visits a local gun shop to obtain a rifle. When he looks at teenage cashier Sally Mae through the firearm's scope, the script originally expanded upon the metaphor. “When he’s chasing her,” Ormsby comments on the Blu, “he thinks he’s chasing a deer. We were supposed to inter-cut a deer racing with footage of him pursuing. We couldn’t get the footage and didn’t have time. To me, we’re missing half of that sequence, which makes him look totally evil and brutal. He was deluded, that was the idea, and he supposedly got more deluded over time.”
After it’s far too late, the sheriff and two locals discover Sally Mae’s nude corpse hanging from the barn rafters. In voice over, Ezra intones a haunting hymn, “Who At My Door is Standing”, a song which pictures Christ perched at the entryway to our souls and entreating us to let him in. Sung a cappella, the gospel tune becomes as sinister in its perverted usage as Rev. Powell’s crooning of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” in The Night of the Hunter (1955). As the harmony peters out, the trio sprints to his house, only to find Ezra bloodied and laughing at the dinner table beside Mama's corpse. Sorry folks. Show's over. Roll credits.
But just what does this filth-on-film offer? Believe it or not, Deranged and so-called schlock like it can unlock the type of critical thinking that is sorely needed in the current critical landscape. It’s the type of story where, sure, bad things happen to good people and there are salacious elements to it that are sensationalized, but that’s exploitation, baby. When you take a moment to step back and look past that single brushstroke to regard the entire portrait? Ormsby becomes a veritable Bob Ross of Grime Guignol Cinema, making the most with the least of budgets.
Once he went on to write Deathdream in another collaboration with Clark, Ormsby extends Deranged's themes of isolation to the American war vet. In a foul offspring of The Monkey’s Paw and the 1919 French silent landmark, J’accuse (in which faceless WWI soldiers arise from the grave to return to their homes), Andy (Richard Backus), who has been KIA in Vietnam, is willed back to life overseas by his grieving mother (Lynn Carlin). The poor serviceman comes back a veritable zombie; completely different and far more volatile than before.
Like so many wrestling with PTSD-adjacent “shell shock” at the time, Andy’s family doesn’t know how to deal with his new devolved demeanor. His father Charles (Cassavetes and Coppola collaborator John Marley) resorts to drinking, while his mother remains in denial as the corpse count around them rises. When he’s not dropping bodies to procure the blood needed to remain alive (it’s also no metaphorical coincidence that the solider has to shoot it up), Andy sits outside, his rocking chair acting as a metronome, keeping time with his ticking time bomb of a psyche, as he (like Ezra) deteriorates both physically and mentally.
The power of Deathdream is that its isolation doesn’t just apply to the undead, but rather extends its Lovecraftian tendrils throughout the blissful domestic realm the zombie inhabits. The blue ribbon for acting goes to Marley, whom most will recall awakening to the decapitated head of a horse in The Godfather (1972) just two years prior. Here, Marley spends most of Deathdream's crisp, eighty-eight minute runtime in a state of disillusionment and despair, grieving a loved one who stands and breathes before him, though the son is nonetheless changed. It’s the film’s boldest conceit: the revered soldier is now a boogeyman - a threat to the faux American Dream it was sent overseas to protect.
These pitch-black downers are nonetheless firmly intelligent, and filled to the brim with resentful musings on how hurt people hurt people, drawing a direct line from the detached to the deranged. Despite their lowbrow nature, Deranged, Deathdream, and the deluge of '70s exploitation offers critical treasures beyond their sneeringly shoestring budgets and a few blood packets. It’s exhausting work to have to interrogate your sense of right and wrong, but life’s a pain, and God’s a sadist.