*. There’s an awful lot of low-budget horror crap out there that frankly gets more credit and attention than it deserves because of some spurious “cult” status that’s been bestowed upon it. A film like Prom Night is a good example. This was a complete piece of garbage, but it was released during the golden age of slash, had Jamie Lee Curtis in it, was followed by some sequels, and even endured a watered-down remake. So people talk about it now as though it was something special. It’s not, and never was.
*. Deranged, however, is the real deal. No, it’s not a great movie. It had far too limited a budget, and not enough talent in front of or behind the camera. But it deserves a wider audience, and all things considered is remarkably well handled.
*. The source is the story of the Wisconsin ghoul Ed Gein (rhymes with “fiend”), whose crimes were first translated into fiction by Robert Bloch in the novel Psycho. With Psycho (the novel and the Hitchcock movie), the best known fictional element in the Gein myth was introduced: that he dug up his mother and lived with her corpse. In fact, Gein left his mother’s grave alone.
*. So . . . the intro card that tells you that “The motion picture you are about to see is absolutely true. Only the names and locations have been changed” Is, well, a stretch.
*. The Gein story, or myth, has had a long history, beginning with Psycho and later transformed into the wholesale butchery of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Deranged came out the same year as Texas Chain Saw Massacre but was actually released months earlier. I don’t think there’s any grounds for believing that either production influenced the other, which makes their resemblance all the more startling.
*. What stands out the most is the set design of the two horror houses, their air of cluttered squalor and death. Then the culminating “dinner” scene, where a female victim is tied to a chair while the giggling ghoul mocks her.
*. I think I’ve spoken before about these grotesque parodies of a formal dinner party, and how often they recur in horror films. I’m not sure why it’s so popular a motif. The corpses around the table here also remind me of the end of Happy Birthday to Me.
*. Of course Texas Chain Saw Massacre went on to become one of the most notorious, seminal, and commercially successful horror movies ever. Deranged disappeared. The difference?
*. Deranged doesn’t take itself quite as seriously, which is perhaps its greatest undoing. For starters, there’s a bizarre on-screen narrator, the newspaper columnist Tom Sims, who introduces us to “a human horror story of ghastly proportions and profound reverberations” and then shows up at odd times and places throughout the film, breaking down the fourth wall.
*. The performances also slide into camp too easily. Roberts Blossom is fine as Ezra, all manic, lizard eyes and pouting lower lip. But his mother, and the zaftig would-be seducer who ends up being his first victim, are hammy caricatures.
*. That said, I don’t think Kim Newman is right in lumping this movie in together with Cannibal Girls and Motel Hell (the latter being a film it shared a video release with), as examples of the sub-genre of “cannibal comedies.” I don’t think this is a comedy, but a movie that tries, sporadically, and unsuccessfully, for comic relief.
*. What might have been. Apparently both Harvey Keitel and Christopher Walken were interested in the role of Ezra.
*. That’s Robert McHeady playing the sheriff. You may recognize him, if you’re an aficionado of low-budget Canadian horror, as the sheriff from Cannibal Girls (credited as “Bob McHeady” in that film). I guess he was being typecast.
*. Check out the slide Harlon Kootz’s station wagon does in the mud when it arrives at Ezra’s farm at the end. It must go for nearly twenty feet after the wheels stop turning.
*. The virtues of a low budget. It’s worth remembering that for all its reputation, Texas Chain Saw Massacre is not a gory film. They couldn’t afford the effects. Much more was achieved by implication. In this movie, despite the presence of a young Tom Savini working as an assistant, the gore isn’t particularly realistic or effective. One scene, of Ezra scooping an eye and the brains out of a decapitated head with a spoon, was deleted for the American release. Horror purists decry this censorship, but I think it makes the film better. The gore in this scene is over the top and unconvincing, and adds absolutely nothing to the feeling of perversity and dread that’s been building.
*. When the movie becomes more serious it is quite effective. In particular, Ezra’s hunting of “pretty Sally Mae” has the same sort of grim cruelty as the end of Texas Chain Saw with Marilyn Burns stumbling and crawling away from her tormentors.
*. There are also a couple of directorial flourishes that work quite well. Shooting the widow through the pillow so that the feathers from it cloud the portrait of her former husband (actually screenwriter and co-director Alan Ormsby) is a nice touch. And there’s a terrific 360-degree pan around Ezra’s room where we hear his mother talking to him while he’s in bed, and then when we come back to him we realize he’s talking to himself in his mother’s voice. That’s creepy and revealing.
*. So, as I began by saying, it’s not a great movie. But it was closer to the true Gein story than its more famous fellows, and has several genuinely harrowing moments. It also deserves to be recognized for the dirty realism of its rural setting, which it evokes almost as well as the farmhouse in Texas Chain Saw. It’s a movie that really should be better known, at least among fans of raw American gothic.