Sunday, October 9, 2016

Hubrisween 2016 :: D is for Deranged (1974)

Our latest feature doubles down from the get go, opening first with a printed disclaimer, saying what we are about to see is true and only the names and locations have been changed; and second, as a chilling wind blows us through a brief tour of a dilapidated farmstead, which eventually gives way to an organ playing a mournful dirge, a newspaper reporter, Tom Sims (Carlson), steps into frame and admits he covered firsthand the human horror story of ghastly proportions that took place here several years back, who then warns how the events of this coming tale will be recreated in graphic detail with nothing left to the imagination. And once those in the audience with weaker constitutions find an exit, Sims begins to relate the tale of Ezra Cobb -- murderer, grave robber, necrophiliac, but he’s probably better known to the general public as the notorious Butcher of Woodside.

As this tale continues, Sims will by popping in and out of the movie at strategic turning points in the life of Cobb (Blossom), elaborating as we go, getting to the bottom of his psychosis by starting at the beginning: at the deathbed of Cobb’s beloved mother (Lee), at the foot of which the devoted son has spent most of his life, waiting on her hand and foot since her debilitating stroke several years prior. And with his father long dead, and not being the sharpest tool in the shed, his mama was all Cobb had and the source of all he knew. Sensing she is about to pass on, Ma Cobb (-- get it? Macabre?) forbids any trip to the hospital, wanting to die in her own bed. She then asserts her virulent influence one last time, warning her son to be wary of the “money stealing bitches” who are only out for his money. All women are full of disease, she rants on, and the wages of sin is gonorrhea, syphilis and death! With that, she falls silent and despite his begging and assurances that she will be just fine, Cobb’s mother passes on, and quite violently, too, with a vomitous eruption of blood and regurgitated stew.

As the months pass after the funeral, we find the Cobb residence is starting to resemble a pigsty; a hoarder’s nightmare of trash, porn magazines and half-full food tins -- all except for the mother’s bedroom, which is in pristine condition, a shrine, complete with her dress laid out on the bed, with her portrait where her head should be with her bible close to (a phantom) hand. At some point Cobb started writing letters to his mama, expressing how much he missed her. He then starts talking to her, as if she were still there. And then, mama started talking back.

Chastised for leaving her all alone in that cold cold grave, what else would a dutiful son do but go dig her up and bring her home. His delusions are shattered a bit in a well executed scene where he opens the coffin and what he thinks he sees doesn’t quite match what he actually finds. It’s been almost a year since Mamma Cobb passed on, and her fragile desiccated corpse is in a state of advanced decomposition and disrepair. Regardless, Cobb brings the body home and starts an errant quest to repair the damage, researching into embalming and taxidermy, using different animal skins to patch things up. It wouldn’t be until a short time later, says Sims, that Cobb would get the notion of using human tissue for his preserving needs.

Working as a hired hand for his neighbor, Harlon Kootz (Warner), Cobb is invited to dinner with the Kootz family, where Harlon sees in the paper that their old Sunday school teacher has died. Unsure of what an obituary is, Cobb is soon intrigued by this ready-made menu and will use it to track down the spare parts he needs. He even admits this between bites, saying he wouldn’t need the whole body, just a few parts, but the collective Kootzes assume ol’ kooky Ezra is just pulling their leg. Only he isn’t, and that night he steals the fresh corpse from the cemetery and takes it home, removing her face, making a mask, which he tries on before stitching it onto his mama, leaving the filleted skull by the bedside to keep her company. More dug up bodies follow and, Sims warns, it will only be a matter of time before Cobb sets his sights and perversions on a living victim...

Edward Theodore Gein was known as a simpleton mama’s boy around his hometown of Plainfield, Wisconsin. A bit eccentric, sure, but pitiable, having never gotten over the death of his mother. At least he was until a local hardware store owner, Bernice Worden, disappeared in November of 1957. When evidence of a receipt showed Gein was her last customer, the authorities followed up on this lead and searched the Gein farm. Needless to say, no one could have been prepared for what they found:

Worden’s decapitated body was discovered hanging upside down in a shed; she’d been gutted and dressed out like a deer. More horrors awaited inside the main house: furniture reupholstered with human skin; bowls made out of skulls; a corset made from a female torso skinned from shoulders to waist; masks made from the skin of human faces; musical instruments and utensils made from human remains; Worden’s head; a belt made from female nipples; four noses; and then there was his “woman suit” that he had been piecing together since his mother died, made so he could literally crawl inside her skin and become his mother in what psychologists described as an "insane transvestite ritual." Interestingly enough, if that’s the right word, this squalor and depravity were confined to only certain areas of the house, while others, which were defined as his mother’s bedroom and parlor, were pristine and untouched.

Obsessed with tales of cannibals and Nazi atrocities and death in general, Gein admitted that most of his macabre paraphernalia came courtesy of his habitual grave-robbing. He also confessed to killing two women; Worden, and Mary Hogan, a local saloon keeper who had disappeared three years earlier, whose head was also found in the house. He was also suspected in the disappearance of several others, including juveniles Evelyn Hartley and Georgia Weckler. His initial confession was tossed out when the county sheriff assaulted the suspect during the interrogation, making it coerced and inadmissible. Despite this, Gein would be found mentally unfit and was confined to a mental institution until he finally stood trial in 1968 for the murder of Bernice Worden. Found guilty but still considered to be insane, Gein would serve no prison time but would remain incarcerated at the Mendota Mental Health Institute until his death in 1984.

Long before the trial even worse rumors about Gein began circulating. Tales of necrophilia and cannibalism started to creep in and embellish the growing urban legend surrounding the case. (Gein always denied having sex with the bodies he exhumed, explaining, "They smelled too bad.") Even as fact and fiction blurred, Gein started to leave his mark on popular culture, too. His case inspired Robert Bloch to write Psycho (1959), which in turn inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s feature film adaptation (1960), with Norman Bates and his mama subbing in for the Geins. Whenever Tobe Hooper’s cousins from Wisconsin visited him in Texas they would regale him with grisly tales of the killer and his trophies, which went a long way in inspiring the clan of rural cannibals in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).

But while Gein would inspire the villains in many a movie and novels (Silence of the Lambs), there weren’t many filmmakers brave enough to try and tackle the story of Gein himself. Enter rock-promoter Tom Karr, who had put together tours for the likes of Led Zeppelin, Three Dog Night, and Black Sabbath in the early 1970s. Obsessed with the Gein case, Karr had notions of making his story into a feature film. And at some point, he crossed paths with Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby while they were out on a promotional tour for their inaugural feature film, the overly-maligned Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972). Clark and Ormsby first met at the University of Miami in the late 1960s; both were theater majors and aspiring playwrights at the time. And when Clark got a wild hair and raised about $20 to make a movie, he turned to his friend for help; and together they co-wrote a script, with Clark handling directing chores while Ormsby took care of the makeup and F/X and also took the lead role of the obnoxious leader of a theater group who inadvertently trigger zombiegeddon.

Karr had hoped Clark would also direct his proposed feature but the aspiring filmmaker, who would go on to do A Christmas Story (1983) and launch the Porky’s franchise (1981-1985), declined, feeling the subject matter was too ghastly. Clark was also knee-deep in his own second feature at the time, too: Dead of Night -- a/k/a Deathdream (1974) an eerily effective spin on The Monkey’s Paw, also scripted by Ormsby, who handled the F/X and makeup again, with the help of his novice assistant, Tom Savini. Clark did agree to produce and edit the film for Karr, and suggested his friend Ormsby for the screenplay and Jeff Gillen, an actor friend who had been in Children and Deathdream, to direct. (Ormsby and Gillen wound up co-directing the film, and Savini would pitch in on the special makeup effects.) Karr agreed, and taking $200,000 of his own money, production began on Necromania when he turned over all of his extensive research and newspaper clippings about the arrest, investigation, and trial of Gein over to Ormsby.

One of the main goals of the production was to show what Hitchcock didn’t (or couldn’t) in his film, namely the grave-robbing, the construction of his flesh suits and knick-knacks, and then get their character inside those skins. And with Ormsby, Savini and Jerome Bergson all pitching in this mission was accomplished to much gruesome effect as the film is actually more graphic than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (-- it still boggles my brain that Hooper was shooting for a G-rating with that, hoping to find the same general audience like JAWS had.) Several efforts wound up on the cutting room floor when the film was first released, restored later in an uncut version; most famously the scene mentioned above where Cobb not only skins the corpse (-- played by Gillen’s wife) but plucks her eyes out with a spoon, saws off the top of her head, and digs out her brain with an ice cream scoop.

To balance this out, Ormsby added a lot of gallows humor to his screenplay, and then he and Gillen found just the right balance executing it, making the audience laugh one moment and then skeeve them out the next., resulting in a near pitch-perfect delirium of minimalist rural Gothic impressionism bashed into a startlingly distinct nightmare of realism. 

And while staying fairly faithful to the facts of the case, the production steered clear of the necrophilia and cannibalism aspects and, at Karr’s insistence, took one major dramatic liberty and added the element of Cobb digging up his mother and bringing her home. (Gein never did this, and kudos to Cosette Lee and her gung-ho performance as her VD rant is one for the ages.) Originally, Karr wanted to film in Wisconsin but when this proved untenable the production was moved across the border into Canada, filming in and around Ontario, taking advantage of several tax breaks. (Clark loved it up there so much he stuck around and shot his next film, Black Christmas, in Canada as well.)

Karr set-up casting calls in New York City, where the likes of Harvey Keitel and Christopher Walken auditioned for the lead role. And while either of them sounds great in theory, that would have denied us the incredible, understated and yet extremely perverted performance by Roberts Blossom as this ghoul with his own internal logic that isn’t hard to decipher but terrifying nonetheless. With his efforts we don’t really feel sorry for or empathize with Ezra but we do understand that he is completely futzed in the head. 

We believe in the capability when he’s chopping up bodies, but we also believe it when those around him, innocent bystanders or potential victims, as he hides in plain sight, think he’s just some harmless old kook -- and that might just be the most disturbing point of all when you get right down to it as Carl Zittrer’s haunting and repeating chorus of “The Old Rugged Cross” leads us into the next verse of Cobb’s reign of terror, when he sets his sights on a new kind of victim.

This begins with a slightly daffy interlude when Cobb, at the Kootzes encouragement, starts looking for wife, starting with the only woman his mama trusted, Maureen Shelby (Waldman), a “plump heifer” who can relate to Ezra because she, too, talks to the dead all the time; namely her deceased husband (-- a cameoing Ormsby), who constantly “tells” her to satisfy her carnal needs by any means necessary. And so, she seduces the hapless Cobb by seance into the bedroom. And while he seems initially excited by this process and her ample bosom, Ma Cobb soon asserts herself, bringing the episode to a violent end when Cobb shoots Maureen in the head through a muffling feathered pillow.

Things get even more ghoulish when Cobb next becomes transfixed with the busty waitress at the local roadhouse. Like everyone else, Mary Ransom (Moore) thinks Cobb is just a harmless barfly, even agreeing to let him give her a ride to the service station when she gets off work and finds her tires slashed -- only Cobb did the slashing and they wind up at his place, where he promises to round up a couple of spare tires for free. 

But after an interminable wait with no sign of Cobb, Mary enters the darkened house looking for him, following some bizarre noises into a bedroom, where she discovers a grotesque hen party of seated corpses surrounding Ma Cobb on the bed. And then one of those corpses starts to move! It’s Cobb, dressed in the skin of one of his victims, who runs Ransom down before she can escape. 

When she comes to, Mary finds herself locked in a closet, bound, and stripped down to her bra and panties. Cobb eventually lets her out for a dinner party, which looks suspiciously like the one in Hooper’s movie until one realizes this film was released nearly eight months earlier. The juxtaposition of the gathered rotting corpses in the prim and proper setting is phantasmagorical. And for Mary, who holds it together quite admirably under the circumstances, this nightmare ends when a desperate escape attempt ends with an enraged Cobb beating her to death with a femur.

Which brings us to the extended climax of the film, where Cobb tells his disbelieving neighbor that Mary isn’t missing, she’s just up at his place. Then Harlon’s son (Smeagle) arrives and introduces his girl, Sally (Orr), who works as a clerk at the local hardware store. Once again, Cobb is immediately smitten with the girl and starts hanging around the shop, saying he needs some anti-freeze, turning down an invitation by the Kootzes to go hunting so he can remain behind with Sally. 

Once alone, he uses one of the store’s display rifles to shoot the incredulous Sally in the head. Tossing the body in the back of his truck, Cobb heads for home; but in his excitement, he neglected to make sure Sally was really dead as the bullet merely grazed her scalp. Fleeing into the forest, this leads to the most disheartening scene as Sally almost gets away only to be waylaid by one of the small game traps set by the unwitting Kootzes.

Meanwhile, the Kootzes return to the original scene of the crime, find Sally gone and blood on the floor, and alert the Sheriff. When he arrives, they find the receipt for Cobb’s anti-freeze, the last sale of the day. And while Harlon feels Cobb would have nothing to do with whatever happened to Sally, his son and the Sheriff (McHeady) decide to head out to the Cobb place anyway, where Cobb is in the process of stringing Sally’s naked body up by her feet and proceeds to “gut the carcass.” Suddenly, he is overwhelmed by his mother’s presence and an unholy flashback of all the atrocities he’s committed these past few months. 

When the Sheriff and the Kootzes arrive, they see what’s left of Sally hanging from the rafters in the barn. (A truly haunting scene as the incongruous corpse slowly sways in the breeze.) They then find Cobb in the house, surrounded by his trophies, cackling and disconnected from everything. And as the screen fades to black, Simms returns one last time to say several nights later, a group of local townsfolk gathered at the Cobb house and burned it to the ground, hoping it would help erase the memories of what happened there.

I guess technically Deranged (1974) is to Ed Gein as what The Sadist (1963) is to Charlie Starkweather, in that they were both inspired by the subject matter and whose grim and gritty sheen gives them more juice than their bigger-budgeted brethren. As far as I know only one other film tried to tackle Ed Gein, In the Light of the Moon (2000) -- later released on video as Ed Gein. And while it does contain a fabulous performance by Steve Railsback and sticks closer to the truth I think it pales when stacked up against the ickiness of Deranged, a title Karr hit upon at the last minute when he struck a distribution deal with American International Pictures.

They were fun to make, said Ormsby on making these films, with a kind of communal feeling. Sadly, Ormsby and Gillen would have a bit of a falling out with Clark when he shut them out of the editing room. A rift that would last until they reunited briefly for Popcorn (1991), when Clark was forced to fire his old friend off the picture, ending their friendship and working relationship for good. And their loss was a loss for us as well, as I for one wished those two had kept making movies together -- especially ones as effective and deranged as Deranged

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's three! Three films down! Ah! Ah! Ah! With 23 to go! Oy! Oy! Oy!

Deranged (1974) Karr International Pictures :: American International Pictures / P: Tom Karr, Bob Clark / D: Jeff Gillen, Alan Ormsby / W: Alan Ormsby / C: Jack McGowan / E: Bob Clark / M: Carl Zittrer / S: Roberts Blossom, Cosette Lee, Leslie Carlson, Robert Warner, Brian Smeagle, Robert McHeady, Marian Waldman, Micki Moore, Pat Orr

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