Ed Gein is one of the most notorious names in American history. He was not, conclusively, a serial killer. He killed only two people that we know of for certain with a third victim being widely accepted, but never technically confirmed. But Gein didn’t need to be a serial killer to become one of the most frightening men in American history. He was never really known for killing people, necessarily. He was known for what he did with dead bodies.
Lampshades made of human faces, furniture made from bones. Skulls on bedposts, wastebaskets made of skin, bowls made from skulls, it just goes on and on. There were hundreds of artistically crafted items like this found when the police raided Gein’s house. These were the aspects of Gein’s life and crimes that inspired The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Gein was only charged with the murder of two people, it’s certainly likely that he committed more. Many have speculated that some of the unidentified remains in the house came from people that he killed, but the vast majority of them were already dead. He simply dug them up from the local cemetery and set to work turning them into what he considered household art.
Movies like Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Psycho took aspects of Gein’s story as inspiration and both of them rank among the most classic horror films ever made. Both were only inspired by very specific pieces of Gein’s life. The farmhouse inspired Chain Saw and the idea of a young man digging up his mother to preserve the illusion that she was alive inspired Psycho.
Then there’s Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile. Coming out right on the heels of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it centers on a killer named Ezra Cobb. But the name is a minor change, as this other film “inspired by true events” is the real deal. For all intents and purposes, this is the Ed Gein story. At least, it’s as close as we’re ever going to get.
The things it gets right start with the most important element: the casting. The great Roberts Blossom plays Ezra Cobb and he is so unnerving in the role. He’s a small, thin guy. He’s not physically imposing. He’s quietly unstable and there’s an intensity in his eyes that speaks volumes about the character. He’s so out of touch with reality, has no concrete idea of what’s real and what isn’t and that’s just as, if not more responsible for his actions than anything about his hostile upbringing.
Deranged does give us a bit of a “Life and Times Of…” story, but it’s condensed. It flows quickly and gives us just enough to get the idea. It’s not a gorgeously shot, glossy, A-list depiction of a serial killer’s story, like Silence of the Lambs or Zodiac. This is a precursor to the likes of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. It’s a small, sleazy depiction of events and it probably should be.
It’s the kind of movie you want to shower after watching, but that’s kind of necessary when explaining this story. That doesn’t mean that this is a pitch-perfect accurate portrayal of events. The character doesn’t even have the same name, so of course it’s not going to be that. Gein didn’t really dig up his mother, he went the even crazier route of digging up a woman who was “close enough” and putting her in his mother’s clothes. The women he killed certainly didn’t look like the victims he goes after here. It takes wild liberties with the facts. Gein never killed this many people and never even admitted to necrophila.
But in terms of characterizing what kind of person this man was and the kind of life he led, Deranged hit the nail on the head in a way that no other film has since.
It’s as much of a shocking, ‘70s exploitation film as titles like The Last House on the Left. That aspect of it certainly shines through. But the uncomfortable gaze here feels like a necessary one as we are truly experiencing the entire feature through Ezra’s POV. For the most part, he guides us through every scene, and we’re even treated to his own delusions, which for him are just normal. Ezra’s an unreliable narrator, too. It’s hard to ever be sure if we’re seeing what’s really happening within the story, or if we’re just seeing Ezra’s version of what’s happening.
That aspect of Deranged makes it worth re-watching and definitely shows that it’s a little smarter than it’s given credit for. In general, it’s not given much credit at all, and that’s too bad. It’s a brutal, often disgusting and always genuinely creepy movie with a killer lead performance.