Color, 1974, 83m.
Directed by Jeff Gillen and Alan Ormsby
Starring Roberts Blossom, Cosette Lee, Micki Moore, Leslie Carlson, Robert Warner
Arrow (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Universum (Germany R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
One of the great hidden gems of 1970s drive-in cinema, Deranged is one of the closest depictions of the grisly crimes of infamous Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein, who had earlier inspired the novel Psycho. This Canadian-lensed production from much of the same team behind such films as Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things and Deathdream was overshadowed by another 1974 Gein-inspired release, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, despite a particularly lurid ad campaign from American International Pictures complete with the subtitle Confession of a Necrophile and the tagline, "Pretty Sally Mae died a very unnatural death!... but the worst hasn't happened to her yet!" Far too strong for mainstream TV channels, the film disappeared into obscurity for a few years; however, interest was gradually reignited in the horror community in the 1980s thanks to eye-catching write ups in such pivotal books as The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film and The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror, creating demand for a film no one could easily see. Eventually it was released, of course, and thankfully it absolutely did not disappoint.
In the best true crime fashion, a reporter (Carlson) wearing a heavy jacket and glasses escorts the viewer through this lightly fictionalized look at our depraved main character, here named Ezra Cobb and played by unforgettable character actor Roberts Blossom (who later became the creepy seller of Christine). Deeply devoted to his ailing and deeply woman-hating mama (Lee), farmer Ezra really has no life to call his own. When his mother dies, Ezra's psyche gradually deteriorates as he copes with the loss by clinging onto her possessions. When that isn't enough, he digs her body up in the cemetery and resorts to gruesome ends involving other, fresher dead bodies to preserve her remains as well as possible. His nominal employer tries to set up Ezra on a date with an amateur medium that goes horrifically awry, setting off a chain of murderous events that would become the stuff of legend.
We've had plenty of other Gein-related movies both before and after this one (also including William Girdler's Three on a Meathook and a so-so biopic starring Steve Railsback), but this is easily one of the scariest. A heavy dose of quirky humor in the first half makes this feel like a black comedy at times (especially with the reporter casually stepping into frame at random intervals), and Blossom's befuddled reactions to the people around him generate some small amount of sympathy from the outset. However, in the second half the film pulls out all the steps with some of the creepiest set pieces in '70s cinema, one involving Ezra showing off his unorthodox fashion choices while cornering a potential victim. The relentlessly icy setting adds to the diseased, oppressive atmosphere of the film, which culminates in a particularly queasy final scene that sends the audience off with a shudder rather than a scream.
The first commercial release of Deranged was a 1993 VHS from Moore Video, who also turned out the first tape of Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural. Their presentation of this film has caused some confusion ever since as they decided to splice back in a scene featuring Ezra scooping out the brains from a cadaver's skull after sawing it open at his table. This brief scene had never been included in general release versions of the film, but the extended Moore release soon became referred to as the "unrated" version. The Moore tape also included a rough but interesting half-hour documentary, "Ed Gein: American Maniac," with police interviews and voiceover describing just a few of his misdeeds.
In 2002, MGM released Deranged as part of their "Midnite Movies" DVD line paired up with Motel Hell. The impressive anamorphic transfer was a huge step up from the pale, fuzzy VHS version, though to some fans' chagrin, it contained the theatrical release version without the brain scene. Two years later, the German label Universum released a 30th anniversary DVD containing a transfer that slipped the extra scene (from the old Moore master) into the MGM version, creating an uncut composite now officially dubbed the "unrated version." That disc also contains the Gein doc short, a great behind-the-scenes doc entitled "Deranged Chronicles: The Making of Deranged" with plenty of making-of footage, "Ed Gein Story" with producer Tom Karr in Wisconsin touring through the real-life inspiration's stomping grounds, and the trailer.
Now we jump forward to 2013 with the best release by a long shot, the UK Region B Blu-ray from Arrow (which should also include a DVD counterpart, not available as of this writing). The HD transfer of the film aired a few years earlier on MGM HD wasn't all that impressive, but this disc looks fantastic; the colors are extremely strong without being oversaturated, detail is razor sharp, and the film grain looks fine and natural as opposed to the chunky, messy appearance on its TV broadcast. (Let's hope Arrow can take a crack at Grave of the Vampire, another problematic MGM HD property screaming for a respectful edition.) The DTS-HD mono track sounds very good but doesn't have to make any major leaps considering the sparse nature of the source material, including a minimalist score by Carl Zittrer (Black Christmas). And yes, this is the long version of the film with the brain scene in much, much better quality than before, with the reddish colors finally adjusted to match the rest of the film and all the damage finally cleaned up.
On the extras front the release excels as well, beginning with a brisk, very entertaining audio commentary with "certified horror legend" Tom Savini and moderator Calum Waddell covering the FX guru's early work on the film and his memories of hanging out with the cast and crew. Other topics include a potential remake of this film, the coldness of the shoot, the hyperbole of '70s horror marketing, and some of the lessons learned here and their effect on Martin. The 10-minute featurette "A Blossoming Brilliance" spotlights horror director and fan Scott Spiegel talking about a few subjects related to the film including working with Blossom on The Quick and the Dead (and giving him a copy of this film which he quickly returned), Tom Savini, uncredited producer Bob Clark, and other Gein portrayals on film. Running just shy of 15 minutes, "Ed Gein: From Murderer to Movies" offers a chat with Laurence R. Harvey about the real Gein and this version, which he feels is "nastier and grittier" than some of the other tales based on his antics, and well as Blossom's influence on Harvey's indelible performance in Human Centipede II. The 12-minute "The Wages of Sin" takes a look back at the making of the film, essentially adapting the behind-the-scenes footage and Gillen interview from "Deranged Chronicles" into a new, HD-friendly presentation with tighter editing, less Savini (since he's represented elsewhere on the disc now), and a clearer overall narrative (including the full "scoop" behind the eyeball scene). Also included is a still gallery, the theatrical trailer, and a Trailers from Hell version of the trailer featuring an intro and commentary from The Dark Backward director Adam Rifkin. The reversible packaging features striking cover art by Nat Marsh opposite the original poster design, with a liner notes booklet featuring an essay by the great Stephen Thrower (whose now pricey books really need to come back in print!) and a vintage Q&A with Bob Clark. A tremendous release and highly recommended to any horror fan without reservations.
Reviewed on August 13, 2013.