Face-Off: Deranged vs. Ed Gein

Ed Gein was a man with a legendary devotion to his mother; a devotion so intense that it drove him mad when she passed away. The things Ed did when left alone were so shocking and appalling that they have inspired many horror films over the decades, including THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, PSYCHO, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and the two movies we're taking a look at in this week's Face-Off: Alan Ormsby and Jeff Gillen's DERANGED from 1974, and Chuck Parello's 2000 film ED GEIN. This just seemed like the perfect time for an examination of a couple Ed Geins movies - after all, Mother's Day is this weekend.
DERANGED is one of those films where the names are changed to protect the innocent (or the guilty), so star Roberts Blossom isn't playing a man named Ed Gein here, he's playing Ezra Cobb... and he does an incredible, captivating job of bringing Ezra to life. Somehow the guy is equally likeable and creepy. You care about him, feel for him, have fun watching him, are amused by him, but then you're also disgusted and unnerved by his actions. It's a shame that he's a lunatic, because he's a nice guy you'd like to hang out with otherwise. He's well liked by everyone around him, until they find out he's a killer.
Steve Railsback does fine work playing Ed Gein as a simple country boy who is a bit odd, especially with the way he stares at the middle-aged women he obsesses over, but does a decent job of hiding his madness when in the company of others. He's weird enough to make people uncomfortable at times, while being nice enough that he comes off as being harmless. He's pleasant and polite, you wouldn't think he has such twisted interests and dark secrets. He exhibits the strangest behavior in front of others when he's stricken by particularly intense flashbacks and visions of his overbearing mother.
Cosette Lee doesn't have a whole lot of screen time as Ezra's mother Amanda, but she certainly makes an impression during the time she does have. The film begins with Ma Cobb on her deathbed, reiterating to Ezra things that she has told him many times before: that women are evil and not to be trusted, they'll take advantage of him, most of them are diseased, and the wages of sin are syphilis, gonorrhea, and death. In this scene, we see exactly what sort of person Amanda was and what she has done to Ezra.
Carrie Snodgress brings a strong believability to her scenes as Ed's deeply religious mother Augusta, who made sure to drill the most unpleasant passages from the Bible into the minds of her sons. She was a fiery woman who could tear someone apart with her words, and Snodgress's delivery of her lines make them especially effective. Augusta didn't only use her words to punish, though. She would also dole out physical abuse if her children broke the rules. Like if they showed an interest in sins of the flesh.
DERANGED is very economical in the way in which it tells its story. It only takes one scene of Amanda Cobb ranting to her son, her funeral, some shots of a cold and lonely Ezra hanging out in their home, and some lines spoken by the narrator to move Ezra along from a doting, sheltered son to a grave robbing madman within the first 15 minutes of the movie. Once Ezra gets his mom's decomposing corpse back home, he sets out to freshen her up in any way possible. Everything he does from that point on makes perfect sense to him, and he's doing most of it out of love for his mother. We don't need any more information than the beginning of the film gives us to know what's going on with Ezra.
ED GEIN is packed with flashbacks to Ed's experience growing up with an abusive father and a mother who taught him to trust no woman other than herself. Ed was brainwashed into his devotion for her; if he could have seen her objectively, he would have wanted to get away from her just as much as brother he kills when he says he's going to move out. When she passes away, he longs for her resurrection so intensely that he seeks comfort from other elderly women - even if that means digging up their corpses - and is soon seeing visions of his mother telling him to kill women who would offend her sensibilities. Ed does unthinkable things, but you understand what drives him to do those things.
Tom Savini earned his first makeup effects credit on DERANGED, and the skills that would soon make him famous among genre fans are already on display here. Ezra exhumes bodies and uses their flesh to replace his mother's decaying parts (or to dress up in himself), then he uses remains to fashion things like soup bowls and chairs. Savini gets to show us some of Ezra's work in nauseating detail. Eyeballs are scooped out while embalming fluid runs from the sockets, a head is sawed open and the brain removed from within, a girl is strung up like a deer so Ezra can slice into her stomach... There are some very gross things in here.
While holding back on gore for the most part, this film does get across Ed's hobby of peeling off the faces of corpses and making soup bowls out of their skulls and bones. The film shows him making a piece of art featuring a woman's labia in the most tasteful way possible, and there's even a moment in which Ed, wearing the skin of a woman's face and breasts, dances in the moonlight while beating on a drum and howling... There are definitely things in here that will gross out and disturb the average viewer. And yes, it does show a headless body hung up and gutted like a deer, the most notorious image to come out of the Ed Gein case.
Starting with the changing of the names, DERANGED isn't too interested in telling "just the facts" of the case. It uses the Gein story as a foundation that it builds upon with its own take on the real events. A spiritualist victim is thrown in for comedic effect, a victim who was a middle-aged woman in reality is a teenage girl in the film, Ed Gein didn't dig up his mother like Ezra Cobb does, etc. You get the gist of the Gein case here, but you shouldn't take it as a telling of what really happened. That said, the way it tells its story is fully engaging.
ED GEIN clearly had budgetary limitations, which comes through in things like the simple way in which the exterior of Ed's house is shot (he doesn't even have a shed), and the atrocious blue saturated night scenes. While the film does a commendable job of sticking relatively close to real events, the way the flashbacks are handled does drag this one down for me, as I find that it feels awkward and disjointed. The storytelling is a bit lacking; the performances of Railsback and Snodgress are what really shine here.
This was a tough call to make, because if we're picking the more accurate representation of the Ed Gein case it would be Parello's film. However, despite the best efforts of Railsback and Snodgress, ED GEIN comes up short for me. DERANGED fudges the facts more, but also makes for a much better viewing experience. For the style, the special effects, and the performance of Roberts Blossom, DERANGED takes the win.

Would you have given the win to DERANGED as well, or do you think ED GEIN should have taken the victory? Share your thoughts on these films, and on Ed Gein inspired stories in general, by leaving a comment below. If you'd like to send in ideas for future Face-Off articles, you can contact me at [email protected].

Happy Mother's Day!



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