Saturday, July 30, 2011

Ed Gein Double Feature

MGM has been kind enough to put together a "Midnite Movies" DVD double feature of two seriously strange serial killer films, Deranged (1974) and Motel Hell (1980). The former is the better of the two, but both are worth seeing--and the two have some odd connections.

Deranged is based fairly closely on the story of Ed Gein, the real-life body-snatcher and murderer who decorated his farmhouse with female body parts and had a severe mother fixation. Gein became the basis for the serial killers in Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and (as Buffalo Bill) The Silence of the Lambs. Whereas these better known horror films adapted the Gein story freely and all but unrecognizably, Deranged takes a pseudo-documentary biopic approach, including a narrator who wanders on and off the set. The killer is named Ezra (or Ez) Cobb, but the name is close enough to Ed Gein to leave no doubt as to whose story is being told. Many details of the true story are preserved, although there are differences, principally to make the main female victims younger and more beautiful.

The greatest asset of Deranged is the star performance of Roberts Blossom as Ezra Cobb. A character actor whose face is familiar without being instantly placeable, Blossom beautifully portrays a humble farmer who is by turns grief-stricken (over the death of his mother), elated, intense, lascivious, and at all times mad as a hatter. Especially creepy is his way of manipulating his lips and tongue. He is aided by a good supporting cast and a tone that manages to be both somber and blackly funny.

Motel Hell is also in the Gein tradition, but it takes Gein only as remote inspiration. For its ideas, it depends more on other Gein-inspired horror movies. Deranged is fresh in part because of its closeness to actual events; Motel Hell depends on Psycho (for the idea of a horrific motel) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (for the idea of a killer who makes food out of his victims). Yet Motel Hell (so named because the letter "O" has faded from the "Motel Hello" sign) has some original touches. In Motel Hell, Farmer Vincent makes delicious smoked meats out of people he plants in the ground up to their necks, like cabbages. He also slits their vocal cords so they can't scream--just make growling animal noises. The spectacle of a garden of people planted vegetatively is an interesting horror concept. All the more so because one of the victims is John Ratzenberger from Cheers.

Nevertheless, Motel Hell is too derivative, obvious, and slow-paced to succeed as a horror film. Rory Calhoun is competent as Farmer Vincent, but he doesn't achieve the sheer battiness of Blossom as Cobb. The main interest of Motel Hell is as yet another movie, like Deranged, in which the country is presented as a dangerous place to be.

George Ochoa
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films

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