Deranged, at the time of its production, was the most accurate portrayal of the life of the Butcher of Plainfield – Ed Gein (1906-84 liver cancer), who dug up corpses and kept parts of them around his home as trophies and paraphernalia. He apparently even made furniture out of skin and bone. The movie Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield (2007) which stars Kane Hodder (1955-) of ‘Jason’ from Friday the 13th fame is also based on his story but is not a true crime type treatment.
Between 1947 and 1952, according to Gein, he went to cemeteries at night and dug up bodies of women who resembled his mother among others. Reports Gein practised necrophilia were reportedly denied by Gein himself, because the bodies “smelled too bad”. He went so far as to make a skin suit in the shape of his mother so he could climb in it and … well, he was not a well man and spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital.
His life was fictionalised in Robert Bloch’s (1917-94 cancer) book Psycho (1959) which was followed the next year by Alfred Hitchcock’s (1899-1980 kidney failure) movie of the same name.
Deranged was made while Gein was still alive and was misunderstood upon its release. It’s tone seemed weird, I guess, perhaps even offensive. A common crime of Ormsby’s screenplays it would seem. It happens sometimes with movies of such serious subject matter… as Deranged is a bit of a black comedy.
Actor and poet Roberts Blossom (1924-2011 natural causes) plays Gein. The story is told by a narrator who appears in the film to tell the partly fictionalised story.
“I’m coming mama!,” cries Gein, awakening from a dream that his mother wants him to bring her home from the grave she has been buried in. He digs her up but her skeletal arm comes off in his hand as he hugs the remains and says: “I’m taking you home, mama!” Poor devil.
He sings Sweet Girl of My Dreams with the rotted corpse of his mother beside him in his pick-up truck – and he’s pulled over by the police… only for the cop to miss the skeleton but not the bad smell which he attributes to road-kill or something else. Deranged is a dark comedy.
The narrator, who tells us Gein took his mother’s body back to her bedroom and then studied taxidermy and embalming to restore her, looks like Brad out of The Rocky Horror Show which opened in L.A. as a live show during the film’s production. Not to be confused with The Rocky Horror Picture Show which came out in 1975. There is also a character named Brad in Deranged. The narrator was not apparently Ormsby’s idea.
Gein tells the family he’s a handyman for, that the obituaries are “valuable information” and that when you need a head “for repairs or something” just take the head when you dig up a corpse. Of course, the family finds this hilarious… Gein doesn’t trust girls although there’s one who is fat and lives on Whitman Samplers who might be all right… but she talks to her dead husband and Gein finds her weird even though Gein talks to his mother – at least his mother’s “alive”.
“She’s got a cute old belly, cute as can be,” he tells his mother after this woman suggests they have a séance together to talk to her husband and his mother.
“I don’t think she’s all there… upstairs, you know what I mean?,” Geins tells the unresponsive body of his mother. In Psycho ‘Mrs Bates’ spoke back but it doesn’t happen in Deranged.
Ormsby throws in a comical drunk again, like in Deathdream, when Gein goes to a bar in search of women. But such characters look a little dated comic-wise in retrospect. Forgiven.
Gein wears his skin suit in one of the creepiest scenes in the movie. The last third of the film takes on a more serious tone as Gein’s heinous crimes are delved into and the comedy evaporates as the horror takes a front seat. But there was no other way it could be.
Ormsby said he didn’t have what it took to be a director as he thought that being in that position you had to be a bit of a conman and be able to fire people on the spot. Thus he stuck to writing. He does show maturity as a director in Deranged and who knows what he might have produced in the genre if he had the confidence to continue as a writer/director.
He did direct and write Popcorn (1991) but left early on during directing duties. Popcorn is a “hey gang, let’s put on an all night horror show” at the local empty cinema which is about to be torn down. Stars include Dee Wallace (1948-), Tony Roberts (1939-) and Ray Walston (1914-2001 lupus)… as an avant-garde movie shot by a Manson-like 1960s filmmaker entitled The Possessor is played for the horror night. There are consequences. It has a typical slasher film scenario.
What is interesting about the film are the films-within-the-film screened at the horror night. Ormsby directed them. One is a homage to black and white sci-fi movies of the 1950s, entitled Mosquito as it sends up titles such as Tarantula (1955) and The Deadly Mantis (1957). Another is The Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man, which harks back to Lon Chaney Jr’s Man-Made Monster (1941) and The Indestructible Man (1956) but in a modern milieu. Then there’s the Smell-O-Vision movie send-up The Stench. Actually, the first two movies have gimmicks with Mosquito in 3-D and Electrified Man with seats rigged to give viewers an electric shock like William Castle did when he released The Tingler (1959).
Director and producer Joe Dante (1946-), who did Gremlins in 1984, took an interest in Ormsby around this time and asked him to write a screenplay for The Mummy. In fact, Dante was probably so impressed by Ormsby’s direction and ideas for the Popcorn films-within-the-film that he created his own film-within-a-film entitled ‘Mant’, which was about a man turning into a giant ant, for his beautifully realised William Castle tribute set during the Cuban Missile Crisis – Matinee (1993). Ormsby’s The Mummy screenplay was never used. It seems Ormsby was though!
The rest of Popcorn disappoints and it was Ormsby’s penultimate screenplay. It is no surprise the film’s director Mark Herrier, an actor from Bob Clark’s Porky’s, never went on to direct another feature.
Previously Ormsby also wrote the scripts for the adolescent bullying movie My Bodyguard (1980), kids karate film The Little Dragons (1980) as well as co-writing Clark’s Porkys II: The Next Day (1983). There was also the successful The Substitute (1996) a little later on.
I’ve left out what I think is the best in some ways til last, although I don’t know how much of Ormsby’s script is left – director Paul Schrader’s Cat People (1982). Cat People is more of a vision of Schrader’s than a screenplay of Ormsby’s, who said Schrader didn’t deserve the “difficult” title he had been given as a director. The writer also thought Nastassja Kinski was perfectly cast but John Heard as the zookeeper and Malcolm McDowell as the brother were wrong. Ormsby thought more in the order of Nick Nolte and David Bowie in the respective roles.
Indeed, Bowie sings the excellent title song Cat People (Putting Out Fire) where his voice raises an octave as he sings “gasoline”. Some people call it one of the great moments in singing history. But that is his only contribution to the score which was mainly written by famed synth composer Giorgio Moroder (1940-).
Cat People is a remake of a 1942 Val Lewton produced RKO Picture. It is not one of the best Lewton movies. I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Seventh Victim (1943) are better.
In fact, the remake credits itself with being an RKO picture as did the same year’s The Thing (1982) which was a remake of another RKO film The Thing From Another World (1951). There were plans to do more RKO titles apparently.
Really, it’s a Universal Picture and the opening credit sequence is rather beautiful as we are introduced to the native Cat People and their strange relations to religion and love-making… and then to Nastassja who was only in her early 20s. Someone has written that she spends nearly half the movie naked… but she looks just as good in clothes and she is a reasonable actress although there would be no kudos for her except for a Saturn Award nomination at the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films awards of 1983.
The only other awards for the film were Golden Globe nominations for Moroder’s score and Bowie and Moroder’s title track.
Ormsby’s screenplay uses two moments from the original 1940s movie and that is when Kinski is approached by a “cat-like” woman in a bar and when actress Annette O’Toole is stalked alone at her local indoor swimming pool/private health club. A familiar jump scare is used from the original film as well.
Schrader’s use of colour at the beginning of the film, contrasting orange desert and interiors with bluish night scenes, remind me of Dario Argento and its use in Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980) although it is far more stylised in those movies and Schrader doesn’t continue to use it as the film progresses.
That Schrader would do such a film seems unlikely although he did write Taxi Driver (1976) and would go on to direct Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist (2005). His filmography is relatively horror free in comparison to Ormsby’s whose later career has less horror except for the blip of Popcorn.
One of the opening horror scenes in Cat People has a large black leopard’s tail flapping from beneath a bed like any disturbed feline as a prostitute wonders what the hell is going on… she eventually gets mauled.
I always liked John Heard (1946-2017 heart attack after back operation) as an actor. I think he was great in the previous year’s Cutter’s Way (1981). People would otherwise remember him as the father in Home Alone (1990). He died six months after the death of his estranged 22-year-old son Max after succumbing to complications of back surgery in a Palo Alto hotel. It was ruled a heart attack. An off-Broadway winning actor in the 1970s, Heard was uncomfortable with the nudity in Cat People. He stood less than five foot ten inches and was towered over by co-stars John Laroquette (1947-) and Ed Begley Jr. (1949-).
The movie is set in New Orleans although the cat enclosure, which looks far more dangerous to the public than the one in the original movie, was built on the Univeral lot and stood there for many years before finally being demolished.
Heard and Kinski are a good match, although according to the screenplay, her brother McDowell is her perfect match as Cat People, like Kinski, upon having sex with a normal human turn into black leopards and must kill to return to human form. Thus only two Cat People can mate – brother and sister in this film – and remain forever in human form. It’s perverse and yet tasteful as virginal Kinski resists her brother’s advances despite the apparent advantages in not tearing apart your latest human lover.
I’m sure original screenwriter of the 1942 film DeWitt Bodeen (1908-88) may have been amused by what had been done to his original script. He was still alive when the new version was released… but remember he wrote the slightly perverse devil worshipping film The Seventh Victim (1943). I would have loved his reaction.
Cat People is a new age 1980s modern horror film with moments of gore such as a zookeeper’s arm being almost ripped out of its socket to a leopard autopsy which turns into a gory momentary half-transformation before ending in a pile of yuk. I can’t explain, see the movie. Alien (1979), which is also a new age horror film, had a modest autopsy scene in comparison.
Sensuality and violence meld with serial killing as the Jekyll and Hyde story mixes with an incestuous kinkiness of a kind of Beauty and the Beast. As someone who viewed the film upon its original release albeit on VHS – it would have looked great on a big screen – I was impressed by its beauty, and today, it still seems oddly fresh although the prosthetic effects and other effects have long since been outmoded.
“Basement?,” says co-star Ruby Dee (1922-2014 natural causes), who is landlady to murderous McDowell. “I don’t go there…” It is there that pieces of three or four bodies are found half eaten with their genitals torn out.
That McDowell’s character is an impotent serial killer is not surprising considering he knows he’s going to rip each poor lover apart later. He dresses in a long leather coat like some sort of Gestapo officer when he goes to try and seduce his sister one last time.
Then there’s the scene after Kinski loses her virginity to Heard and she looks at herself in the mirror to see if she is still the same person, as she tastes the blood from her broken hymen… followed by a violent transformation.
The end of the film was Schrader’s idea and not Ormsby’s with Kinski kept prisoner in cat form in Heard’s zoo, unable to change back into human form, as Heard feeds her the odd chunk of meat through the bars in some sort of perverse sexual tease. Sensual horror. It’s great stuff. And it flopped, of course.
Interestingly, it was Bob Clark’s Porky’s that made the Top Ten in 1982 box office-wise. Cat People came in that year at Number 88 beaten by another transformation movie, the inferior and forgotten The Beast Within at Number 83. The Thing also disappointed for Universal that year ending any other RKO remakes. But at least Universal had by far the most successful movie of that year which was Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-terrestrial at Number One.
Beginning as a student from inspiration which came from Night of the Living Dead, Ormsby went on to write and act in the strange cult item Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, quickly followed by the almost daft black comedy of Deranged, through to one of the most sensual and yet animally violent movies of the 1980s… these few Alan Ormsby creations, acting and all, are immense despite their modesty.