Any time a horror film deals with homicidal rednecks, grave robbers, or cannibals who have perverse relationships with their mothers, you can thank Ed Gein.
Gein was a reclusive farmer in Wisconsin who murdered women and crafted suits from their skin. He would also fashion trophies from body parts he scavenged from graveyards. When he was arrested in the fifties, it came to light that Gein had been severely psychologically damaged by his mother, a religious zealot who poisoned her son against women and sexuality. When police searched Gein’s property, they found a veritable treasure trove of perverse decorations, including soup bowls made out of human skulls and a belt made out of human nipples.
The story was the basis for several classic pulp genre tropes. Here is a look at the top five horror films inspired by the Ed Gein case…
5. Deranged (1974)
Roberts Blossom (the creepy old man from Home Alone) stars in the role of Ezra Cobb, a character modeled after Gein. The film tells the story of Cobb’s descent into insanity after the loss of his mother, and does stay fairly true to the original story. Cobb lures women from town to his ramshackle home, where he disembowels them and uses their bodies for decorations. It’s most notable for being the first feature film that veteran makeup artist Tom Savini worked on.
4. Motel Hell (1980)
“It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent Fritters.” That was the tagline for Kevin Connor’s gruesome horror-comedy which tells the story of Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun) and his rotund sister who own a hotel where they sell their own jerky. The jerky, of course, comes from the butchered flesh of their guests. Although this would hardly make for a practical business model, it does make for a highly enjoyable, self-reflexive “hixploitation” film. Midnite Movies has released both Deranged and Motel Hell on the same DVD.
3. Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Silence of the Lambs (1991) — FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) has been tasked with tracking Buffalo Bill, a serial killer, modeled largely after Gein, who abducts women to build outfits out of their skin. But she can’t do it without the help of the brilliant, albeit manipulative, cannibal psychologist Hannibal Lecter (Sir Anthony Hopkins). Jonathan Demme’s treatment of the Thomas Harris penned novel is one of the most highly respected horror films of all time. What’s more — it was just made streamable on Netflix this year!
2. Psycho (1960)
This is the film that basically started the slasher sub-genre. Based on Robert Bloch’s novel by the same name, the film tells the story of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who checks into the Bates Motel after having embezzled a large sum of cash from her boss…but never manages to check out. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is the demented young hotel owner who had a severely unhealthy relationship with his mother, and would, during moments of duress or sexual arousal, assume the persona of his mother and kill whoever it was that was triggering these destructive, self-materializing impulses. As another reference to Gein, Norman Bates is a taxidermist by hobby. Widely regarded as Hitchcock’s masterpiece thriller, it established the framework of the slasher film as we know it today. It should be required viewing in elementary school. Thankfully, the film is now streamable in its entirety through Direct TV’s website, and it’s regularly broadcast on television.
1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
A group of young Texans are enjoying a summer afternoon drive when they encounter a family of cannibalistic maniacs who live off the grid and subsist on the flesh of abducted tourists. Director Tobe Hooper was a documentary filmmaker and teacher in Texas who wanted to make a low budget horror film that would catapult him towards superstardom. To some degree, you could say he did. The films was a commercial success, and was well received by many high profile filmmakers, including Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg (the latter of whom recruited Hooper to direct the film Poltergeist). Part of what makes the film so eerie is the documentary grade film equipment used, which lends everything an air of authenticity. And who can forget the meat-hook scene? although it’s spawned countless mindless sequels, its legacy still endures. There is a special edition DVD which came out recently that features outtakes and bloopers.
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