It’s 1964. You’ve been a long time fan of Joan Crawford since her Oscar winning performance in Mildred Pierce (1945), and you see she has a new movie opening this weekend: Strait-Jacket! “What could it be about?” you exclaim, right before you see the ad of Joan swinging an axe with a maniacal gleam in her eye and throw down your paper in disgust. “Horror nonsense”, you mumble. “She’ll never get my money again!” That’s a shame, Winifred, because Strait-Jacket is a hot blast of campy delights that I’m positive your kids and grand babies would have a grand old time with. Now have a lay down and I’ll tell you why.
Released by Columbia Pictures stateside in January, with a worldwide rollout in the spring, Strait-Jacket was a big hit for director William Castle (The Tingler) and Crawford, bringing in over $2 million at the box office, and cementing Crawford’s status as the queen of the “psycho-biddies”, “Grande Dame Guignol”, or other such derogatory terms. And it was a fast label too, as ‘62s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? made such an impression in mainstream culture that it seemed the clearest route to success for aging actresses at the time. Critics predictably murdered it, although some did single out Crawford for her commitment to the bit. And boy, does she commit.
Let’s start with some story: a voice over tells us of one Frank Harbin (an uncredited Lee Majors in his screen debut) who brings his ex-girlfriend home from the bar as his wife Lucy (Crawford) is out of town. He sneaks in his ex past their sleeping daughter, Carol, and begins his extramarital doings, when wouldn’t you know it, wifey decides to take the train home a day early. Not surprisingly, Lucy doesn’t take to the activities well, and proceeds to cut off the heads of her husband and his friend with an axe right in front of little Carol. Lucy is sent away to an asylum for 20 years.
Flash forward to present day, as an adult Carol (Diane Baker – The Silence of the Lambs) anxiously awaits the arrival of the mom she hasn’t seen since she was a little girl. Lucy arrives at the farmhouse of her brother Bill (Leif Erickson – On the Waterfront) and his wife Emily (Rochelle Hudson – Rebel Without a Cause), who have raised Carol since Lucy went on her extended vacation; reticent at first, mother and daughter soon warm to each other and Carol convinces Lucy to have a makeover done, top to bottom, so she looks as she did in happier times. Once she transforms, Lucy begins to hear children’s voices, and acts so strangely that she hits on Carol’s boyfriend, Michael (John Anthony Hayes – Ride the Wild Surf). When her shrink from the hospital pops by for a visit (Mitchell Cox), heads literally start to fly. Could Lucy be taking a gruesome stroll down memory lane?
This story has been told many times before, but in the hands of the gifted writer Robert Bloch (Asylum), King of the Gimmicks William Castle (The Tingler), and Crawford, Strait-Jacket becomes an American Gothic tale writ large, or at least certainly larger than Castle was used to; an opportunity for him, yes. A necessity for Crawford? Definitely.
Baby Jane was a major boost for her career, and savvy as she was, she had no problem hopping aboard the “psycho-biddy” train, as long as she received top billing. And script approval. Casting, too. And why not? She had earned that right, and she believed that her fans would come out to support her work. Perhaps the reception was strong to Strait-Jacket not because of her fans necessarily, but by the next generation’s fascination with seeing someone of her stature swinging an axe with abandon. The film is pure kitsch; heightened melodrama that lets her loose in every scene until Castle has the good sense to yell cut. If she was embarrassed to play down to the exploitation crowd, you’d never know it from her performance.
It certainly helps that Bloch’s script is pretty tight; as I’ve said, it essentially had been done before, and certainly since (possibly even in some of your favorite slashers), but the story moves along so quickly that any and all queries will have to catch up to you at the finish line; besides, you’ll be too caught up in the Grand Guignol-ness of it all to even notice.
Catering to the younger folk, there are plenty of severed heads and one on screen decapitation; while moored quite far from realism, the brief effects work in Strait-Jacket ups its camp appeal in a “hey, let’s put on a show way!” This is in no fashion a slight; it would be impossible to make a serious film with Crawford as a hatchet killer so Castle wisely plays to the balcony, where the kids occasionally break from their make out session to see what’s on the screen.
Castle was of course a huge Hitchcock acolyte, and while Strait-Jacket strains to rise to Hitch’s level of Psycho sleaze, he’s better off where he is; I’d rather have Dame Joan splashing joyously through a dirty gutter puddle than strutting down a paparazzi-laden red carpet any day. And that, Winifred, is why your kin will love it. Now go to sleep, dear.
Strait-Jacket is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (1972)