A look at William Castle’s startling Joan Crawford psycho thriller
Anyone who saw the recent FX series FEUD, knows the story of Hollywood legends and career-long “frenemies” Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. That remarkable and wildly entertaining show saw Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange as Davis and Crawford, respectively, who lay down their never-ending professional rivalries long enough to co-star in director Robert Aldrich’s hyper-melodramatic Gothic shocker WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE in 1962. As both glamorous leading ladies were well-into middle age at this point, with decent roles drying up (as they often did and sadly still do for women in cinema), the chance to essay such intelligently written and scenery chewing characters was a gift and with the critical and commercial success of the film, an unofficial sub-genre of horror film often called”Hagsploitation” was born. Both Davis and Crawford would lead the pack in these sorts of films (along with others like Shelley Winters, Olivia de Havilland et al), which always saw women past their youthful primes driven to madness and often committing murder or just so far gone into psychosis that they become easy marks for the plots of others. Watching “earth mothers” and noted aging screen beauties go bonkers translated into boffo box office…
But while Davis jumped into this new phase of her professional life with open arms, grateful for the work and success, Crawford did not go gently, feeling much of the post-BABY JANE material offered to her was beneath her, and was notoriously difficult to deal with. But master showman and horror producer/director extraordinaire William Castle (13 GHOSTS, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL) was up for the task and landed the actress for his 1964 shocker STRAIT-JACKET, a pulpified slab of post-PSYCHO slaughter that pushed – in typical Castle fashion – its mania and melodrama to fevered, dreamlike heights.
Like his 1961 murder mystery HOMICIDAL – a much more direct riff on Hitchcock’s 1960 gender-bending game-changer – Castle laces STRAIT-JACKET with a heightened sense of reality and an (un) healthy undercurrent of sick sexuality. But while HOMICIDAL was penned by frequent collaborator Robb White (THE TINGLER), STRAIT-JACKET was actually written by PSYCHO source novel author Robert Bloch. And unlike HOMICIDAL – which stopped its story dead for the gimmicky Castle-approved “Fright Break” – STRAIT-JACKET employs no such audience-baiting shtick. Well, Castle DID arrange for exhibitors to hand out cardboard axes at the box office, but no similar carny tricks wind up on screen. Rather STRAIT-JACKET is and remains a potent dose of mania that has few peers and is propelled by Crawford’s fully-committed (in more ways than one) performance.
In the wild, surreal and sensational opening, STRAIT-JACKET sets-up the shenanigans to come, illustrating in tabloid-fashion how Crawford’s boozy broad of a wife Lucy walks in on her philandering hubby having a tryst in their home with another woman. She goes bananas and grabs an ax, hacking the humping couple to pieces while her young daughter Carol watches in horror. It’s a stunner of a first act and immediately jumps twenty years later to the present, with Crawford’s traumatized little girl (played by Diane Baker) now all grown-up and preparing for her murderous mom’s release from the local loony bin.
Lucy, now cured but still obviously emotionally disturbed, is now a kinder, gentler woman who has paid for her crimes and had her illness eradicated after years of intensive – and grueling – treatment and only wants to be a good mother. Carol is on the cusp of getting married to a well-to-do lad (John Anthony Hayes) and all seems to be heading in the right, healing direction for the mother and daughter. That is until Lucy begins finding phantom severed heads in her bed and hearing strange sounds coming from locked rooms. And when a spate of gruesome ax murders grip the town, suspicion firmly – and unsurprisingly – falls on Lucy’s trembling shoulders. Is she losing her mind again? Or is there someone else behind the gory killings?
Anyone whose seen a Castle film or read a Bloch shocker will likely figure out the serpentine mystery before the insane – and awesome – corker of a climax. But that’s not why you watch STRAIT-JACKET. It’s a film to savored for its over-the-top plotting, its leering characters (including a young George Kennedy as a sweaty and sinister handyman), its cauldron-bubbling oration and – for 1964 – its brutally graphic head-choppings. Hell, even the grand old Columbia Pictures dame gets her noggin lopped off in the film’s final image. The entire thing is rapturously ridiculous and boiling-over brilliant.
But naturally, none of this hyperbolic cranium-removing mayhem would matter were it not for the presence of Crawford, who fearlessly dives into the part of Lucy, jerking the audience around from terror to pity to disgust to empathy and back again. In the film’s most arresting encounter, Crawford goes up against her daughter’s snooty future mother-in-law, standing her ground and defending her child’s honor while defiantly admitting her crime and the pain she endured in its aftermath. It’s a stunning, moving scene and certainly ranks right up there with the finest of Joan Crawford’s turns.
I have great affection for this last leg of Crawford’s career and life. In lesser films like Castle’s own I SAW WHAT YOU DID and tawdry programmers like BERSERK and especially the unforgettably awful Freddie Francis romp TROG, Crawford refused to phone it in, dedicated to even the lowliest of roles. She may have been mourning her glory days and miserable that the bloom was off her rose, but she remained until the end a major artist and a consummate professional.
Critically sneered at upon release, I’me extremely happy that the delirious STRAIT-JACKET – and by proxy, its larger-than-life leading lady – is now getting the respect it deserves.
STRAIT-JACKET is out now on Blu-ray from Scream Factory and Mill Creek Entertainment.