I haven’t been overly impressed by William Castle’s other films, but Strait-Jacket is a definite horror camp classic.
Made in 1964, this was Castle’s bid for the big time. He got Joan Crawford as star, and this was not long after Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Crawford was once again a hot item. He had to go to great lengths to keep Crawford happy. She expected to be treated like a star, but it was worth the effort. She delivered the goods.
It’s a movie about a female axe-murderer, and Castle boldly starts the movie with an axe murder. Two minutes into the film and the body count has started already.
Crawford is Lucy Harbin, and she’s just found her hot toy boy husband (Lee Majors in his film debut) in bed with another woman. Luckily there’s an axe handy, so that solves the problem of the unfaithful husband. Lucy’s daughter Carol is in the house at the time and witnesses the murders.
Twenty years later Carol, now living with her aunt and uncle on their farm, gets the news that her mother is now cured and has been released from the mental hospital. Which is good news of a sort, but it does make things slightly awkward for Carol. She’s found a rich prospective husband and they’re just about to announce their engagement. Now of course her young man’s parents will want to meet her mother. And they move in the higher levels of society, and they don’t generally mix with axe murderers.
Lucy isn’t coping all that well with life outside the hospital. She’s understandably nervous. Carol decides she needs her morale improved so she buys Lucy a hot new dress and a wig. Lucy now feels young again, but this might not necessarily be a good thing. Lucy’s embarrassing attempt to seduce her daughter’s boyfriend is definitely a sign that all is not well. And then Lucy’s psychiatrist shows up, which puts her even more on edge. She gets even more nervous when he asks about her dreams.
So it’s not altogether surprising when the axe belonging to sleazy farmhand Leo (George Kennedy) disappears.
Castle put together a pretty solid cast for this one. Diane Baker is particularly good as Carol. But of course the movie belongs to Joan Crawford. She’s in top form and not afraid to go outrageously over-the-top. She puts everything into this performance. It might have been not much more than a slightly bigger-budgeted B-movie but Crawford doesn’t care. She’s a true star, and no matter what the movie she’s going to give a star performance. That’s what being a movie star is all about. You don’t sit around whining that you’re not getting roles like Mildred Pierce any more - you take what’s available and make the most of it.
William Castle’s direction is better in this movie than in any of the other films of his that I’ve seen. He gets the atmosphere of tension built up very nicely, with everyone on edge waiting for the powder-keg that is Lucy to explode. He comes up with some pretty nifty little visual set-pieces. Crawford and Diane Baker are terrific in their scenes together. Baker must have been a little over-awed but it doesn’t show in her performance. They strike sparks off another rather effectively.
The major flaw is that the surprise ending is probably not going to come as a huge surprise to most people.
The Region 1 DVD looks impressive. The black-and-white cinematography looks stunning. The most notable of the extras is a brief but entertaining featurette on the making of the film.
It’s a movie that is going to be best appreciated as high camp, and in this area it’s difficult to beat. And of course it’s a must for Joan Crawford fans.