Mill Creek Delivers a Double Dose of Joan Crawford Horror with ‘Strait-Jacket’ and ‘Berserk!’

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Berserk! Strait-Jacket Blu-ray

After the amazing success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Joan Crawford found herself with a late career reinvention as a scream queen. Two of her late career horror films are now available on a single disc double feature from Mill Creek EntertainmentStrait-Jacket and Berserk!. While some might consider these two a step down for an Oscar-winning screen legend, the fact is that each of these movies is wildly entertaining and Crawford gives it her all in each performance, single handedly elevating the schlocky material.

Strait-Jacket is one of my favorite Crawford films due to the direction of the great William Castle. In 1964, Castle was the master of movie gimmickry. There was no idea too outlandish as Castle would do whatever it took to put butts into seats. With Strait-Jacket, Castle found a different kind of gimmick – Joan Crawford as an ax murderer. The print of Strait-Jacket on this disc is practically the same transfer as the recently issued Shout! Factory edition. (You can find my thoughts on that disc here.) If you’re looking for a no frills edition of Strait-Jacket, this latest Mill Creek edition should suffice but just be aware that the disc contains no special features.

In director Jim O’Connoly’s 1967 film Berserk!, Crawford plays Monica Rivers, the owner and ringleader of a traveling circus. The film opens on a high-wire act. Gaspar the Great walks the tightrope but something goes wrong, the wire slacks and the daring showman is hung before a sold out audience. Monica wastes no time in trying to search for a replacement, something that rubs her co-owner and business partner Albert Dorando (Michael Gough) the wrong way. There’s increasing tension between the two but Monica lacks the capital to buy out Albert. It’s not long before Frank Hawkins (Ty Hardin) comes knocking on Monica’s trailer door seeking to be the new tightrope walker. He’s hired and quickly enters into a relationship with his new and older boss. However, as the new act enters the traveling circus, Dorando is founded murdered. Suspicion spreads across the circus as the authorities begin to investigate who and why so many people are winding up dead in the circus.

Sent to investigate the deaths at the circus is Detective Superintendent Brooks (Robert Hardy), and he soon finds himself acquainted with some of the more colorful characters around the three ring circus. There’s Gustavo (Peter Burton), the knife thrower; Bruno (George Claydon), the little person; Lazlo (Philip Madoc), the magician, and his wife and assistant Matilda (Diana Dors); the Bearded Lady (Golda Casimir), and Monica’s young daughter Angela (Judy Geeson), who has just been expelled from her private school. Despite the careful eye of the law, the bodies continue to pile up.

Both Berserk! and Strait-Jacket play upon the persona of Joan Crawford and each cast doubts about her character, using the more prickly aspects of her persona to create a sense of unease. Of course, William Castle’s film does this much better than Jim O’Connoly’s, as Castle is able to tap into more of Crawford’s incredible knack for melodrama. Each of these two films also have very similar revelations at the end as to the identity of the killer. Beyond the simple connection of the leading lady, this pairing of films is actually quite perfect as there’s a bit of overlap in their B-movie sensibilities.

One thing that’s rather funny about Berserk! is the fact that the film features a clever little cheat to pad the running time of this circus murder mystery. Setting this movie within a circus allows the filmmakers to film various circus acts and use the performances in the film. It’s something that was much more common than you’d think, such as, for example, another 1967 production, She Freak. But it does provide for some rather absurdly entertaining moments. A personal favorite circus part of mine has Joan Crawford leading a woman with her conga line of trained poodles. Sure, Mildred Pierce is great and all but it doesn’t have anything like that in it.

Nowadays we know the deep personal issues and abusive elements of Joan Crawford in private. Each Strait-Jacket and Berserk! show a side of this once-hidden aspect of Crawford, presenting the fading star as domineering and violent at times. Having these two B-movies featuring an older Joan Crawford is a treat for movie fans who can enjoy the campier elements of Crawford’s late career turn towards horror and how these roles reflect the hideous secret life she was hiding. Strait-Jacket is the more entertaining of the two but that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of fun to be had in going Berserk!.

Strait-Jacket/Berserk!
  • Overall Score
3.5

Summary

William Castle’s Strait-Jacket combines Joan Crawford’s knack for melodrama with outrageous ax murders and is paired with the absurdly entertaining 1967 horror film Berserk! on a double feature Blu-ray.

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