As I mentioned in a previous piece on The Tingler, producer-director William Castle was famous for his gimmicks. Following The Tingler, Castle had employed an array of gimmicks – a “fright break” in Homicidal, a ghost-finder for 13 Ghosts, and giving the audience a choice between two endings for Mr. Sardonicus. In 1964, William Castle would employ the biggest gimmick of his moviemaking career – Joan Crawford as an ax murderer in Strait-Jacket. Working at Columbia Pictures, Strait-Jacket would turn out to be William Castle’s most respectable movie to date, with a screen legend front and center and Psycho author Robert Bloch penning the screenplay. Of course, Strait-Jacket is now hailed as a camp classic, which it is no doubt, but it’s also a throwback melodrama that is punctuated by its moments of violent ax murders. Shout! Factory’s horror imprint Scream Factory has now released Strait-Jacket on Blu-ray, allowing the Crawford horror classic to grace your home screen in glorious high definition.
Lucy Harbin (Crawford) owned a farm with her husband Frank Harbin (Lee Majors). One night while Lucy was out of town, Frank and his mistress hit the bar and returned to the Harbin household for a tryst while Lucy and Frank’s daughter Carol slept. Little did the cheating lovers know that Carol was awake and that Lucy has just exited an early train home. When Lucy sees the sleeping lovers, she picks up an ax and proceeds to violently slash them to death in their sleep. Because of the brutal crime, Lucy Harbin is incarcerated in a mental asylum.
20 years later, Lucy is about to be released. Her daughter Carol (Diane Baker) is fully grown and engaged to Michael Fields (John Anthony Hayes). Lucy is being released to her brother’s farm where Carol has been living since the incident. But being on a farm is triggering for Lucy, who is still struggling to maintain her composure. There are axes laying around and a creepy farmhand Leo (George Kennedy) constantly rattling the nerves of the unstable Lucy. Strange things start to happen. Lucy is haunted by nightmares of her past crimes. Then a fresh batch of bodies start to pile up around the farm, and suspicion immediately falls upon Lucy because of her current instability and violent past.
Having not seen Strait-Jacket in at least 10 years, one thing stood out in revisiting the film on the new Blu-ray – this film isn’t too dissimilar to the sordid drama of Mildred Pierce that won Joan Crawford her lone Oscar. Even though in the wake of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, as Crawford was being repurposed as a scream queen, she always gave her all to the performance. Strait-Jacket may have been seen as a B-movie to the studio and the critics reviewing the film in 1964, Crawford gives an A performance as the mentally ravaged Lucy Harbin. Of course, Crawford made sure to employ her role as the spokeswoman of Pepsi in the film, inserting six-packs of Pepsi throughout the film.
The violence of Strait-Jacket looks quaint by today’s standards, with some rather unrealistic looking limbs being violently severed by a swinging ax. Even though Strait-Jacket is released after Herschell Gordon Lewis created the modern gore film with Blood Feast, Strait-Jacket is remarkably graphic for a studio film of its era. The posters used the violence as a selling point, proclaiming, “Strait-Jacket vividly depicts ax murders!” I won’t lie, the violence of Strait-Jacket is funny by today’s standards, but it’s important to remember its context of film violence of its era.
As with any release from Scream Factory, the Blu-ray for Strait-Jacket has plenty of special features to supplement the film. This edition boasts a brand new audio commentary track by a trio of film historians, Steve Haberman, David J. Schow, and Constantine Nasr. Two new interviews shed a bit more light on the behind scenes aspects of Strait-Jacket, one being an interview with Anne Helm, an actress fired from the movie because of Crawford’s demands, and the other being an interview with publicist Richard Kahn, who recalls stories of touring the country with Crawford to promote the movie. Each of these interviews provide those unique glimpses into the demanding nature of Strait-Jacket’s legendary star, as well as that abusive that has tainted her legacy. The rest of the special features on the disc are from the prior DVD release, including a featurette on the making of the film, costume and make-up tests with Crawford, and a screen test of Crawford wielding the ax.
Joan Crawford was one of the biggest and most respect stars of her day whose reputation has fallen in recent years as the skeletons in her closet were exhumed after her death. There’s no defending Crawford the person and her deplorable actions. On the screen, though, she shined bright and continues to shine as her classic are restored and revived on home video. Strait-Jacket may not have been her proudest moment, but you’d never know it from her dedicated performance. It’s a true testament to Crawford’s presence as a performer that Strait-Jacket is much more a Joan Crawford picture than a William Castle picture. Castle was a great showman and huckster, and he stepped aside to give the spotlight to bigger showman. William Castle knew he didn’t need a gimmick when he had Joan Crawford.
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The rare William Castle movie where the star out shined the showman, Strait-Jacket features Joan Crawford as an ax murderess in an old fashioned melodrama that “vividly depicts ax murders!”