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Synopsis: Something snaps in Lucy Harbin (Joan Crawford) when she comes home early one night to discover her husband (Lee Majors) in bed with another woman. Furious, Lucy grabs the nearest weapon – which happens to be an axe – and murders her husband and his girlfriend in cold blood – all in front of the impressionable young eyes of Lucy’s daughter Carol (Diane Baker). After twenty years in an insane asylum, the supposedly “reformed” murderess returns to live with Carol on a farm owned by Lucy’s brother (Leif Erickson). But doubts of Lucy’s transformation soon arise when people – or, more specifically, their heads – start to go missing. Is Lucy really up to her old ways, or is someone trying to frame her?
I do hope you didn’t get too sick of William Castle last week with House On Haunted Hill; if you did, then I worry you’re just a big heaping pile of no-fun and you probably shouldn’t read any further. Following her success in the psychological thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962, dir. Robert Aldrich), Joan Crawford agreed to take the role of Lucy Harbin in Strait-Jacket after Joan Blondell dropped out of the film following an injury. Once she was in, Crawford proceeded to take over the production, calling for a $50,000 salary, 15% of the total profits, complete script and cast approval, and even strategic product placement of Pepsi-Cola beverages within the film (as she was on the Board of Directors of PepsiCo at the time). She ousted actress Anne Helm from the role of Carol and replaced her with the less-experienced Diane Baker, who had worked with Crawford on the 1959 film The Best of Everything (dir. Jean Negulesco). She even filled the role of Lucy’s doctor, one of the murder victims, with PepsiCo vice-president Mitchell Cox.
I don’t know what would be more horrifying to wake up to, the axe or that wig.
Strait-Jacket, along with Baby Jane and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964, dir. Robert Aldrich) are all classified under one of my very favorite subgenres of film: Psycho-biddy, also known as Grand Dame Guignol or “older women in peril.” (You may have even noticed that my username in many places online is psychobiddy.) I’m gonna just be lazy now and quote to you Wikipedia’s definition of Psycho-biddy, as it’s where I learned there was a name for this genre which I already loved so much:
A psycho-biddy movie, by its very nomenclature, must possess a psycho-biddy: a dangerous, insane or mentally unstable woman of advanced years. In some cases, the woman may be in jeopardy of some sort, with another party attempting to drive her to mental instability. . . . The psychotic character is often brought to life in an over-the-top, grotesque fashion, emphasizing the unglamorous process of aging and eventual death. Characters are often seen pining for lost youth and glory, trapped by their idealized memories of their childhood, or youth, and the traumas that haunt their past.
In the case of Strait-Jacket, it is ironically Carol who pines for the lost youth and glory of her mother Lucy. She even goes so far as to buy Lucy an entire new wardrobe, complete with spunky black wig, to bring back the spirited mother she had been robbed of for the last twenty years. This backfires when Lucy, feeling a rush of confidence when she outwardly appears to be back in her prime, gets a little too salacious with Carol’s fiancé Michael. This scene, along with the fiery tantrum Lucy throws when Michael’s snooty parents tell her Carol isn’t good enough to marry their son, really do put Lucy’s sanity into question, and make the audience doubt whether she is truly well enough to be out of the institution. But is Lucy merely emotional, or does she still possess the capacity to kill?
Help! I’m really tiny and trapped inside a popcorn box!
Crawford’s sensitive (if over-the-top) performance and Castle’s brilliant directing – yeah, I did say brilliant, deal with it – forces the audience to simultaneously pity and fear Lucy, which is exactly what a good Psycho-biddy movie should do. However, because this is a William Castle movie, you can also see the ending coming from a mile away. (What? Characters that seem perfectly normal and sane trying to convince a vulnerable female character that she’s crazy? I wonder if there’ll be a twist?!?) But there’s a little something extra that Castle throws in in the minutes leading up to the denouement that made me rethink my foregone conclusions and doubt myself just for a second, so it’s not like he didn’t try. Diane Baker is sort of bland and unemotional, which works to up the creep factor in her character – a girl who’s obsessed with what she somehow perceives to be a “happy” childhood despite bearing witness to her father’s gruesome murder, and a daughter who seems hell-bent on pushing her mother perilously close to the edge of her sanity.
A sad end to the Columbia Torch Lady.
Yeah, this film is campy, but it’s fully aware that it’s campy, and Castle has fun with it. Why else would he end his film with an image of the iconic Columbia Torch Lady with her severed yet serene head resting primly at her feet? Like House On Haunted Hill, Castle proves that he makes no bones about relying on gimmicks to make his films memorable, and yet his directing is still more than adequate. This ain’t no Roger Corman waste of celluloid; this is a self-aware, tacky, fun-filled amusement ride of a film that obviously isn’t looking to please critics and is just concentrating on satisfying its thrill-seeking audience. So how can you not love it? Whether you feel it’s so-bad-it’s-good or so-good-it’s-bad, you can’t deny that it’s entertaining. So what if it’s over-the-top and predictable? Just sit back and enjoy the ride. I certainly did, as did my fabulous friend Lillian, who, as we were perusing the Netflix queue for another film to watch after we’d finished this one, lamented, “Why can’t every movie be Strait-Jacket?” Every movie can’t be Strait-Jacket, but fortunately for us, Strait-Jacket is Strait-Jacket, so enjoy it for what it is: the notorious Joan Crawford as a past-her-prime, maybe-crazy, axe-wielding, frantically-knitting, shrinking-violet, brazen-hussy, Psycho Biddy. Who could resist that?
Strait-Jacket (1964) – 4.5/5 stars