Director: William Castle
Cast: Joan Crawford, Diane Baker, Leif Erickson, George Kennedy, Lee Majors, Mitchell Cox (Pepsi Board Member).
Nutshell: When Castle, Crawford and Scriptwriter Robert Bloch converge! Murdering Axe Murderer Crawford is released but is she rehabilitated or do the mysterious murders have a telling connection?
“It all started on a hot, sticky Saturday night” …. this lurid tale of adultery and axe murders, severed heads, vengeance, romance and madness spun by the writer of Hitchcock’s Psycho; the legendary Robert Bloch and directed by the self-proclaimed Master of Shocks William Castle starring the biggest star in the world, Miss Joan Crawford.
With these aces up his sleeve Castle set out to create one of his most enduring and financially profitable slice of shlock in 1964’s Strait-Jacket, recently lovingly paid homage to in the excellent series “Feud” about the Crawford-Davis tussle. Castle was convinced that with Robert Bloch and Joan Crawford in hand he was on to a winner in an age where the Black & White low budget shocker Psycho had created such a Box Office storm. He had all the elements to score a similar success Castle with his own Bloch story and who better than to lead than Joan Crawford, fresh off the success of Baby Jane.
The film starts with a saucy looking Joan looking like a dead ringer for Sue Ellen Ewing struts back home after an out of town visit looking forward to a cuddle with her young and handsome stud of a husband played by Lee Majors (The Six Million Dollar Man). Unfortunately for Lucy Harbin (Joan Crawford) her husband has brought a floozy home and she catches them red handed in post coital bliss, fast asleep. All this in full view of the little daughter wide awake in the adjacent room.
Lucy stumbles, blinded by rage, and as fate would have it, literally falls onto an axe (a sign from God?). Gripped by her uncontrollable rage she grabs the axe and proceeds to deal a series of crunching blows to the sleeping lovebirds, carving them up into a pulpy, unrecognizable mass of blood, flesh and bone.
Lucy Harbin is predictably deemed “mentally insane” and she spends the next twenty years locked up in an asylum where a Strait-Jacket is the best defence against the demonic fits of rage caused by her uncontrollable jealousy and filthy temper.
The long years pass and the authorities are now satisfied that Lucy Harbin has been fully rehabilitated and paid for her crime and is now ready to return to society and a home where she will return to live with her daughter who is engaged to be married shortly.
There is much anxiety when the stress of returning to an environment where she can be stalked by her memories appears as though it may trigger a terrible relapse of her terrible mishap. Lucy tries hard to hold it together but it’s an enormous struggle and she soon hits the bottle for support. Her sweet daughter, now all grown up and seemingly over her trauma takes her Mom out shopping for a more modern, stylish cougar look and sure enough in moments Lucy Harbin is looking and behaving like a hooker on a Saturday night looking for bait.
There is a memorable scene where Lucy, quite sloshed, makes a play for her potential son in law much to her daughter’s horror. Clearly, with the new wig in place, the new dress with the shoulder pads and some booze, Miss Joan is on the prowl and men had better watch out.
Meanwhile there is the leering George Kennedy a mechanic of sorts making smarmy comments and behaving in a generally lecherous manner. He gets his head chopped off by the mysterious Axe Murderer as does Lucy’s old Psychiatrist (played famously by a Pepsi Board Member Mitchell Cox) who comes looking for her, worried of an impending relapse. Suspicion continues to mount on Lucy and she herself seems unsure of herself and her capabilities. Has she lapsed into her old ways with the Axe or is the killer trying to frame her as the obvious killer with her background in the Asylum, locked away and Strait-Jacketed for years? Meanwhile, her daughters upcoming wedding is also seriously jeopardized because of her past deeds and it appears as though it may have been better that she had remained incarcerated after all.
With the body count rising and Lucy Harbin increasingly distraught and doubting herself the killer strikes again in a hair-raising climax. The stunning, show stopping reveal comes as a delicious twist that would give twist-master M. Night Shyamalan sleepless nights from sheer envy.
Miss Joan Crawford turns in a mesmerizing performance and her star power remains undiminished even if the production and the material are not her usual fare. Yet, like the consummate professional and undeniable super-star that she was…standards had to be maintained. Her performance is what binds this film together and keeps the viewer spellbound to the thrilling end.
Joan Crawford knew that the film was not going to win any awards and was well aware of William Castle’s murky reputation and yet over-riding those apprehensions were her need to be working and in a studio with crew, technicians, lights, cameras and the hustle bustle she craved. Her battle with loneliness and her increasing reliance on alcohol meant that being at work, even if it was a tawdry William Castle production, it still trumped wallowing in fading nostalgia and the bottle.
What’s more is that the film was a Box Office hit even if it was derided by the snooty reviewers and the upper echelons of Hollywood Royalty. A hit is a hit and Joan Crawford did attain some satisfaction despite the derision. She had already summoned Castle and informed him of her reservations about the plot (holes) and how it should be improved. Joan Crawford knew well enough where Strait- Jacket was coming from and did her utmost to imprint her authority on the project and thus the numerous shots of Pepsi during the film and the end was changed so that the film closed on her anguished face against a pillar rather than the way it was scripted. After all Joan was Joan and in order to have her sign a project, you had to make certain concessions in her honour.
On the whole, Strait-Jacket may be a typical Castle hack job (no pun intended) but it is an enjoyable as it moves along at a breezy pace and is never dull and laboured. William Castle’s films may not have been up for the serious awards but they were almost always entertaining and in this case featured lurid axe murders and severed heads; not the usual thing back in the early 1960s. And then you have Ms. Crawford chewing up her role, turning in a tour de force as the cheap tart turned axe wielding lunatic Lucy Harbin and even if she wasn’t too proud of the film, she ought to be proud that it is her sterling performance that makes this film memorable as well as enduring.