William Castle’s gloriously wacky mash up of Psycho and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane delivers a female Norman Bates and multiple axe murders. It also gives us an oversexed, AARP aged leading lady in perhaps one of the most uncomfortable scenes ever committed by a major studio to celluloid. Outside of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, it may be the perfect example of ‘Hagsploitation’ and anticipates John Waters underground cinematic world ten years later. What’s not to like?
The Production: 4/5
Everything about the opening scene of William Castle’s Strait-Jacket seems to be screaming; shattering glass, Joan Crawford, a newspaper headline, and a song that is used throughout the movie. If one were writing a parody of academic criticism it would be tempting to say that this scream is some sort of prescient collective scream for 1960’s America as the movie, filmed in late summer of 1963 just ahead of the Kennedy assassination, America’s deepening involvement in Vietnam along with its campus unrest, urban race riots, the RFK and King assassinations, and culminating with the election of Richard Nixon and all that went with that in 1968. But rest assured, all of that screaming is just an effective hook to a silly (intentionally) and lurid (also intentional) melodrama that doesn’t have anything, well almost anything, on its mind other than packing fannies into movie theater seats – which it did very successfully, to the tune of $7 million world-wide according to the commentary. A very good return on a $500,000 budget.
In a brief flashback to the early 1940s we see Lucy Harbin (the wonderous Joan Crawford) coming home unexpectedly to find her younger husband in the sack with a former girlfriend. The staging of this and practically everything else about the movie is wacky, as Lucy sees the couple through a bedroom window as she walks by. She is so traumatized that she stumbles as if blinded by rage into an axe planted into a tree stump conveniently located next to the bedroom window. And like everybody in that situation she does what comes naturally, she grabs the axe and chops her sleeping hubby and mistress to pieces. If this had been produced ten years later Joan would have stumbled over a chainsaw – the mind reels at the thought of Joan Crawford wielding a chainsaw. All of this takes place in front of the couple’s young daughter Carol.
I’m conflicted about whether or not to address Joan Crawford’s entrance – certainly everybody who writes or talks about this movie singles it out and I certainly have nothing new to contribute, but all I can say is, once seen, it is never forgotten. Joan descends from a midnight train, smoking a cigarette and swinging her hips. I hate to be cruel, but the narration claims that Lucy is seven years older than her husband, played by an uncredited twenty-something Lee Majors, and Joan, in a ridiculous wig, print dress, and sporting gaudy costume jewelry is pushing sixty! I’m not sure that I can think of any instance in American film history of such a major star reduced to such humiliating antics. That might be the scariest thing in the movie – and there is a scene later in the movie that tops this!
Jump to 1963 where the rest of the movie takes place. After being locked up in a loony bin for twenty years, Lucy is released to the care of her brother and sister-in-law, played by Leif Erickson and Rochelle Hudson who adopted Lucy’s now adult daughter Carol (Diane Baker), after the murders. Carol hopes to marry the town rich boy-Prince Charming, Michael Fields (John Anthony Hayes, who is in the above-mentioned uncomfortable and unforgettable scene) but fears that Michael’s parents will not consent to their son’s marriage to the daughter of an axe murderer. I wonder why? Let the chopping begin!
This movie packs in so much wackiness that I almost don’t know where to start – but I’ll start with William Castle. William Castle was a journey man studio director who, for the first fifteen years of his career divided his time primarily between Columbia and Universal, directing whatever he was assigned in almost every genre including mysteries, crime melodramas, westerns, exotic adventures. Some of these movies were in black and white, some in color; in the early 1950s he made the transition to wide screen and even directed a few 3D features. But, all of these were B movies, often aimed at young audiences. There are a couple of headscratchers in the filmography such as the sincere, socially minded It’s A Small World that deals sympathetically with the difficulties of being a little person – I know it sounds funny, but it’s really not. After fifteen years and thirty-nine features Castle crashes into his destiny, the horror movie. His first horror movie, in 1957 is Macabre, and he never looks back. He spends the remainder of his career essentially in horror movies (and ill-considered horror comedies). The success of Macabre led to his two-picture collaboration with Vincent Price, House on the Haunted Hill and The Tingler. These three movies were big hits. In spite of Castle’s prolific out put he remained an efficient, if uninspired director, though it should be noted that Castle did produce two major movies early and late in his career, The Lady From Shanghai and Rosemary’s Baby.
In 1959 Hitchcock made Psycho. I’ve read that Hitchcock’s inspiration was the Castle movies, stating something to the effect of, ‘if all of this money can be made off of these low budget movies, I can do that and make a good one.’ Hitchcock hired Joseph Stefano to adapt Robert Bloch’s story. The movie was produced, against studio Paramount’s wishes with Hitchcock’s own money and filmed quickly by the crew of his current hit television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Psycho was one of Hitchcock’s biggest financial successes.
Castle, like Hitchcock was a supreme showman. Unlike Hitchcock, he was not an innovator, but an imitator. Castle followed Hitchcock’s Psycho with Homicidal. Castle also jumped on the Hammer and Corman gothic bandwagon with Mr. Sardonicus. It should also be stated that Castle had the sense to hire good actors who were able to pull off these silly movies. These are all fun, and dare I say, innocent movies, despite the sordidness and violence of the material. Castle’s real genius was ballyhoo. Castle knew how to sell these movies to kids. Each of these movies had a gimmick that almost commanded youngsters, particularly boys to see these movies. The trailer of Strait-Jacket warns or maybe screams to audiences that it deals with axe murders. Had I been old enough I wouldn’t have missed it.
The unexpected success of Robert Aldrich’s 1962 Whatever Happened to Baby Jane starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford kicked off another horror sub-genre, ‘hagsploitation.’ Castle wasn’t going to let that pass. He hired Robert Bloch, to capitalize on Psycho’s popularity, to write a screenplay that originally was to star Joan Blondell. The gimmick to this was going to be that the murderer would use a ‘fat suit.’ Bloch hated this idea. Eventually Blondell was pushed out along with the fat suit and Joan Crawford was signed and Strait-Jacket, completing a circle started with Castle’s own Macabre, was born.
I’m amazed at how much weight, along with her hips, that Crawford could swing this late in her career. She was able to get the actress originally cast as Carol fired and replaced by Diane Baker, whom Crawford had previously worked. She was also able to have an inexperienced Pepsi Cola (Joan was married to a Pepsi Cola President) executive cast as the psychiatrist. And there is an example of shameless product placement for Pepsi thrown in for good measure.
Diane Baker states in the included making-of-documentary that Castle treated Crawford with kid gloves. Baker also says that Crawford also was able to exert enough pressure to change the ending, which also kind of changes the focus of the movie. According to Baker the script originally ended with Baker’s climatic breakdown, which reveals her character to be the ultimate victim of the piece. This is the one sole instance of something serious going on in the movie because it’s the actions of the irresponsible parents that creates the future murderer. By ending with Joan’s histrionics outside the mansion, this theme gets obscured. And by then having Joan deliver the Simon Oakland Psycho-like explanation to close the movie without copping to her own culpability of the effects of her actions on her child, the theme completely, like the film’s victims, gets chopped to pieces.
The biggest mystery to me about this movie is whether or not Joan was in on the joke. She gives a completely straight, sincere performance and it’s all over the place. She goes from seductive to hysterical to contrite to proud to humble to shattered and ultimately to enlightened. I know that Castle knew what he was delivering, but did Joan? She gives it her all without the slightest wink to the audience. She ain’t walking through this. I wonder if she believed that this performance would garner her an Oscar nomination like Bette Davis’ turn in Baby Jane? If so, she obviously didn’t know the difference between the talents of Castle and Aldrich.
Diane Baker is quite good and if the Crawford tampering mentioned is true, she and poor John Anthony Hayes didn’t stand a chance. Erickson is broad in a stereotypically written role and Hudson as his wife comes off better. The Pepsi executive isn’t bad given what he’s asked to do – I’ve seen professionals give worse performances as shrinks. George Kennedy is fun as the slimy farm hand who deserves his beheading. The score by Van Alexander is erratic, at times appropriate and other times sounding like Vic Mizzy. The cinematography by dependable studio veteran Arthur Arling is perfunctory.
The fact that this movie is so enjoyable over a half century later justifies itself – no excuses or apologies necessary. But I also think we can thank Strait-Jacket for the John Waters/Divine movies. I mean that as a compliment. It was only on this viewing that I realized that if I closed my eyes I could easily imagine Divine in the Lucy Harbin role. Divine should have been sending checks to Joan. It’s also a tribute to Waters talent that he could satirize movies that are already funny.
3D Rating: NA
Shout! Factory delivers a superior product. The originally 1.85 film is presented here in HD ratio, 1.78:1. The transfer is generally very good. Opticals are grainy, though sometimes these shots look more like they contain some kind of video noise than grain. I think I noticed at least one instance of an optically created close-up, which Columbia seemed to employ more than most studios. Most shots not involving opticals are very good with good contrasts with black, particularly in the early scenes being very deep and stable.
The film sound track is in DTS – HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. It’s very clear and pleasing. The jukebox music blares and the tape recorder ‘voices’ are always easy to distinguish.
Special Features: 4.5/5
Shout! Factory has included several special features from the original Sony Home Video release including:
Battle-Ax: The Making of Strait-Jacket
Joan Crawford costume and makeup tests
Ax-Swinging Screen Tests (you don’t see those everyday)
Listed as new features (they are dated 2018 but for some reason shot in 1.37:1?):
Joan Had Me Fired – An Interview With Ann Helm
On The Road With Joan Crawford – An Interview with Publicist Richard Kahn
There is also a commentary track with screenwriter Steve Haberman, writer and Robert Bloch friend David J. Schow, and for some reason not credited on the disc package, writer, producer, and director Constantine Nasr.
The commentary covers a lot of Castle’s, Bloch’s, and Crawford’s careers as well as the various versions of how things happened during the making of Strait-Jacket. It’s interesting because both Castle and Bloch wrote autobiographies and Castle’s versions inevitably involve ballyhoo and mythology (surprise!) while Bloch’s seem more practical, and therefore more believable to me. I don’t think Castle, who always comes off as likable and someone you would want to know, is being intentionally dishonest as much as an entertainer who is only interested in entertaining. His fibs are for the sake of entertainment and not self-aggrandizement. They discuss the movie’s fifteen-day production. It’s a fun conversation between three people who obliviously love the movie and those who made it. I think the only missteps are when Haberman tries to cite running motifs and themes in Castle’s work. I think these instances are a stretch with a filmmaker like Castle whose main interest is in, as he states in his book, scaring your pants off. At another point Haberman tries to compare Castle’s work to Roger Corman’s calling Corman’s work ‘visual masterpieces.’ I love Corman as much as the next movie fanatic, but that too is a stretch.
Shout! Factory delivers a wonderful product that any Castle enthusiast will want in their collection. It’s too bad that the Columbia Castle features are spread out among at least two licensors in the U.S. and not collected in one set. I can’t imagine Strait-Jacket looking or sounding any better than this and I would be curious to see the upcoming Mill Creek and Indicator releases to see how they compare.
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