Just keep saying to yourself: “It’s only a movie…It’s only a movie…It’s only a movie…It’s only a…It’s only…It’s…”
Following the successful release of 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, co-stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford both found themselves offered numerous horror/thriller roles. Davis quickly followed up with Dead Ringer (1964), Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), and The Nanny (1965). Crawford too appeared in several such films — I Saw What You Did (1965) and Berserk (1968), but her first opportunity came from independent horror producer William Castle.
Castle had been greatly impressed by What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and saw a chance to elevate his product to the big time by persuading Joan Crawford to star in one of his films. Commissioning a script from Robert Bloch (who had written Psycho) with Crawford in mind, he approached the actress and was able to gain her interest. When he quickly agreed to all of Crawford’s demands relating to salary, crew and publicity, he had himself an agreement for Joan Crawford to star in 1964’s Strait-Jacket.
Lucy Harbin arrives home unexpectedly one night to find her husband in bed with another woman. She goes berserk and takes an ax to the sleeping couple. Unknown to Lucy, her young daughter Carol is awake and witnesses the whole grisly spectacle. Lucy is committed to a mental institution and Carol goes to live with her aunt and uncle.
Twenty years later, Carol is becoming known as a young sculptor and is also about to be married when news comes that Lucy is being released and will be coming to live with Lucy’s aunt and uncle. Soon after her arrival, Lucy’s actions suggest that her cure is not yet complete and when ax murders begin to occur, she looks more and more like the guilty party.
Strait-Jacket was somewhat of a departure for William Castle who was known for his modest horror films with their distinctive gimmicks (such as the special glasses that had to be worn by filmgoers in order to see the ghosts in 13 Ghosts or the punishment poll that supposedly allowed the audience to select the fate of the main character in Mr. Sardonicus). No such gimmicks marred Strait-Jacket and the film’s success was squarely placed on the script and the shoulders of Joan Crawford. No real help was anticipated from the supporting cast, and indeed none was forthcoming. After all, as a concession to Crawford it was agreed that one of the characters — a doctor from Lucy’s old mental institution — would be played by a vice-president of the Pepsi-Cola Company (for which Crawford was a board member in real life). A young Diane Baker is not bad as daughter Carol, but the rest of the cast is mediocre indeed including a wild-eyed George Kennedy as the ax-toting hired hand and the eager-to-please Leif Erickson as Lucy’s brother (and Carol’s uncle).
The film, however, is Crawford’s and if the acting is a bit over-ripe at times, she certainly gives it her all. She’s required to age from 25 to 45 and can’t really pull off the 25-year old (she was 56 when the film was released), looking somewhat ridiculous in the wig and dress she’s required to wear for that part of the role. The rest of the part is more up her alley requiring shades of Mildred Pierce and Blanche Hudson that she had already demonstrated her capability of handling with skill and believability. And oh yes, she handles an ax with authority as well.
Robert Bloch’s script is compact and contains an effective twist, although it is wrapped around fairly routine horror plot situations (the traumatized daughter, the bucolic setting, the conventional parents of the daughter’s husband-to-be, et cetera). Castle’s direction is fairly straight-forward although he does present the various ax murders with some pizzazz (but not gruesomely so).
Columbia provides a surprisingly good DVD treatment of a minor film of the 1960s. The film was remastered in high definition and is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. The black and white image is quite good. Grayscale definition is admirably detailed throughout the range from solid blacks to fairly clean whites. The image is generally sharp with only an occasional instance of softness and edge enhancement is not a concern. Age-related speckling is minimal.
The sound is Dolby Digital 1.0 mono and does a fully satisfactory job of conveying the dialogue-driven film. The audio sounds a little scratchy in a couple of places and lacks any sense of being dynamic even during the ax murders, but it’s clear and comprehensible. English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles are provided.
The extras that Columbia has come up with are quite entertaining. There is a new featurette called “Battle-Ax: The Making of Strait Jacket” that provides some perspective from Columbia retrospective staff and particularly comments by Diane Baker that are interesting and informative about how Joan Crawford came to be cast (Joan Blondell was originally signed but suffered a bad gash from a broken window and had to withdraw) and how she interacted with the rest of the cast and crew. There is a sequence of costume and make-up tests for Joan Crawford that is quite a hoot, as is her ax-swinging screen test. The package concludes with the original theatrical trailer and trailers for two other William Castle productions for Columbia (13 Ghosts and Mr. Sardonicus).
Strait-Jacket is no great example of 1960s film-making at its best, but it is a mildly enjoyable time-passer that benefits from Joan Crawford giving her all. The story is divertingly told despite some somnambulistic acting by the supporting cast and there’s a nice twist at the end. This one’s certainly worth a rental and perhaps a purchase for Joan Crawford and William Castle completists. Columbia deserves a commendation for its efforts on a minor title.