1964 / 1.85:1 / Street Date August 21, 2018
Starring Joan Crawford, Diane Baker
Cinematography by Arthur Arling
Directed by William Castle
The planets aligned in 1964 as William Castle’s Strait-Jacket premiered in January and Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp was published later that fall. There’s no mention of Castle’s axe-happy melodrama in Sontag’s essay – an eclectic rundown of kitsch touchstones extolling everything from The Mysterians to Steve Reeves – and that’s surprising because frame by frame, Castle’s overcooked fright-fest encompasses almost everything Sontag had to say about the joys of guilelessly bad art.
Joan Crawford stars as Lucy Harbin, a middle-aged outcast back home after a twenty year stint in a mental institution. The film’s prologue sets the stage; one hot night in 1944 Lucy paused by her bedroom window to find her husband sharing their bed with another, distinctly younger, woman. The enraged virago grabs a nearby axe and makes hash of both the cheating hubby and unfortunate floozie – all of it witnessed by her three year old daughter Carol.
Now Lucy is returned and two decades of shock treatment and Librium have done their job, eradicating her madness along with her spirit. Carol (played by Diane Baker) has grown into a talented sculptress and life is tranquil on their little California farm – until Lucy begins to display a strange fascination for carving knives and heads begin to roll through the austere hallways of the Harbin home.
Crawford performance embraces Sontag’s three tenents of camp – travesty, impersonation and theatricality – transforming from shrinking violet to sex-hungry predator. Falling back into her 40’s hairdo, figure-hugging frock and an assortment of garish jewelry that clatters like a rattlesnake’s warning, the randy granny makes a play for her daughter’s boyfriend in a scene that beggars belief while sending more sensitive ticket-buyers to the lobby.
Crawford’s performance is both ludicrous and audacious, joining Jerry Lewis’ Nutty Professor as a cringe-worthy study in unwitting self-analysis. The still unresolved mystery of Professor Kelp/Buddy Love is revisited; are we witnessing a knowing parody of a Hollywood icon or a looney-tunes tribute to their own imperishable desirability? As Sontag notes, Fellini persuaded a credulous Anita Ekberg to parody herself in La Dolce Vita – but the Mighty Crawford was in charge from the get-go – Castle never stood a chance.
With 15% of the film’s profit, Crawford diva-rigged the production, booting Bubblicious sex-bomb Anne Helm from the role of her daughter and assigning a bit part to Mitchell Cox, the Pepsi Cola magnate (Joan was a member of the Pepsi board and her product gets plenty of placement in and around the Harbin home).
Castle and Crawford enlisted screenwriter Robert Bloch to maintain the grisly vibe of Joan’s 1962 hit, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and at the same time generate some Psycho-buzz around their current production. As Strait-Jacket reconfirms, Bloch was a wiz at tawdry, perverse scenarios but was, to put it kindly, a non-starter when it came to dialog.
Crawford and Castle’s loyalty to the golden age of Hollywood leads to some noticeably geriatric casting including Leif Erickson, Howard St. John and Rochelle Hudson (the luminous title character of W.C. Fields’ 1934 Poppy). George Kennedy, still in his lumbering lout period, pops up as a leering handyman who loses his head for his trouble.
Thanks to the flat TV lighting of Arthur Arling (responsible for the beautiful The Yearling) and the uninspired set design of Boris Leven, Strait-Jacket is one of Castle’s most prosaic productions. But who notices when Crawford is perched on a mountaintop, wailing away like a blood-spattered Valkyrie in full battle mode.
Shout/Scream Factory‘s new blu-ray looks generally excellent (though some scenes are inexplicably soft and grainy) while Van Alexander’s garish spook-show score both enlivens and cheapens the proceedings. In other words, perfectly appropriate.
Joan Had Me Fired – An Interview With the jilted Anne Helm
On The Road With Joan Crawford – An Interview With Publicist Richard KahnThey’ve also ported over extras from the Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release:Battle-Ax: The Making Of Strait-Jacket
Joan Crawford Costume And Makeup Tests
Ax-Swinging Screen Test