Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Robert Aldrich’s morbidly fascinating Hollywood gothic starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, had its premiere in October of 1962. William Castle, the director of Homicidal and sundry other shockers, took a close look at Baby Jane’s box office and two years later, with Crawford in tow, produced his own morbidly fascinating gothic, Strait Jacket.
A natural born huckster in the manner of P.T. Barnum, Castle had no promotional gimmick tied to Strait Jacket; he rode this movie into the theaters on the wide shoulders of Crawford’s dimmed star and the lurid violence of screenwriter Robert Bloch’s soap opera slasher: the notion of Joan Crawford as an axe-wielding Angel of Death kept the turnstiles spinning.
Make no mistake, as terrible as Strait Jacket is, it’s compulsive viewing. Joan Crawford plays a woman just released from a long sojurn in an insane asylum, twenty years have passed since she dispatched her unfaithful husband and his girlfriend with an axe. The fragile Crawford returns to the comfort of her friends and family but love is not in the air: the axe murders begin again and Crawford suffers a paroxysm of self-doubt.
The grey-haired, dowdy Crawford is genuinely touching in her initial scenes: her illness tamed by decades of shock therapy but her spirit crushed in the process. Castle is, however, quickly bored by this sensitive approach and soon Crawford is gussied up in a jet-black wig and the red-hot mama wardrobe of her randy youth, her hips working double overtime to a feverish jazz version of “There Goes That Song Again”.
All signs point to Crawford as the knife-happy killer (she just can’t fight the compulsion to turn the family photos into paper dolls and she’s pointedly hyp-mo-tized by the dinner roast being carved). But give Castle his due; the mystery remains mysterious till the very end and the movie is never boring… not while Joan Crawford as Judge, Jury and Righteous Executioner presides over a very strict courtroom: Off with their heads!