Strait-Jacket (1964)

“Lucy Harbin took an axe, gave her husband forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done, she gave his girlfriend forty-one!”

Synopsis:
Lucy Harbin (Joan Crawford) has spent twenty years in an insane asylum for murdering her husband (Lee Majors) and his girlfriend (Patricia Crest) in a fit of jealous rage. When she returns home, her estranged daughter (Diane Baker) tries to conceal her mother’s past from her soon-to-be in-laws (Edith Atwater and Howard St. John), but a mysterious rash of murders makes this increasingly difficult.

Genres:

Review:
William Castle’s Psycho-esque slasher flick — starring Joan Crawford in one of her last great roles — is undeniably campy, yet contains a surprising amount of atmosphere and thrills. Crawford (who gives 110 percent, as always) is compulsively watchable, and elicits both genuine sympathy and fear, as she shifts smoothly from axe-wielding hysterics to insecure neurotics. Equally impressive is Diane Baker as Crawford’s daughter, whose desperate desire to pursue a “normal” life with her fiance-to-be (John Anthony Hayes) causes her to apply some seriously dangerous denial tactics. As in Psycho, the final plot twist in Strait-Jacket is guaranteed to come as a surprise, and places the characters’ previous actions in an entirely different light.

P.S. Crawford apparently maintained creative control over nearly every aspect of the movie, including the script (by Robert Bloch, author of Psycho) and casting (Baker was brought on at the last minute as a replacement, while Crawford promised the role of Lucy’s doctor to a member of the Pepsi-Cola board — Mitchell Cox — with zero film experience).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Joan Crawford as the unpredictable yet oddly sympathetic axe murderess
    Crawford
  • Crawford lighting a match off of a spinning jazz record
    Match
  • Beautiful Diane Baker as Lucy’s loyal daughter
    Diane Baker
  • Some genuinely scary moments
    Axe Shadow
  • A surprising twist ending

Must See?
Yes. This camp classic is a definitive entry in Crawford’s late-life movie career, and should be seen by all film fanatics.

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One Response to “Strait-Jacket (1964)”

  1. Undeniably a must! Some viewers may find it a third-rate, over-baked, ludicrous and not very horrific horror film. Yes, it’s that too! But it also probably ties with “Homicidal’ as adorable schlockmeister William Castle’s best work. Myself, I give “Homicidal’ the edge because it’s less hammy (i.e., the way the murders are done) — but the bright, peacock plume in this baby’s cap is our own JC! As part of the cluster known (affectionately) as “the hag films’ — which (aside from a notable exception like “Die, Die, My Darling!’) tended to star Crawford and/or Bette Davis, “Strait-Jacket’ holds a place in the hearts of gay men everywhere. But it also works well for general audiences as camp with considerable flair, esp. in the small touches: when Joan gets off a train early on, note that it’s written “Watch Your Step’ (indeed!); Joan’s tendency to be bangled within an inch of her life may evoke Coral Browne’s memorable line to Roz Russell in “Auntie Mame’: “What the hell have you got back there — reindeer?!”; Howard St. John’s “milk fetish’; countless examples of Joan’s non-verbal skill (i.e., when Baker reprimands her for shamelessly moving in on her boyfriend, Joan does a take which seems to say, “Oh, I get it — YOU want to flirt with him!”) — and on and on. And, yes, there are even moments when Joan’s performance is surprisingly touching. You probably won’t find this even on a “best’ list for horror films, but it’s an almost-guaranteed hoot-n-holler for any gathered group of fun-loving film fanatics.

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