Despite having a reputation of being more campy than scary, an American 1960s B-grade violent thriller managed to help deliver the goods for an Oscar winning actress who, at the time, looked like she was about to well and truly slide into her Hollywood dotage. Mark Fraser revisits a work that, for all intents and purposes, achieved what it initially set out to do.
When a movie about an axe-wielding murderer played by Joan Crawford is written by Robert Bloch, the author of the 1959 novel Psycho, and directed by horrormeister William Castle, one thing is for certain – at some point there’s bound to be a big twist towards the end of the story.
And sure enough one does arrive in the final reel of the 1964 black and white thriller Strait-Jacket, in which Crawford plays a woman who, 20 years beforehand pre the film’s opening credits, brutally decapitates her cheating husband Frank (a young Lee Majors) and his erstwhile girlfriend Stella (Patricia Crest) with an axe after unexpectedly arriving home and finding them asleep post coitus.
As it would be a bit cruel to reveal this significant plot development, there are no spoilers here. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that anyone familiar with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 screen version of Psycho will probably be able to have a pretty good stab (or, in this case, a swing of the axe) at guessing what this dramatic shock might be once the murderous mayhem in the movie’s second half starts in earnest.
It’s also fair to say there are moments in Strait-Jacket when the clues don’t quite do justice to the suspension of disbelief which is ultimately required by the audience – something that becomes overtly apparent during the narrative’s brief denouement as Castle and Bloch, in a talky final scene, attempt to tie up all the loose ends.
While this isn’t exactly a crime in itself, the movie’s conclusion simply doesn’t have the same punch as the closing moments in Psycho when – after Norman Bates’ (Anthony Perkins) creepy train-of-thought soliloquy and part skull double exposure in the sheriff’s holding cell – the car owned by Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), which harbours a wad of stolen cash, is being pulled from a swamp by the authorities as Bernard Herrmann’s darkly dissonant score dominates the soundtrack. In this regard, despite its sometimes grisly subject matter, Strait-Jacket ends with a fairly soft landing.
Following the movie’s opening murder scene, in which a young Carol Harbin (Vicki Cos) witnesses her crazed mother Lucy in full swing as she lops off the head of her cuckolding husband and his intruding squeeze, the story cuts to 20 years later when the older Carol (Diane Baker) – who has been raised by her uncle Bill Cutler* (Leif Erickson) and his wife Emily (Rochelle Hudson) on their farm – is expecting her mother’s return after being released from an asylum somewhere in America’s Mid West.
At first it all goes well. Understandably nervous, the older Lucy is so meek and timid that it seems, like Mrs Bates, she wouldn’t hurt a fly.
There are, however, a couple of early awkward moments – especially when Carol is showing her mother around the Cutler property. While peering through a wire fence of some cooped up chickens, for instance, Lucy mournfully remarks: “I just hate to see anything caged.”
“It’s not for long,” Carol replies. “We butcher them as soon …” (awkward pause).
They then wander across to the pig pen.
“Not very tidy, is it?” Lucy observes.
“But necessary,” her daughter quickly points out. “You fatten them up for the slaughter …” (another uncomfortable pause).
These embarrassing – and almost comic – moments are quickly forgotten, though, when Carol shows Lucy her home studio, where she is eking out a modest living as a sculptress. It is here she presents her mother with some of her old jewellery and a family photo album she has been keeping for the past two decades.
As expected, Lucy’s fragility starts to crumble when she finds out that Carol has invited her rich boyfriend Michael Fields (John Anthony Hayes) over for dinner. Unable to face meeting new people, she refuses to front up for the meal. Following this, Lucy’s state of mind becomes increasingly precarious – especially when Dr Anderson (Mitchell Cox), who oversaw her treatment while in the loony bin, later turns up for a surprise visit.
The next round of axe murders then commence, with the early victims including the good doctor and the brutish farm hand Leo Krause (George Kennedy), whose open procurement (read theft) of the missing Anderson’s car adds to the intrigue.
Judging from the extras which appear on Powerhouse Film Ltd’s Blu-ray issue of Strait-Jacket, Crawford was actively involved with the marketing of this movie, suggesting she was desperate for it to succeed. Having completed Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) a few years previously – it seems the fading star had willingly accepted the fact her career as a leading lady would, in part, be saved by appearing in what are now referred to as (amongst other names) hagsploitation pieces; entries in a genre that was just starting to gain momentum, and in which the Aldrich work was a ground breaker.
Assuming this is correct, one can see why Crawford is so strangely effective, the actress delivering a fittingly schizophrenic performance which oscillates between subdued humility, fearful confusion and outright aggression. Regardless of it being a B-grade schlocker – and a far cry from her Oscar-winning role in 1945’s Mildred Pierce – it’s obvious Crawford took her work in Strait-Jacket seriously.
In this regard, one truly interesting moment is when Lucy is first introduced to Michael. Up until this point she has been quietly polite and overly restrained; upon meeting her daughter’s beau, though, she becomes – at the drop of a hat – a booze drinking, jazz listening, cigarette smoking flirt. This Mrs Hyde persona later returns in force when she meets his rich parents Raymond (Howard St John) and Alison (Edith Atwater) at a proposed dinner get-together – a family gathering that goes horribly awry after the two women start arguing over their siblings’ future.
There is an undeniable venom in Crawford’s delivery (as there is in Atwater’s) – giving this scene some dramatic weight that it might not otherwise have had.
However, because her initial screen moments as the vengeful axe-wielding wife are conducted with such relish – and the overall subject matter of this sometimes tacky B-grader is pretty exploitative – contemporary audiences now see Strait-Jacket, and Crawford’s performance in particular, as being nothing more than over-the-top camp.
Certainly there are times when Castle’s direction doesn’t help. As Lucy arrives at the Fields’ house, for example, she blacks out in the car before inexplicably finding herself in a cramped room with vertically-striped wallpaper waiting for her dress to be returned after having (off screen) spilt coffee on it.
In a most peculiar transition which doesn’t really make any sense at all, Castle cuts from an outside first person point-of-view shot to an interior overhead one (through a wide angle lens), inexplicably omitting a moment which arguably could have given the subsequent showdown between Lucy and Fields a little more gravitas.
Fortunately, Crawford – the former Hollywood starlet who stopped making movies just six years after Strait-Jacket was released – is compelling enough to keep the viewer from getting too annoyed at this strange piece of editing. If anything, her performance in this horror curio borders on the bravura.
*One can only wonder if Bloch chose this name due to its similarity to the Clutters, the farming family from Kansas, whose parents and two younger siblings were murdered in late 1959 by Perry Smith and Dick Hickock – an event later chronicled by author Truman Capote in his 1965 book In Cold Blood.
Words by Mark Fraser
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Strait-Jacket was released in a limited edition box set from Powerhouse Films on December 17 2018.