Strait-Jacket is a delightfully campy ’60s thriller starring the indomitable Joan Crawford, directed by B-movie legend William Castle, and written by Robert Bloch, whom you may know as the author of Psycho. With all those pedigrees in place, it’s no wonder that Strait-Jacket is a classic of Grand Guignol horror and a thoroughly enjoyable piece of high schlock.
The over-the-top tone is communicated almost immediately, as characters are introduced by a hardboiled narrator: Lucy Harbin (Joan Crawford) is described as “very much a woman, and very much aware of the fact,” while her husband (Lee Majors, in an uncredited role) “married her because she owned property—but she didn’t own him.” When Lucy discovers her husband in bed with another woman, she grabs an axe from outside, and kills them both. The only witness to the murders is Lucy’s daughter, Carol, and Lucy is sent away to a psychiatric hospital for treatment.
Twenty years later, Lucy is released from the hospital, and goes to stay with her brother, Bill (Leif Erickson), with whom Carol (Diane Baker), now an adult, also lives. Though hesitant at first, Carol seems eager to rekindle their relationship, and encourages Lucy to change her hair and style of dress to the way she last remembers it at three years old. Lucy’s grasp on reality, however, appears to be tenuous at best—seemingly innocuous objects trigger her psychosis; she begins having increasingly haunting, vivid, and troubling nightmares; and, worst of all, there’s been a new series of grisly ax murders, and she has absolutely no memory of committing them.
Crawford plays the role with great sensitivity, and even while the murders are happening, I felt great sympathy toward her character. Understandably, she’s very shy when meeting strangers for the first time, partly because she’s afraid of embarrassing her daughter, and partly because her lapses in memory have removed her ability to regulate her actions, making her feel helpless. Later—post makeover scene—she attempts to hide this inner shyness under the veneer of her old bombshell style, shamelessly flirting with Carol’s boyfriend in a completely cringeworthy scene. It’s a great, if not entirely subtle, transition, but I think it works wonderfully in this type of film, and seeing both extremes works to set her up as a sort of tragic antihero. Even at her loudest and most obnoxious, it’s apparent that she’s only wearing this bravado as a kind of mask to hide her true insecurities.
The murders are filmed in sensational Castle fashion; sometimes in gorgeous, crisp, black-and-white silhouettes, and sometimes fully in view of the camera with prosthetic heads flying at the screen. The story borrows many elements, including the appropriation of a children’s jumprope rhyme, from the infamous Lizzie Borden murders, but it’s still very much its own thing. All in all, it’s a wonderfully entertaining picture, made all the more so by the direction and an unhinged performance by Crawford—some suspect that this was a film Faye Dunaway must have studied in great detail to play Crawford in Mommie Dearest.
Major spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen the film… click to reveal: Though I probably should have expected it, part of the reason I’m being so diligent about spoilers here is that I proceeded through most of the film like a good, unquestioning audience member, just assuming that Lucy was indeed responsible for the new series of deaths, and that that was an interesting enough concept to run with. So I was completely floored when Lucy’s double ran out in that terrifying mask and wig, and even more surprised when it turned out to be Carol. Though it’s a small twist in comparison to Castle’s famous gimmicks and Bloch’s famous Psycho reveal, it certainly makes an already entertaining film even more memorable, and I’m glad I was able to experience it relatively unspoiled. For a moment, I even wondered if the depiction of the initial killing spree was not entirely reliable, and perhaps Lucy had confessed to a crime she did not commit in order to protect her daughter.
One last note: I adore the cheeky, headless Columbia logo that appears after the film. Totally hilarious and perfect.