Strait-Jacket (Shout! Factory release)
Shout Factory // Unrated // $22.99 // August 21, 2018
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted September 25, 2018
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Director-producer William Castle (1914-1977) had been a house director at Columbia for nearly 20 years beginning in the 1940s, initially associated with mysteries and noir before turning to program pictures of all types in the 1950s. His relatively undistinguished career took a big turn, however, when he reinvented himself in the late 1950s, beginning with Macabre (1958), a minor film he made independently for Allied Artists, which he ginned-up with a gimmick: a $1,000 life insurance policy given to every ticket buyer. Made for around $100,000, it may have grossed as much as $5 million worldwide.

More films with even more elaborate gimmicks followed. House on Haunted Hill (1958) was presented in some theaters in "Emergo," in which a skeleton on wires floated over the audience during a key scene. For The Tingler (1959) he wired theater seats with vibrators retooled from military aircraft de-icers. When the title monster is set loose in a movie theater in the story, the screen went black and star Vincent Price, in voice-over, warned the audience that the Tingler was loose in this very theater, and the buzzing seats were activated. And so on.

Castle himself became a Hitchcock-like host, usually appearing in the trailers and often in the films themselves, his Cheshire Cat-like grin and obvious enthusiasm endearing him to a generation of movie-goers. Castle even had his own fan club for a time.

After more elaborate gimmicks in 13 Ghosts (1960), Homicidal (1961), and Mr. Sardonicus (1961), Castle began dialing back a bit. Though they provided invaluable publicity, Castle's stunts were difficult and/or expensive to implement, and often were limited to select theaters. For Strait-Jacket Castle's backers convinced him to make the movie without a gimmick, though at the last minute he decided to print cardboard axes that could be handed out to ticket buyers.

The picture is basically a variation of Gaslight, revolving around a convicted axe-murderess (Joan Crawford) who, 20 years later, is "cured" and returned home to her adult daughter (Diane Baker). The picture is relatively tame though Crawford is surprisingly good.

Confusingly, this Shout! Factory release comes just a month beforeit's scheduled to be reissued to Blu-ray again (by budget label Mill Creek), topping a double-bill with another, lesser Crawford title, Berserk (1967). The Shout! release has a mix of new and old extra features, but the Mill Creek offers two movies for about half the price of this one. (Pre-orders of the Mill Creek release are on hold as I write this.)

Lucy Harbin (Crawford) discovers her husband (Lee Majors, in his film debut) in bed with another woman and, as her horrified daughter, Carol, looks on, she murders the lovers with an axe.

Twenty years later, Carol (Baker), having been raised on a farm by Lucy's brother, Bill (Leif Erickson) and sister-in-law, Emily (Rochelle Hudson), is nearly engaged to Michael (John Anthony Hayes), he from a wealthy, prominent family. Carol confesses to him the dark family secret, for Lucy is about to be released from the insane asylum.

After a tearful reunion, Carol takes Lucy on a shopping trip, to lift the extremely skittish older woman's spirits. At Carol's prompting, Lucy begins wearing a wig, jewelry, and a dress to try and look 20 years younger, and even flirts with Michael. Conversely, she begins hallucinating all manner of horrors: the decapitated heads of her victims appear in her bed one night, and she hears the voices of children taunting her. Lucy's doctor from the asylum (played by Mitchell Cox, a Pepsi-Cola vice-president employee of Crawford's husband) is alarmed and wants to take her back, but he's axed to death himself, and protective Carol hides his car. However, greedy, slovenly farmhand Leo (George Kennedy, in the Lon Chaney Jr.-type role) threatens to expose the murder, and so he ends up axed, too. Can Carol save her mother from recommitment or worse, while preventing further axe murders?

William Castle was a genius of showmanship and self-promotion, but as a director he was pretty ordinary and his films generally were visually uninteresting, though his 3-D titles exhibit some imagination. His best movies from this period are those with outrageous scripts and equally audacious gimmicks accompanying them. The Tingler is by far the most enjoyable because, on one hand, its basic concept revolves around completely ludicrous science, yet within those parameters it's unexpectedly entertaining and engrossing. It also tries hard to distinguish itself from ordinary thrillers, introducing a number of unconventional concepts (red blood appearing in an otherwise black-and-white film, merging the movie audience with the onscreen story, etc.).

Strait-Jacket is, by comparison, almost charmingly tame and old-fashioned, its bloodless murders barely more graphic than could have been shown on primetime television of the era. (Spoilers) With only one visually-arresting moment near the end, when two Joan Crawfords suddenly share the screen, pictorially Strait-Jacket is rather drab and lacking Castle's earlier flair.

Instead, the reason to watch the film is for Joan Crawford. Though she would soon be sneered at for her late-career performances in campy roles and movies, her anachronistic acting style in Strait-Jacket fits and serves the material well. Fifty-nine at the time, she ballsily portrays herself as a young woman in the prologue, strutting her stuff as if she were in her twenties, and her later flirtation with Carol's boyfriend - a scene completely out of character and over the top. But mostly she's in a precarious mental state and wins the audience's sympathy.

Crawford's trouble was that, unlike, say, contemporaries like Clark Gable or Spencer Tracy, she never adjusted her style of acting with the times. Here she plays Lucy the same way she might have played her in 1930, contrasting the more naturalistic performances of Baker, Ericson, and the others. In Strait-Jacket this actually helps, making her seem hopelessly out of step with the times.

What really damages the picture is its gaping plot holes and some wild inconsistencies. (Remember, spoilers.) The plot is basically a variation of Gaslight: Carol is secretly trying to convince her mother that she's insane so that she'll be recommitted, enabling Carol to marry her rich boyfriend. In retrospect, however, certain aspects of Carol's nefarious plot don't make sense. After Lucy and Michael's mother (Edith Atwater) have a terrible argument at the latter's home and Lucy disappears into the night, Michael drives both Carol and Emily back to the farm, miles away, but by the time Lucy walks back to the Atwater mansion Carol is already there, in full costume dressed as Lucy (and wearing a Joan Crawford mask) trying to murder her would-be in-laws. How did she get back there, and so quickly? And without Lucy noticing her car roaring past?

Though Lucy is clearly responsible for the two murders at the beginning, in a jealous rage, Carol's motivation to commit three additional murders and attempt a fourth makes little sense. Is she merely greedy or crazy herself after witnessing her mother's act of violence 20 years before? No attempt is made to explain any of this.

Lucy's mental state is all over the place. Returning home after 20 years, she's demure to the point of being agoraphobic, lost in unfamiliar surroundings among family who are virtual strangers. Yet when decked out in a sassier wardrobe and wig by Carol, she inexplicably becomes an uninhibited man-eater. Carol's devious plot nearly pushes Lucy over the edge into a state of total madness, yet once she learns Carol is actually behind all the recent mayhem she snaps into a state of perfect mental health, delivering the film's Psycho-like epilogue.

Video & Audio

Sony's earlier DVD of Strait-Jacket looked very good already but the new region "A" Blu-ray pushes it a couple of inches closer to 35mm-level clarity. The black-and-white image is razor sharp, though a lot of gauze was clearly used to hide Crawford's wrinkles in some scenes. The DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono) is fine and supported by optional English subtitles.

Extra Features

Most of the extras are repurposed from Sony's earlier DVD, with a few new additions: an audio commentary track with film historians Steve Haberman, David J. Schow, and Constantine Nasr; "Joan Had Me Fired," an interview with Anne Helm; "Battle-Ax: The Making of Strait-Jacket," an excellent featurette made for the DVD; "On the Road with Joan Crawford," featuring publicist Richard Kahn; costume, makeup and "axe-swinging" camera tests; a trailer and still gallery.

Parting Thoughts

Not great but undeniably enjoyable, Strait-Jacket is Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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