Welcome back to another edition of Horror in Black and White! This week, we tackle the absolutely bonkers William Castle classic, Strait-Jacket!
William Castle was a man with a plan, and when he didn’t have a plan, he at least had a gimmick. This was the man, after all, who put electric motors in theater seats for The Tingler to give audience members a jolt–literally–during pivotal scenes and had used “Illusion-O” during 13 Ghosts which gave the audience the power to choose whether they saw the ghosts on screen or not!
Strait-Jacket boasted the biggest gimmick of them all, however: Joan Crawford.
OK, not really…
Audience members were given fake plastic axes when they entered the theater to see Strait-Jacket, but for my money, Joan Crawford was the biggest gimmick, and boy, was it a doozy.
Strait-Jacket tells the story of Lucy Harbin (Crawford), who comes home one night to find her husband (Lee Majors) in bed with another woman. Enraged and unhinged, she takes up an axe, quietly creeps into the bedroom, and not realizing that her daughter was watching, beheads them both!
Lucy is sent to an asylum for 20 years, and her daughter, Carol, is raised by her aunt and uncle. As the film moves forward in time, Diane Baker, who would later play Senator Ruth Martin in The Silence of the Lambs, is Carol all grown up and ready to marry the man of her dreams, Michael (John Anthony Hayes).
Michael’s family is quite wealthy, but neither Michael nor they, know of Carol’s past. When Lucy arrives, the truth comes out, and slowly their world begins to unravel and the bodies begin to pile up!
The film came just two years after Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Castle, hoping to cash in on Crawford’s appeal to younger audiences who had discovered her through that film and when her movies began to be played again on television.
Bringing in Crawford didn’t come without its, shall we say, trials and tribulations, however.
The part had originally been written and cast with Joan Blondell (Nightmare Alley). Unfortunately, she had to leave the project after an accident, and Crawford was brought into replace her.
The new Joan agreed to play the role, but also demanded script approval and a major rewrite, changing the ending and the portrayal of her character.
She also fought for and won the product placement of Pepsi on the kitchen counter. For those who didn’t know, Crawford was married to the founder and CEO of the company and hiring Crawford also meant advertising the soda, usually very quietly in the background.
However, in this case of Strait-Jacket it also meant casting Mitchell Cox, the Vice President of Pepsi, as one of Lucy’s former doctors who pays her a visit after she’s left the asylum. This was done, according to rumor, without Castle knowledge.
Many have criticized Crawford over the years, and none so much as her own adopted daughter Christina, but I’m positive there were men making the same demands at the time who were never cast in the same light that she was.
As I noted before, this movie is bonkers, but it does have its moments. Light and shadow are especially used well here, and the black and white spectrum only enhances those oh-so-dark depths.
I especially love those opening scenes when Crawford enters the bedroom and the camera pans to wall where we see her lift the axe in shadow. She brings it down hard, and we see the shadow of her husband’s head fly off the bed from that one mighty blow!
Crawford and Baker have a natural ease with each other on screen, even in moments of tension. The younger woman’s face mirrors the older, and they can both reach those raw, over-the-top melodramatic spaces in their performances.
Still, no one has presence quite like Crawford on screen. Audience eyes are naturally drawn to her as though by magnets, and for all of her grandness, even in a film like Strait-Jacket there are beautiful moments of stillness where she hardly seems to breathe and we are content to hold our breath with her.
That quietness serves her well in the final moments of the film, which honestly plays like the wrap-up seen of a Perry Mason mystery.
The film opened to mixed reviews with many lauding Crawford’s performance while panning the film overall.
“I am full of admiration for Joan Crawford,” Elaine Rothschild wrote in Films in Review, “for even in drek like this, she gives a performance!”
Still, Castle was the man with a gimmick, and whether you choose the plastic axes or Crawford making live appearances at a few screenings, the plan worked, and it was a box office hit!
You can see Strait-Jacket on a variety of streaming services, and if you haven’t, you really should!
Check out the trailer below!