By 1964, the year “Strait-Jacket” was unbuckled and America tried it on for size, producer/director William Castle had a half-dozen horror movies under his ample belt, and none of them were “A” pictures. He’d seen “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” 17 times, pointing to the screen each time while mumbling, “I want one of those.”
He grabbed writer Robert Bloch, whose novel “Psycho” had worked brilliantly for Alfred Hitchcock a few years before—after “Homicidal” in 1961, Castle had broken ties with screenwriter Robb White, who had delivered five of his horror scripts—and Bloch set to work on a story loosely suggested by the Lizzie Borden axe murders of 1892.Bloch was the author of some great short horror stories, a couple of terrific novels, and scores of mediocre scripts. Screenwriting earned him most of his money, but it didn’t produce his most memorable work.
Perhaps Castle saw the approaching wave of “hag horror,” generally “B” creepers starring fading actresses who still had the big name but could no longer command big parts in big movies. He signed Joan Blondell for the role of axe murderess Lucy Harbin. Before shooting began, Blondell had an accident that prevented her from making the movie, and Castle went after one of the stars of “Baby Jane,” Joan Crawford.
Crawford was willing to accept the part, but she demanded cast and script approval. Castle agreed. So arrogant was Crawford, she gave the small role of Dr. Anderson, Lucy’s psychiatrist, to Mitchell Cox, a vice-president of Pepsi Cola, a non-actor but a personal friend, without telling Castle what she was up to. It’s to Cox’ credit that he comes across on screen no worse than many professional actors in “B” horror flicks, and he seems to be having a great time. He’s no Boris Karloff, but he’s no Paris Hilton, either.
Anne Helm was cast in the important role of Lucy’s estranged daughter Carol, but Crawford didn’t like her and out she went. Diane Baker had worked with Crawford in “The Best of Everything” (1959), and with Susan Hayward in “Stolen Hours” (1963), so she knew her way around a diva. Crawford liked her and “suggested” her for the role.
The movie opens with a flashback, a trick Robert Aldrich, the director of “Baby Jane,” would use for his second foray into hag horror, “Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” later that year. We see Lucy’s husband (Lee Majors in his first screen role) flirting and drinking with a young woman. He invites her to his house because his wife is out of town and not expected back for a day or two. The adulterer and his lover make a little whoopee, unaware that they are being watched by three-year old Carol (Vicki Cos).
Then Lucy comes home early.Crawford makes her first entrance in a way that she must have loved. The camera is aimed at the steps that come down from the passenger car of a train. When Crawford steps into the frame, all we see are her legs—and nice looking gams they are still for the 58-year old former dancer. The shot also gives us our first dose of Robert Bloch’s signature black humor. Stenciled above the steps, just below Lucy’s feet, is the admonition “Watch your step.” Listen, too, for lines like “She’s dying to meet you,” and “Sanity is relative.”
When Lucy returns to her house, she finds hubby and his gal in bed. Shocked, she stumbles from the house and trips over a tree stump, imbedded in which is an axe. Bracelets jangling, she pulls the axe from the wood and goes back into the house. We see the outlines of the sleeping lovers in shadows on the wall as Lucy hoists the axe above her head and takes off each of theirs with two manic blows. She then goes to work in earnest.
There is absolutely nothing realistic about these murders. The heads are severed from the bodies too easily and there is no blood splatter as Lucy whacks away. Since Castle cuts a couple of times to close-ups of Carol’s terrified face, maybe we are seeing the crime as the little girl saw it, with full emphasis on her mother.
Okay, Lucy goes to an asylum and Carol is sent to live with her mother’s brother (an amusingly jovial Leif Erickson) and his pinch-mouthed wife (Rochelle Hudson) on a farm somewhere in the Midwest. (Bloch has more fun by letting us know that Lucy’s maiden name was “Cutler.”)
Twenty years later, Lucy is declared sane and she comes to live with the Cutlers and Carol. Carol shows her around the farm and you have everything you need to know to plot the rest of the picture yourself by the 20 minute mark.
Carol decides, in a move reminiscent of “Vertigo,” to re-make her dowdy mom in the image of what she was when she wielded the chopper. Lucy starts wearing loud print dresses, dangling bracelets, and a black wig with a mid-‘40s hairstyle. Then she begins hearing voices chanting “Lucy Harbin took an axe and gave her husband 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave his girl friend 41.”
One night she wakes to find two disembodied heads and a gory axe in her bed. Not too surprisingly, she takes to drinking a wee bit too much.
On the afternoon she meets Carol’s fiancé Michael (John Anthony Hayes), Lucy gets tight and flirts shamelessly with the younger man. This scene is the most memorable for viewers who like the picture for the wrong reasons—i.e., its camp value—as Crawford pulls out all the stops. She drapes herself over Hayes and even runs her fingertips around and between his lips. This was apparently not in the script nor the direction, and Hayes wondered what God had wrought, and he wondered it in a big way.
To make matters worse, Lucy’s psychiatrist, Dr. Anderson, shows up on his way to a fishing trip and the former patient gets upset. Lucy runs off and the doctor goes outside to look around. He soon looses his head over the place to the accompaniment of the sound of jangling bracelets.
Handyman Leo Krause (a wonderfully dim and degenerate George Kennedy) finds the doctor’s abandoned car and blackmails Carol into letting him keep it. He, too, is soon headed off, and then the film rushes to its conclusion with villainy revealed and honesty triumphant.
You don’t really know the movie is working as well as it is until you get to the murders and find yourself growing apprehensive. Castle’s best moment comes in a scene that finds Lucy watching Leo decapitate a chicken. The sound of the spinning blades on the weather vane builds throughout the brief scene until it reminds you of the jangling of Lucy’s bracelets. By the final reel, every time someone bends slightly at the waist, you expect an axe to enter the frame.
I suspect the participants had four ways of looking at “Strait-Jacket.” Crawford saw it as a star vehicle, while the supporting cast saw it as a paycheck. Castle saw it as an entry to “A” filmmaking, and Bloch saw it as a huge, sick joke. Viewers today don’t care much about what the supporting cast thought. Castle was wrong, while Crawford and Bloch were dead right—especially Bloch. It’s in the joke that the film is still most enjoyable.
Sadly, as a vehicle for Crawford, it’s really just the first step toward “Trog,” and there’s nothing funny about that.