‘Strait-Jacket’ (1964): Nightmarish, cartoonish William Castle weirdness

Lurid Halloween comic book scares, hypnotically arranged…for the most part.

By Paul Mavis

We know you still go out on Halloween (you’re one of the big kids who don’t even try to wear a costume while you growl, “I’m getting candy for my sick little brother,”) so you’ll be glad to know Mill Creek Entertainment has given you one snazzy, crystal-clear Blu-ray goody for your trick-or-treat bag: Psycho Biddy Double Feature: Strait-Jacket and Berserk!, both starring that most terrifying of the great actresses-turned-grotesque hacks, Joan Crawford. Speaking of hacks, I’m going to split this review into two, pawning off a slightly re-written old take on Strait-Jacket so I’ve got time to watch and review Berserk!, all so my editor won’t yell at me (see what you have to go through to be a writer?).

Purchase Mill Creek’s Psycho Biddy Double Feature: Strait-Jacket and Berserk! on Blu-ray at Amazon.

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Strait-Jacket is the 1964 shocker from producer/director William Castle, written (at least initially, before Crawford got ahold of it) by Psycho‘s Robert Bloch, and starring Joan Crawford, Diane Baker, Leif Erickson, Howard St. John, John Anthony Hayes, Rochelle Hudson, George Kennedy, Edith Atwater, and Vice President of PepsiCo, Mitchell Cox (who does just fine, despite the carps). It’s a guess, but I suspect Strait-Jacket is now watched primarily by people who go in expecting to goof on its admitted excesses and missteps (poser irony has really ruined pop culture).

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You can giggle at Strait-Jacket if you want (Castle probably didn’t mind, as long as you paid for your ticket), but that laughter doesn’t negate Castle’s uncanny ability to crudely patch together eerie, creepy nightmare shockers like The House on Haunted Hill, The Night Walker, and Homicidal. Not perfect Castle by any means, Strait-Jacket does have those often startling moments of nightmarish, cartoonish weirdness that underrated (and unashamed) Castle delivered with unerring frequency.

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1943. A sultry Ohio farmland night. Young married stud Frank Harbin (Lee Majors), after some spirited juke-joint seduction, brings buxom little tramp Stella Fulton (Patricia Crest) back to his wife’s farmhouse for a little barnyard fun…right in front of his “sleeping” three-year-old daughter, Carol (Vicki Cos). Unluckily for them both, Frank’s 29-year-old red-hot-mamma-of-a-wife, Lucy Harbin (58-year-old Joan Crawford…and looking every day of it), comes home early from her out-of-town trip, and sees the couple in post-coital slumber. Grabbing an axe, Lucy de-nogginizes them both in front of wide-eyed Carol, and is promptly hauled off to an insane asylum for 20 years.

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Fast-forward to the West Coast, 1963. 23-year-old Carol (Diane Baker), having been taken in by Lucy’s brother, farmer Bill Cutler (Leif Erickson) and his wife, Emily (Rochelle Hudson), is now a beautiful, confident young woman and an accomplished sculptress. She’s also the steady date of handsome Michael Fields (John Anthony Hayes), the young scion of very wealthy dairy owner Raymond Fields (Howard St. John) and his prim and proper wife, Alison (Edith Atwater). When news of Lucy’s release from the asylum reaches Carol, she’s unsure how to act with the mother she barely remembers, when Uncle Bill brings her home. However, Carol soon takes a shine to the now-haggard, timid, emotionally-spent Lucy, giving her a make-over that looks remarkably like the one she had twenty years ago. Lucy, though, may not be ready for life outside the nut house, as she begins to hear voices…and as bodies begin to pile up, sans melons.

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The dreaded “camp” label. I’m not sure you can read a contemporary review of Strait-Jacket (including this one, now…), or indeed reviews of many of William Castle’s works, without seeing that word. It’s a vague term that I try not to use because it has different meanings for different moviegoers, but mostly I dislike it because the way it’s employed now by too many critics. The way they wield it, “camp” almost always smacks of condescension: “I’m smarter than this, I’m more mature than this crude silliness. Can you believe someone made this movie this way? So…I’m going to laugh at it to show how superior I am to it. It is…campy!” (don’t even get me started on “cheesy”). To be fair, I certainly don’t mind laughing at movies I think go wrong; it’s just my proclivities for mocking seem to naturally find outlet with more mainstream, “respected” movies which to my nose have that unmistakable and powerful odor of mendacity (thank you, Big Daddy).

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Something like Strait-Jacket, however–delirious and crude, but unpretentious–has an underlying validity to it that I like to take at face value. To me, a fatuous, pretentious, phony movie like To Kill a Mockingbird is far more unintentionally amusing than something like Strait-Jacket, particularly because so many people feel so impossibly reverent towards the former. The “camp” label is often used as a passive-aggressive sop to a “film snob’s” own insecurities. They can’t really admit they fully and completely enjoy watching something like Strait-Jacket, because everyone else says its so bad (they’re “joiners”). And because they either won’t or can’t analyze it “straight, ” they join in the derision…while reserving the right, secretly, to be entertained by it. What a waste of energy.

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Admittedly, I’m dangerously schizophrenic when it comes to the auteur theory; one day it’s beautifully elegant and so…right-sounding, and the next, I’m completely convinced it’s utter bullsh*t. So I can’t tell you as a fact that William Castle “knew” on some other level that he was capable time and time again of creating scenes and sequences that look like they come only from his movies. All I know is that I perceive this…screaming, lurid comic book sensibility to most of his suspense and horror movies, one that resonates with me. Strait-Jacket is a good example…unless, of course, a Robert Bloch expert wants to make the argument these vibes are coming from him (see? You can’t win). Here, in Strait-Jacket, on Castle’s cheap, sparsely-appointed 1/4-inch plywood sets, with his dull gray color palette and his alternately boring, flat lighting and extreme chiaroscuro effects, he manages to shove in your face this decidedly creepy, nightmarish world that’s visually restricted yet emotionally broadly painted, an interior world of psychosis and violence that plays like panels from a comic book or one of those sick ’50s true-crime magazines.

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The opening reel is a masterpiece of brazen, shameless pulp sensibility, married to equally crude imagery. After the shock audio intro of Crawford’s frenzied screaming (you could spell it out, like in the comics: “Aaaarrrrggggghhhhh!”) and Castle himself channeling a circus freak show baker rasping, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Love slayer insane!”

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Baker then begins the ball rolling by telling her fiance all about her mother, with her description of Crawford sounding like something out of a combination police blotter and Mickey Spillane novel (“Lucy Harbin. Born and raised on a farm. Parents: poor. Education: meager. Very much a woman, and very much aware of the fact, “). After Castle gives us the garish details of Majors’ seduction (he’s really slobbering all over that poor girl), Castle comes up with one of his unique frames: Crawford peeking into her bedroom window and seeing Majors and his chippie in bed, looking for all the world like they’re already dead–just like those crudely mocked-up, air-brushed real-life crime scene photos found inside True Detective and the like.

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It’s such a bizarre-looking shot your first thought is “ineptitude,” but it’s so consciously, deliberately posed in such an intentionally odd way, you realize Castle is tapping into something obsessing him–some morbid stillness following sex, perhaps?–that is then violently, shockingly contrasted by the frenzy Crawford brings to her chopping. Why does Castle keep letting her whack away beyond all measures of good taste, almost inviting you to laugh? Because he’s making a coarse, ugly shocker, not The Donna Reed Show. It’s an intensity of contrast between stillness and vivid, sensational violence that comes over like a Tom and Jerry cartoon played for frightening keeps: you can laugh at it if you concentrate on the patently phony dummy heads or Crawford’s outlandish costume…or you can feel unsettled at Castle’s strange, deeply neurotic bursts of concentrated violence.

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And yet there’s nothing “camp” about the intensity of Crawford’s performance, in either her “action” scenes or her relatively subdued dramatic ones. Crawford’s performance in Strait-Jacket is feral; no two ways around it. She’s acting like her life depended on this would-be cardboard thriller, and that dead-serious approach only deepens and transcends the already-disturbing material. We want to laugh when she’s rattling those bracelets and expertly wielding that axe…but watch her eyes: in those split-seconds, she’s living that moment, right then and there. It’s frightening to watch.

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No less emotionally intense are her quiet scenes with Baker. When Crawford first sees Baker after 20 years, the subtlety and layering of her emoting is remarkable (when I read a critic dismissing this kind of acting as outdated and melodramatic, I’m reading a critic who thinks the only valid kind of performance is one that falls in line with today’s faux-naturalistic, self-reflexive, ironic posturing and posing). Once you remember that Crawford started out in silents, you understand how adept she was in wordless moments like this.

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It’s only when Castle fails to properly bridge or transition her shifts in tone does Crawford’s approach produce bizarre, grotesque contrasts. Certainly Strait-Jacket‘s most notorious instance of this is the scene where Crawford meets Baker’s fiance for the first time. I’ve never understood how so many critics can’t seem to understand that Crawford is supposed to look ludicrous in this scene; those critics seem to want to blame the actress herself, who had approval over her costumes among other things, for this look (her character is dressed this way at Baker’s insistence; she’s supposed to look ridiculous trying to recapture her youth). However, I’m with everyone else when I write that despite seeing Strait-Jacket many times over the years…I’m just as much in the dark as they are as to why Crawford’s character switches gears instantaneously and sexually attacks Baker’s boyfriend.

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Later, her visit with her doctor tries to explain her behavior: she’s trying too hard to relive her past, and thus making up for lost time. But still, it’s far too abrupt a transition to be believed, with not enough background on the character’s motivation to explain this crazy behavior (in one second, Crawford goes from being pathetically grateful in having her long-lost child’s approval, to practically screwing her boyfriend in front of her). Of course, the scene itself, though, is a marvel of bizarro melodramatics, with Crawford jaw-droppingly wrong playing an aged tramp who thinks she’s a young hot pistol, letting loose with hysterically funny come-ons (when he asks for Scotch on the rocks, she leers, “Oh…one of those,”) while rattling her bracelets and rocking her hips to the music (when she tough-cookie lights a match off a phonograph record, with an accompanying, “ZZZrrrrriipppffff!” the effect is humorously galvanic). It’s a wonderfully, inexplicably hilarious scene, thanks to fearless Crawford. Then again…she is supposed to look preposterous according to Baker’s plan, so….

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Castle’s commitment to producing an exaggerated scare comic is no less complete than Crawford’s in Strait-Jacket. Time and again I’m struck by Castle’s unerring, even preternatural accuracy and timing in generating off-putting shock sequences–even if sometimes those individual scenes aren’t stitched together with the same matching care. The presence of obviously phony dummy heads in the bedroom scene with Crawford is often laughed at (…if you forget they’re not supposed to be real, anyway), but Castle’s timing is perfect when he pans over to get Crawford’s unhinged screaming (again: total commitment from a seemingly equally unhinged Crawford). The heads may be fake, but Crawford’s scream isn’t.

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It’s too bad Castle blows George Kennedy’s beheading; he should have just had a frame or two establishing that dummy head before Crawford whacked it off (we get a full second or two of it, ruining the intended effect), but the prior sequence of Crawford watching Kennedy (enjoyably seedy and sleazy) slaughter a chicken is beautifully mounted, with the overpowering sound of the overhead windmill driving into Crawford’s brain before Castle cuts to her comic strip scream as the blade comes down.

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A shot worthy of Castle’s rival, Hitchcock–the bizarre powder room scene shot from way, way above as Crawford freaks out in a cell-like, stripped room–is powerful on its own…but it comes out of nowhere (we needed to see some of that initial dinner party where Crawford meets Baker’s fiance’s folks). And of course, no Bloch-written Castle exercise would be complete without a Psycho homage, when Howard St. John gets whacked in his clothes’ closet (crudely done, but effective). SPOILER ALERT! The finale is pure Castle, with the patently phony mask work on axe-wielding Baker fitting right in with Castle’s cartoony vision, before the melodrama kicks into overdrive as Baker screams, “I love you! I hate you! ” over and over again, as Crawford (in an added scene she demanded, to focus the finale on her and not Baker) hugs a column, weeping and exclaiming for her poor, psychotic daughter. Strait-Jacket‘s over-the-top ending–axe murders, cheap, unconvincing rubber masks, histrionic emoting–is unabashed pulp, but Castle’s total, tasteless, crude commitment to it is one only a true artist would employ with such single-minded zeal.

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PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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One thought on “‘Strait-Jacket’ (1964): Nightmarish, cartoonish William Castle weirdness

  1. Just something about Joan Crawford recounted by Robert Bloch in his biography: “Now, I am going to read my lines — tell me if I’m giving the interpretation you wanted. After all, you wrote it.” This was a temperamental movie queen? She read, and I was pleased. Behind the image was the real star. Totally dedicated, eager to learn anything.

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