Recently, I read part of a movie review from Ain't It Cool News critic Drew McWeeny (a.k.a. Moriarty) that I absolutely loved. The gist of it was that it's sad when people can only put filmmakers into two categories - brilliant auteur or Sucky McHackington. It reminded me of how a friend of mine once described some readers' response to fictional characters - they're either perfect angels or Hitler-y baddies, with no room or allowance for middle ground.
But there's a LOT of room, I think, between the Uwe Bolls of the filmmaking world and the Orson Welleses. And in that middle ground, there's a lot of fun, in my opinion. Fun that I'm happy to spend my time and money on. Horror is chock full of this kind of fun, and in the 1950s and 60s, nobody did fun quite like William Castle. He made great, schticky pictures that had great gimmicks. He'd do things like make audience members sign a waiver, so that if they died of fright, the studio wouldn't be held responsible.
Strait Jacket doesn't have that kind of gimmick, but it doesn't need one, because it has Joan Crawford. She made this film after What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and there was actually kind of a fad at the time of what people used to call "hag pictures" - where women who had been movie stars in the 1930s and 40s and were starting to show their age would do horror films. Joan Crawford is no hag, though, and is every bit the star in Strait-Jacket.
The movie starts with a blood-curdling scream, a headline, and a little backstory. Frank Harbin (played by the uncredited Lee Majors, in his first ever film role) is messing around while his wife Lucy is out of town. He married Lucy for money, you see, and she was older than he was. He brings his trollop home, thinking (wrongly) that his daughter Carol is asleep. Little does he know that Lucy is coming home early. This is Lucy's second marriage - her first had been arranged by her parents, and when that ended, she picked a guy for herself and her own happiness. Poor gal.
We don't get much more set-up than this. Lucy just sees through the window her husband in bed with another woman and goes ass-crazy. She grabs a conveniently located axe from the yard and goes in all gangbusters, chopping off rubber replicas of their heads and hacking away at what we're meant to infer are their bodies lying just below frame. The daughter, who had not been asleep in the first place, obviously witnesses all this, and there's a pretty hilarious sequence where Lucy's axe-wielding is intercut with Carol's stupefied stare. The next thing we know, Lucy is being carted off to an asylum.
Twenty years pass, and Carol is very calmly spilling all this to her boyfriend/fiance, Michael, with an almost indifferent "And now you know." She finds out that her mother is going to be released, and I'm left wondering how often it is that people who have committed brutal murders are actually released from medical custody.
As with all campy movies like this, there are moments of (perhaps) unintentional humor. I couldn't help giggling when Lucy first arrives and is about to see her daughter again and someone says to her "I know she's dying to see you." And it's almost like Carol went down a list, saying, "Hmmmm, let's see how many inappropriate things I can show and tell a person who's just spent 20 years in an asylum for axe murder." If it wasn't butchering chickens, it was slaughtering pigs. And then she shows Lucy this sculpture she made - of her mother's HEAD.
She also decides that a little trip down memory lane would be a good idea, and presents her mother with a photo album of everything she's lost over the last twenty years (GREAT idea) and some bracelets of hers that she saved. From the night of the murder. We recognize them because they are officially The World's Jangliest Bracelets. And then I have a moment of immense sympathy for Lucy - when she talks about doing some sculpting during her treatment and Carol flips out because she's unconsciously picked up the sculpting knife. I mean, I understand that it might be freaky to see your axe-murdering mother with a knife in her hand, but if she's really cured she's probably NOT going to murder you.
Soon it's dinner time, and everyone is still tiptoeing around Lucy. Carol manages to think of something her mother can do to help with dinner that can't possibly lead to homicide and lets her fill the water glasses. After seeing her daughter and Michael being affectionate with each other, Lucy abruptly exits the kitchen and leaves the water running into the pitcher, leaving us to wonder if she can handle ANYTHING in the real world.
In another display of staggering insensitivity, Carol takes her mother shopping and proceeds to get her dolled up to look almost exactly like she did the night she committed the murders. Right down to another pair of The World's Ka-Jangliest Bracelets. Methinks Mr. Castle saw Vertigo a few times, but Carol's rationalization is that she thinks looking younger will give Lucy confidence.
On their way out of the wig store - oh yes, they even got Lucy a wig to match her hairstyle from twenty years ago - Lucy hears her name. Children singing her name as part of a sort of nursery rhyme.
Gave her husband forty whacks,
When she saw what she had done,
She gave his girlfriend forty-one.
I'd have been creeped out, but honestly it didn't strike me as much scarier than the things we used to recite in elementary school for fun. Like:
Teacher hit me with a ruler.
Met her at the door with a loaded '44
And there ain't no teacher no more!
Something tells me kids don't sing that one anymore, though.
Now, I'm genuinely feeling sorry for Lucy here. Wherever she goes, she's confronted by reminders of her crime. She has nightmares about severed heads on her pillow, she runs into the farm hand taking an axe to a chicken ... and everywhere she goes, people are really guarded. Like if they say the wrong thing, she's going to go ka-razy and start killing people.
Eventually, we start to see a distinction between Lucy when she's wearing the wig and fancy dress and Lucy when she's gray-haired and plain. It's pretty clear that the dressing up and trying to look younger is part of the problem. And when people *do* start to die, we see the wig and we hear the Super-Jangly Bracelets. Robert Bloch (writer of the novel Psycho) wrote the script for this movie, and you definitely get a Norman Bates kind of feeling with Lucy. The dress and the wig seem to be part of a character she puts on that brings the crazy, and it's almost as if ... someone else is committing the murders.
This may be a B-movie, but Joan Crawford (if you'll excuse the pun) KILLS it with a really top-notch performance. She has a real vulnerability about her, and you can tell that she's drawing on some of her own extraordinary life. Her best scene by far is a scene near the end when she's talking to her daughter's future in-laws. She talks a little too much and finds out that the fiance's parents are not about to let the marriage happen. And this is when Crawford really steps up and gives us what we need to buy the last act. Because she's NOT crazy. She's a very strong woman who loves her daughter and is not about to stand by while her daughter gets cheated of happiness just like she herself was. This scene is a bowl full of awesomesauce with extra oregano, and Crawford acts the hell out of it, reminding us of why she's Joan effing Crawford.
The thing at the end is fairly easy to guess, but the moment of revelation is no less effective for it. I love the story about Crawford getting Castle to change the ending so that the emphasis would be on her. Once a star, always a star.
This is a great, fun, campy movie with a few genuine, good Hitchcockian scares. If you're looking for gut-wrenching gore ... well, you're in the wrong decade of film, for one thing. But Castle makes no effort to make the decapitations look real. It's just pure fun, right down to the headless Columbia Pictures statue after the final fadeout.
Good show, Castle. Good show.