Halloween Watch: Strait-Jacket (1964)

Join Adam and Samantha on their fourth Halloween watch.

A: Here we have Joan Crawford in a post-Baby Jane suspense thriller written by Robert Bloch, the author of the novel Psycho, and directed by the legendary William Castle. It’s a monochromatic sexually charged horror film and, of course, it’s a lot of fun. Crawford plays Lucy Harbin a reformed ax-murderer—but let’s be frank, the two-timer deserved it—who moves onto her brother’s farm after twenty years in an asylum. Lucy’s daughter, who witnessed her mother’s crime as a child, lives an idyllic life on the farm devoting her time to sculpting and her fiancée.

S: This is really a genteel slasher movie caught between two eras. You have the attempt at a sensational slasher-type movie with gore that might have been shocking then, but looks incredibly tame by today's standards. But the majority of the movie is about a woman adapting into society after a long stint in a mental hospital, and whether she can actually do it.

I wish the superfluous ending explanation of what happened was cut out. It is a laughable and dull way to end the movie. There is a featurette on the DVD that explains how Joan felt Diane Baker, who plays her daughter, was stealing the show, so she insisted she get the final word instead.

A: Yes! They should’ve edited that ending out with a swift chop of the axe. It really is staggering how far the horror genre went over the decade following this film’s release. You make a good point: the carnage in this movie is way more genteel than the carnage that would be relatively mainstream a decade or two later. This movie has one foot solidly in the old Hollywood tradition. In February 1963, Hedda Hopper enthusiastically announced that Joan Blondell was cast in Strait-Jacket. I would have loved to see that performance but it’s hard to imagine anyone besides Crawford in this role. William Castle’s memoirs Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America, a terrific page-turner by the way, describe how the legendary actress came aboard and immediately took ownership of the project. She demanded that Bloch rewrite the script to suit her and she even vetoed the original actress brought on to play her daughter. Consequently, every scene featuring Crawford is at turns riveting, hysterical, and genuinely heartfelt. Besides a couple carefully constructed murder scenes, the remainder of the film is a bit flat.

S: I wish Joan would have embraced the fact that she was aging. She still looked incredible; her waist was tiny so she could wear those great 60s shift dresses. But I wish she didn't insist on being the leading lady all the time. She had a quiet elegance in the scenes where her hair is grey and her face isn't super made over. I think if she had allowed herself to slide down into character parts, she could have remained in A-pictures, but she couldn't let go of her pride or her past as a glamour queen. She was so talented, and it shines through in this film. I wish she had had the self-confidence to accept her grey hair and wrinkles. The same way people often feel protective about Marilyn Monroe and her insecurities, I feel about Joan Crawford.

A: For better or worse, this period, approximately Queen Bee through Strait-Jacket, cemented her persona in popular culture. That book/biopic, the name of which shall not be mentioned, definitely did lasting damage.

Strait-Jacket is quintessential early 60s Americana. It’s honey-baked hams, big glasses of cold milk, soda pop, tidy living rooms with TV cabinets, bouffant hairdos, large convertibles, and drive-ins. Against this placid backdrop, the scenes that stand out most are Crawford trying to blend in to the normal domestic situation. I’m thinking of her going to the wig shop to complete her makeover, her frantically knitting, the scene where she comes on to her daughter’s fiancée, and the great moment where she lights a match off a spinning record. Her performance is unnerving and that’s not even taking into consideration all the ax swinging business.

S: I think the reason I enjoyed this movie so much is because it does feel so much like a domestic drama. However, the seduction scene is completely out of left field. She excuses her behavior by blaming her makeover, saying she feels young again. Is this the censorship equivalent of saying she's a horny old lady who has been locked up for twenty years and doesn't feel her age?

A: I think so! Maybe she felt a little bit of renewed vigor in real life because in New York she embarked on an ambitious promotional tour stopping at five theaters where she was interviewed by Dorothy Kilgallen from What’s My Line? Audience members were even given party favors: cardboard axes splashed with bright red blood.

S: I loved that the Columbia logo is missing her head at the end of the film.


A: It’s a great gag. I appreciate this movie more now than when I first saw it while still in high school. Back then I was more interested in the construction of suspense and the ridiculous promotion of William Castle’s films. Now, I see a very affecting lead performance from one of the queens of the old guard. The moments of horror still work, and I even jumped once. We don’t want to reveal the surprise shock ending but I have to ask, did you guess it?

S: I did not, but I liked the reveal. It was campy and unnerving and funny all at once.


A: I will give this three mellowcreme pumpkins. If I could have attended one of those New York premieres, I probably would give it five.


S: At least three, bordering on four for me. It is possible that my expectations were so low for this movie that I was pleasantly surprised to have liked it so much.


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