Lucy Harbin comes home one night to find her husband in bed with another woman. Picking up an axe, she chops her way through both lovers and ends up in an asylum for twenty years as a result. On release, she moves in with her estranged daughter Carol- who, as a terrified child, witnessed the events of that fateful night from her bed. What follows is an attempt from both women to acclimatise to each other and try and move on from the past…but has Lucy fallen back into her murderous ways?
Tagline: Warning…‘Strait-Jacket’ vividly depicts Ax-Murders!
Starring: Joan Crawford, Diane Baker, Rochelle Hudson, Edith Atwater, John Anthony Hayes, George Kennedy, Leif Erickson, Howard St. John
Released: 1964 Runtime: 92 minutes | Rating: 4 out of 5 Space Krakens |
Warning: this review contains mild spoilers.
Strait-Jacket is a 1964 shocker starring the inimitable Joan Crawford, who apparently hated this film and thought the script was ‘ludicrous’. It is written by Robert Bloch, and in many ways I think this actually has a better storyline than his other, more famous novel and movie, Psycho (1960), but it is essentially the same plot reworked with female antagonists, and deals with many of the same themes and issues. And yes, it does err on the side of ludicrous, but I still find it an oddly affecting and thought-provoking movie. Directed by William Castle (check out his impressive filmography, horror fans), it tried to cash in on the flush of sixties horror movies in vogue at the time, but actually served to showcase Crawford’s incredible versatility as an actress, even when portraying an axe-wielding lunatic. And this was in the star’s latter years, where she openly admitted all of the films she starred in were chosen because she was broke and bored- not because she believed in the project. That she can still turn out a performance like this despite not enjoying a single moment of it proves what a consummate professional the woman was.
So here’s the problem I’m having on typing up this review, in case you haven’t guessed by now: Crawford did such a good job with the central role of axe-murderess Lucy Harbin that I find myself thoroughly rooting for her. Which makes me feel all sorts of uncomfortable things but there we are. I would just like to state, for the record, that I do not condone dismemberment, revenge or the utilisation of sharp implements in an egregious manner in any way, shape or form. That being said: cor, blimey, this film is a corker.
Jump scares in the sixties were definitely not subtle: as soon as the credits have rolled in Strait-Jacket you’re thrown straight into the deep end. There’s an agonising scream, and a shot of Crawford’s contorted, terrifying face as she goes about her grisly business. Then, for the sake of exposition we are treated to a recap, and are told without preamble what kind of person Lucy Harbin is: ‘very much a woman, and very much aware of the fact.’ At this point, the initial shock having worn off, I start fist-pumping. YES LUCY. OWN THAT WOMANHOOD.
It’s established that Lucy’s husband Frank is a nasty, rotten no-good scoundrel who womanises and cheats, so it’s hard to sympathise with him as he meets his messy end, but we do find ourselves immediately aware of the other person unwittingly involved in the crime- the young daughter of Lucy and Frank, a girl called Carol. Carol watches her mother go to town on Daddy from her own bed, and thus the horror is firmly cemented in our minds: a terrible crime, witnessed by an innocent child.
Lucy is subsequently sent to an asylum for the criminally insane. On her release twenty years later, she moves back in with her daughter on a remote farm. Carol (played by Diane Baker- Silence of the Lambs (1991) fans will recognise her as the indomitable Senator Ruth Martin) is now a lovely young woman with a handsome fiance. She wants to reconnect with her Mother and live a happy, normal life as a family… but all is not as it seems.
There are troublesome elements to this plot: Carol tells her fiance Michael about her Mother’s sordid past and he seems curiously unfazed by the revelation, gallantly proclaiming ‘Carol, don’t you see that it doesn’t matter?’ IT SHOULD MATTER, MICHAEL. IT SHOULD. If my fiance told me her axe murdering mother was coming home to stay I would thank her for the memories and bid a very hasty retreat from the relationship, but Michael is clearly made of sterner and more honourable stuff than I. Or maybe he’s an idiot. Either way…I’d be out of there real fast. Not so Michael. Another thing I noticed that made me chuckle was the availability of sharp implements- knives, axes, steel knitting needles…I know it’s a farm, but if I had a Mother who had been convicted of murder I wouldn’t be leaving sharp pointy things lying around the house, perhaps that’s just me.
Crawford’s face in every scene of this film is a study in theatrics, and even though she proclaimed to be disinterested in the script she still acts her socks off. A scene where she reunites with her daughter for the first time in twenty years is brilliantly played: Lucy’s face is haggard and filled with suffering and remorse. Carol is rather blank by contrast, but that’s perhaps to be expected. In another, masterful scene, Lucy handles an axe for the first time since her crime, and everything about it is perfect: a cranked-up soundtrack of farm machinery, dark slatted light, an unsympathetic farm hand brutally chopping the head off a chicken, Crawford’s mouth, quivering with all sorts of emotions…it’s impossible not to get drawn in, even if the acting style of the day might seem a little hammy to some.
Location is also important here, and the farm where everything takes place is a starkly atmospheric one, often appearing to look like more of a prison than a home, ironically for Lucy. Wire fences run along the farm’s perimeter, the house is rather plain and stern, and livestock are placed in claustrophobic pens. ‘I just hate to see anything caged,’ says Lucy in one scene, looking at the chickens in their coop. You get the sense she has been released from one type of incarceration into another.
It becomes quickly apparent upon Lucy’s return that all is not well with both Mother and daughter. Lucy is deeply affected by her crime, showing squeamishness when talking about certain subjects where Carol is pragmatic and comfortable, chatting away about slaughtering pigs without blinking an eye. Lucy, the opposite of her calm, collected daughter, frequently dissolves into tears, hides from people, suffers nightmares and repeated flashbacks and does funny things with sharp knives at socially inconvenient moments. She throws tantrums and goes for long walks and sits by herself in the dark, and this is all compounded by Carol’s desperate need for her mother to resemble the woman she used to be rather than the diminished version she is now. An extremely ill-advised makeover sets off a chain-reaction of events that seem ridiculously predictable but do create an interesting study of trauma and guilt nonetheless. Is Lucy unrealistic to think she could reintegrate that easily with society? Is she naive in thinking her daughter, upon witnessing a grisly murder at a young age, would grow up to be fine and dandy and have no psychological issues of her own? Undoubtedly. Perhaps this is what Crawford meant when she criticised the script for being ‘ludicrous and unbelievable’ and that this is what ‘destroyed that picture’.
Writing issues aside, the horror elements are well executed. There is a fine regard for tension, mostly signalled by some jangly bracelets, and lots of little giveaways that hint at what is to come. ‘You see Mother, I’ve never forgotten,’ says Carol at one point, and you can pretty much predict from that one statement what else is going to happen. The frail Blanche Dubois characterisation can on occasion grate on the nerves, but maybe that’s just the era. In general I do tire of the desperate female fragility male writers and directors of the time seemed so keen to project onto the screen, but then I wouldn’t have survived in that age of casual misogyny anyway. If someone said ‘Run along, honey,’ to me I’d probably pick up an axe too, and feel somewhat justified about it. (But I in no way condone…etc etc etc).
Lucy does redeem herself when talking to Michael’s parents about her time in a mental hospital in what became my favourite scene. ‘It was an asylum!’ she screams, in defiance. ‘It was hell, twenty years of pure hell!’ And my heart broke right there on the spot for her. ‘I’m not ashamed,’ she continues. ‘I don’t need anybody!’ Again, fistpumps.
The climax of Strait-Jacket comes at the right time, just as things are getting a little slow. I won’t spoil it but there’s a spooky mask and a case of mistaken identity and more of that crazed fragile femininity, and it’s safe to say no-one comes out of this a winner. There is an unnecessary explanation scene to wrap things up tidily for anyone not smart enough to get the plot, which I think detracts and smacks of a movie exec decision, but it’s a small gripe. And the overarching theme of motherhood, guilt, and responsibility is nicely rounded off if a little idealised, perhaps.
All in all, Strait-Jacket is a solid, if predictable psychological thriller with some solid performances and familiar Bloch themes in which Joan Crawford shines, albeit reluctantly.
Oh, and watch out for the final Columbia logo screen for the headless draped lady (real name Jennifer Joseph, by the way) as a final bit of fun.
This review was so good I forwarded it to Miss Plumtartt. She read and loved the review so we then watched a ‘making of the movie’ documentary about the film. We will be watching ‘Straight-Jacket’ tonight, thanks!
It was awesome. I think she enjoyed the film and the making of it more than your article leads us to believe.
Here is ‘Battleaxe’ The making of ‘Straight Jacket’
Never heard of it but it sure sounds like a winner to me. Thanks, Gemma!
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