Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Strait-Jacket (1964)

Directed by:
William Castle

Director/producer William Castle was best known for supplementing his campy fright films with fun theatrical gimmicks, utilizing everything from "death by fright" insurance policies to 3-D ghost viewer glasses to flying plastic skeletons to wiring theater seats to give audiences a mild electric jolt. In 1964, he would employ what many people considered his greatest gimmick of all - Joan Crawford. The advertising promised that the film "vividly depicts ax murders" and they even handed out cardboard axes to theater-goers during its initial run, but this film is still all about Crawford, who gives her all playing convicted axe-murderess Lucy Harbin. After spending twenty years in an asylum for chopping her husband and his mistress to pieces, a rehabilitated Lucy has been released and is sent to live on a farm with her brother Bill (Leif Erickson), sister-in-law Emily (Rochelle Hudson) and estranged sculptress daughter Carol (Diane Baker). Lucy tries to return to a normal life, and re-connect with her daughter, but is being haunted by horrific visions (children chanting a rhyme about her original crime, heads and a bloody axe in her bed, etc.) that threaten to send her back to the loony bin. Oh yeah, and a new series of axe murders begin all over again. Is Lucy really losing her mind? Is someone else trying to make her think she is? Or is someone else trying to implicate her in a new series of crimes?

Like previously stated, this is Crawford's show all the way. She dominates the proceedings whether it be the quieter, heartfelt reunions scenes to the campier or more emotional moments, such as when she starts furiously knitting while dodging a doctor's questions or when she gets drunk, tries to seduce her daughter's boyfriend and then lights a match off the grooves of a playing record! She also has some great dramatic scenes, especially one where she confronts her potential son-in-law's snobby elitist mother (Edith Atwater). While Crawford's excellent performance is the main reason to tune in (the actress also toured across the country to sign autographs, meet fans and promote this film), it's not the only reason to tune in.
The film is enjoyably scripted by Robert (PSYCHO) Bloch. Nearly the entire supporting cast is very good, particularly Baker as the daughter and George Kennedy in an early role as the sleazy farmhand. And that's Lee Majors as Crawford's husband during the opening sequence. The only really amateurish performance comes from Mitchell Cox as the asylum doctor who pays the farm a visit to check up on Lucy. He was the vice president of Pepsi at the time and was hired at Crawford's insistence (also look for several Pepsi product placements). As far as "vivid" axe murders go, this does deliver severed heads galore and several brief - but memorable - decapitations.

The DVD release from RCA/Columbia features a good 15-minute documentary on this production called BATTLE AXE: THE MAKING OF "STRAIT-JACKET" (2002), featuring interviews with Baker and various film critics, historians and fans, as well as some great vintage clips of Castle, Crawford and Bloch promoting the film.


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