“Love Slayer Insane” screams the newspaper headline. A female voice over narrates a flashback where we see young married man Frank Harbin (an uncredited Lee Majors in his first movie role) drinking at a roadhouse bar with an old girlfriend. His wife Lucy Harbin (Joan Crawford) is out of town on business. He takes the girlfriend home thinking his young daughter Carol is asleep. But his daughter is awake and she witnesses her father and the girlfriend in bed. Lucy Harbin returns home one night earlier than expected. She finds her husband in bed with the girlfriend and murders them both in a fit of jealous rage. Daughter Carol witnesses the horrific killing. Lucy is taken away in a strait-jacket protesting “I’m not guilty!”
Coming out of the flashback we see the adult Carol (Diane Baker) telling her fiancée Michael (Anthony Michael Hayes) that her mother is about to be released after twenty years in an asylum. While her mother was away Carol grew up at a farmhouse in the care of her Uncle Bill (Leif Erickson) and Aunt Emily Cutler (Rochelle Hudson). During that time she became an accomplished artist and sculptor.
When Lucy arrives at the farm from the asylum she is reticent and unsure of herself. Carol decides that a shopping spree is in order. She urges Lucy to buy wardrobe and wigs that make her look as she did twenty years ago. The transformation leads to an embarrassingly awkward scene in which Lucy comes on to Carol’s fiancée Michael. Lucy also wakes up in bed to find the heads of her deceased husband and his paramour. Carol, her uncle and aunt are jolted awake but they find no evidence of the grisly scene Lucy describes. They soothe Lucy and convince her it was just a nightmare. Around the same time, mentally challenged farmhand Leo (George Kennedy) taunts Lucy by chopping off a chicken’s head with an axe. Soon Leo himself is killed with an axe. We see his unidentified murderer hiding his body in a shed. Lucy’s former psychiatrist stops by the farm to see how she’s doing. She assures him she’s doing well but her age inappropriate clothing and hairstyle cause him to doubt her. Before long the psychiatrist also falls victim to the axe.
The ending of Strait-Jacket involves a gimmicky twist that was the hallmark of director William Castle’s psychological thrillers like Homicidal (1961) and The Nightwalker (1965). He was sometimes referred to as “the poor man’s Hitchcock” and that moniker bears some weight in that Castle, like Hitchcock, often appeared in trailers of his own movies. His psychological thrillers were clearly influenced by Psycho (1960). After the release of the Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), directed by Robert Aldrich and starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, he set out to cast an older actress in his own psychological thriller and contracted Robert Bloch (novelist of Psycho) to write the screenplay. As luck would have it Crawford was available and game for the role. Castle was so happy that he acceded to her demand of having the to re-cast the daughter and to have a non-actor who served with her on the board of Pepsi Cola play the part of the psychiatrist.
Is the movie campy? I’m certain Castle never intended Strait-Jacket to be taken too seriously as evidenced by the humorously altered Columbia logo at the end. And yet Crawford puts everything into the role as she did in her Warner Brothers movies including her Oscar-winning turn in Mildred Pierce (1945). The audience perception of Crawford as an actress has no doubt undergone a transition due to differences in acting style from the ‘40s to today. How Crawford was portrayed in the best-selling book book and movie Mommie Dearest (1981) directed by Frank Perry also altered perceptions. The practical effects in the movie do not compare to those in modern films. Yet the mere depiction of beheadings in a major studio release was shocking in 1964, especially coming barely two months after the assassination of President Kennedy. Master showman Castle would probably be happy that today’s audiences are entertained, whether they are laughing or shuddering in fear.
Castle’s movies were never as sophisticated as Hitchcock’s but he considered himself a showman and entertainer first and he usually delivered on those counts. He loved to use gimmicks that he trumpeted in his trailers of to get audiences to the theater. He was the inspiration for the producer character Lawrence Woolsey played by John Goodman in Joe Dante’s Matinee (1993). He was an associate producer on The Lady From Shanghai (1947) directed by Orson Welles and a producer on Rosemary’s Baby (1968) directed by Roman Polanski. He had an unbilled cameo in Polanski’s movie as a man in a phone booth who the paranoid Rosemary believes to be her (Ralph Bellamy). He also appears in Day of the Locust (1975), John Schlesinger’s adaptation of the celebrated Nathaniel West novel, as a silent film director who oversees a catastrophic movie set collapse.
- 15-minute short documentary Battle-Axe: The Making of ‘Strait-Jacket’ (2002) that includes comments by co-star Diane Baker, Columbia Pictures spokesman Michael Schlessinger and film historians David Del Valle and Don Glut. The short piece mostly concerns the power that Castle allowed Crawford on the picture
- Short makeup tests
- Axe-swinging tests
*Extras included only on 2009 “William Castle Collection” DVD or DVD box set. The “William Castle Collection” version may not be easy to find but it is worth seeking out. The newer Sony Pictures Choice Collection version is a DVD-R available by order only. It has no extras.
For those interested in more about Castle’s career I highly recommend the documentary Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (2007) available from Automat Pictures (http://spinetinglermovie.com/buy.php)
DIR & PROD: William Castle. SCR: Robert Bloch. CIN: Arthur Arling. ED: Edwin Bryant. SCORE: Van Alexander. CAST: Joan Crawford, Diane Baker, Leif Erickson, Howard St. John, John Anthony Hayes, George Kennedy, Edith Atwater, Mitchell Cox, Lee Majors (uncredited). Genre: Psychological horror. B&W. Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1. Running time: 93 min. Columbia Pictures. DVD Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment (http://www.sonypictures.com/movies/discanddigital).