Movie Night: Strait Jacket

“The bonuses here are George Kennedy as a farmhand foreshadowing by 22 years Billy Bob Thornton in 1996’s Swing Blade (“I like them French fried potaters.”), all the Pepsi placement, and Lee Majors in pre-Six Million Dollar Man mode, along with his very hairy chest, fluffily rising and falling just before the axe falls.”

["'Tina! Bring me the axe!" Joan Crawford hacks up the Six Million Dollar Man in 1964's Strait-Jacket. "Lucy Harbin took an axe, gave her husband forty whacks, when she saw what she had done, she gave his girlfriend forty one."]
Four.5.Stars
Four and 1/2 stars!

From 1964 (and presented by the fabulous Svengoolie): It’s Mommie Dearest with an axe, but with a twist! Here is Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket!

The «synopsis»:

“After a 20 year stay at an asylum for a double murder, a mother returns to her estranged daughter where suspicions arise about her behaviour.”

TMDb

IMDb has «a slightly different way of putting it»:

“After a twenty-year stay at an asylum for a double murder, a mother returns to her estranged daughter where suspicions arise about her behavior. “

IMDb

Oh, okay, that’s not so different. Hmmm. Is there collusion between those two sites? But how else would you describe this thing? Let’s check «Rotten Tomatoes» then:

“In this chilling blood-tale in ‘Psycho’ style, Robert Bloch modernizes the Lizzy Borden story. A wife (Joan Crawford) literally axes her cheating husband and his lover, witnessed by her three-year-old daughter. Mom is packed off to the insane asylum for 20 years before reuniting with the daughter (Diane Baker). From this point, the axe murders continue along a contrived plot intended to lead the audience astray until the mystery is solved. Crawford’s strong performance and the excellently constructed suspense are the best elements of the film—and the chopping saves the show when the plot tends to slow.”

Rotten Tomatoes

But more importantly, what did critics say about Mommie Dearest, er, I mean Strait Jacket? Shaun Mulvihill over at Fan Boy Nation pretty much covers it very well:

“… Strait-Jacket is now hailed as a camp classic, which it is no doubt, but it’s also a throwback melodrama that is punctuated by its moments of violent ax murders. Shout!

“Having not seen Strait-Jacket in at least 10 years, one thing stood out in revisiting the film on the new Blu-ray – this film isn’t too dissimilar to the sordid drama of «Mildred Pierce» that won Joan Crawford her lone Oscar. Even though in the wake of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, as Crawford was being repurposed as a scream queen, she always gave her all to the performance. Strait-Jacket may have been seen as a B-movie to the studio and the critics reviewing the film in 1964, Crawford gives an A performance as the mentally ravaged Lucy Harbin. Of course, Crawford made sure to employ her role as the spokeswoman of Pepsi in the film, inserting six-packs of Pepsi throughout the film.
“The violence of Strait-Jacket looks quaint by today’s standards, with some rather unrealistic looking limbs being violently severed by a swinging ax. Even though Strait-Jacket is released after Herschell Gordon Lewis created the modern gore film with Blood Feast, Strait-Jacket is remarkably graphic for a studio film of its era. The posters used the violence as a selling point, proclaiming, ‘Strait-Jacket vividly depicts ax murders!’ I won’t lie, the violence of Strait-Jacket is funny by today’s standards, but it’s important to remember its context of film violence of its era.

“There’s no defending Crawford the person and her deplorable actions. On the screen, though, she shined bright and continues to shine as her classic are restored and revived on home video. Strait-Jacket may not have been her proudest moment, but you’d never know it from her dedicated performance. It’s a true testament to Crawford’s presence as a performer that Strait-Jacket is much more a Joan Crawford picture than a William Castle picture. Castle was a great showman and huckster, and he stepped aside to give the spotlight to bigger showman. William Castle knew he didn’t need a gimmick when he had Joan Crawford.”

Fan Boy Nation

It’s all tremendous fun, especially if you remember the context. Yes, it foreshadows Mommie Dearest, which makes you wonder where that particular flick came from (did Christina Crawford confuse a viewing of Strait-Jacket with her life? Oh, sorry. I’m sure her trauma was very real.) But for gosh sake, cinema Joan wielding the axe on Lee Majors in 1964 and then supposedly-real-life Joan wielding the axe on a tree 17 years later is rather … interesting.

Nonetheless, it’s always a fun time. The bonuses here are George Kennedy as a farmhand foreshadowing by 22 years Billy Bob Thornton in 1996’s Swing Blade (“I like them French fried potaters.”), all the Pepsi placement, and Lee Majors in pre-Six Million Dollar Man mode, along with his very hairy chest, fluffily rising and falling just before the axe falls. Also fun is Edith Atwater as a society matron, her tut-tut husband Howard St. John, and their son, John Anthony Hayes as their son in the very-good-looking-man role, who discovers something very unsettling about his would-be fiancee.

The ending, featuring Edith Atwater’s horrifying discovery and a mask and Joan suddenly replaying her role as Nurse Lucretia Terry in The Caretakers (1963), is pretty fabulous, but shhhhh, don’t reveal it to anyone so as not to spoil their spine-tingly, horrifyingly good time! Watch it!


Strait-Jacket Lobby Card
Strait-Jacket Lobby Card

Best quotes:

Daughter Dearest, they should have called this thing. Love these quotes, especially, “Lucy Harbin took an axe …”

Carol Harbin: “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you! No I didn’t mean that, I love you. I hate you!”

Strait-Jacket

First little girl: “Lucy Harbin took an axe, gave her husband forty whacks, when she saw what she had done, she gave his girlfriend forty one.”
Carol Harbin: [Lucy storms out to find two girls playing jump rope] “What is it, Mother?”
Lucy Harbin: “I heard them …”
First little girl: “London bridge is falling down, falling down, London bridge is falling down, my fair lady.”
Carol Harbin: “It’s just a nursery rhyme, mother.”
Second little girl: “Take the key and lock her up, lock her up, lock her up, take the key and lock her up, my fair lady.”

Ibid

Four.5.Stars
Four and a half stars – for the camp value alone!

Strait-Jacket. 1964. MeTV. English. William Castle (d). Robert Bloch (w). Joan Crawford, Diane Baker, Leif Erickson, Howard St. John, John Anthony Hayes, Rachelle Hudson, George Kennedy, Edith Atwater, Mitchell Cox and Lee Majors' hairy chest as one of the axe victims. (p). Van Alexander (m). Arthur E. Arling (c).