Pardon Judge Gordon Sullivan while he checks his jacket; he's sure it's on crooked.
Warning! Strait-Jacket vividly depicts ax murders.
One of F. Scott Fitzgerald's more quotable phrases is "There are no second acts in American lives." It's exactly the kind of beautifully doomed pronouncement we'd expect from the author of The Great Gatsby. Of course, the phrase is often correct; a lot of Americans rise or fall precipitously, without any second chances or second acts. Of course, there are exceptions, and one of the fascinating things about Strait-Jacket is that it unites a number of great American second-acters. First, there's Joan Crawford, who started out an ingénue in the silent era but was on a different track after the then-recent success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. Then there's screenwriter Robert Bloch, fresh off the success of Psycho, embarking on a second career as a successful Hollywood screenwriter. Finally, director William Castle was trying to reinvent himself after a string of gimmick-laden releases, though he wasn't able to resist distributing cardboard axes to some viewers of Strait-Jacket (and tragically, Castle was denied his best shot at legitimacy a few years later when he was replaced as the director of Rosemary's Baby). Together, these forces created a film that seems predictable sixty years on, but stands now as an interesting historical curiosity.
Twenty years ago, Lucy Harbin (Joan Crawford, Johnny Guitar) came home to find her husband with another woman. Understandably upset, Lucy reached for an axe and murdered both her husband and his lover while her young daughter watched on. The judge ruled her mentally incompetent, and she's been in an asylum for twenty years. Now she's out and living with her daughter again. When people start showing up murdered by an axe, though, suspicion immediately falls on Lucy.
Strait-Jacket is one of those films that's mostly going to appeal to those who already have a taste for early sixties cult/horror/exploitation cinema. We get a killer opening, as Lucy's murder is explained in voiceover, followed by a long slog through Lucy's gradual reintroduction to her estranged family, and then another fire once the killer is revealed and all hell breaks loose. To fans of the genre, Strait-Jacket has all the trashy, goofy, funny things we've come to expect: ax murder shown in silhouette (and a few more gory shots), the most chaste post-coital scene in history (he's shirtless, she's in a dress, both look ready for a tomb), and lots of histrionics as the characters vie for attention while trying to exculpate themselves.
Then there's Joan Crawford, who is doing late-era Crawford perfectly. There's a great mix of stony silence coupled with manic outbursts as she goes from catatonia to anxiety. The early scenes (which take place twenty years in the past) are a great example of make-up as Crawford looks almost timeless. She's then convincing (and a bit scary) after twenty years. It's not the kind of character that earns a tour-de-force from the actress, but certainly fans of Crawford's acid tongue will not be disappointed. And anyone wishing that they could see her wield an ax will similarly find something to love here.
The film, however, gets a pretty solid DVD release, especially for one burned on demand. The film's 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is fine. The print used isn't heavily damaged, and contrast remains pretty good. Black levels are consistent and surprisingly deep. Grain is heavy, but often well-rendered (though it does get noisy in a few scenes). For an un-remastered film, Strait-Jacket looks pretty amazing. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo track does a fine job balancing the dialogue with the sometimes-bombastic score, though it lacks the depth and clarity we expect from contemporary productions.
Extras are surprisingly extensive. We get three-and-a-half minutes of wardrobe tests for Crawford, a TV spot, some test shots for the ax murders, and a promotional spot for the film on "how to plan a murder." Finally, we get a 15-minute featurette that talks to fans of the film and gives a bit of history of the film.
What you won't find in Strait-Jacket is anything wildly original. Robert Bloch is a fine writer, and William Castle knew his limitations, and yet it feels like both men going through the motions. Experienced fans of the genre (or heck, even those who've just seen Psycho) will be pretty certain where the plot is heading as soon as you realize that Lucy's young daughter has witnessed her mother's ax-murdering ways. Though not as creepy as Psycho, Strait-Jacket borrows a trick or two for its climactic ending. Though I think there's some pleasure in watching someone like Castle riff on a classic, those looking to be shocked or surprised will likely be disappointed by this film.
Chances are you know if this is the film for you. It's got all that you'd expect from a low-budget, Joan Crawford-fronted horror-thriller from the early 1960s. If that sounds like your bag, this MOD DVD release of Strait-Jacket offers not only an above-average presentation, but a surprisingly full slate of extras.
Ax murders or no, this one is not guilty.
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