Sunday 14 October 2007

Strait-Jacket (1964) William Castle

'Love Slayer Insane!' read the headlines and they're talking about Joan Crawford, who plays Lucy Harbin. She's a wronged wife whose husband Frank (Lee Majors, of all people) cheats on her in their own house with an old girlfriend, and with their daughter in the next room. Frank assumes she's asleep, or just doesn't care. Similarly, when Lucy arrives home and catches them she doesn't pay any attention to her daughter when she takes an axe and gives them what could well have been forty whacks. I didn't count but it certainly wasn't one or two.

Anyway she's carried off screaming in the literal strait-jacket of the title to an asylum where she spends the next twenty years until some experimental treatment enables her to return to her family. Daughter Carol has been brought up by her aunt and uncle on the Cutler Ranch, giving plenty of opportunity for slaughter related conversation and situations. The non-literal strait-jacket is the one that's wrapped around the daughter, who can't get away from the fact that's she's related to a double axe murderer. She's really into her mother coming home but when her presence and her history starts to affect her own future, then her feelings about it change somewhat.

The film isn't subtle in the slightest. It's very much in the Grand Guignol style that had become de rigeur for aging Hollywood actresses in the sixties, post-Baby Jane, and screenwriter Robert Bloch has fun with it. Every opportunity to refer everything back to the murders is taken advantage of and Joan Crawford is certainly up to the level of psychotic required. She does a great job of appearing completely unstable, even though a drink or two gives her all the confidence in the world. The prominent Pepsi logo in the Cutlers' kitchen demonstrates that she had plenty of influence behind the scenes though.

Beyond the very apparent lack of subtlety, there's a lot of intelligent filmmaking here. Bloch's script and Castle's direction combine to give us some great scenes of massive discomfort, train wreck scenes that we can't tear our eyes away from, along with a lot of character depth that ought to be completely out of place but somehow isn't. This is one of those rare films that could be enjoyed as a thought provoking drama or a pure spectacle. In many ways it could be seen as a thematic sequel to or reinvention of Psycho. Certainly the connections go way beyond both having been written by Robert Bloch.

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