It’s time once again to revisit Joan Crawford’s later-day career as a horror star, and this one’s a pretty good shocker. STRAIT-JACKET! was Joan’s follow-up to WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, the first in the “Older Women Do Horror” genre (better known by the detestable moniker “Psycho-Biddy Movies”). Here she teams for the first time with veteran producer/director William Castle , starring as an axe murderess released after twenty years in an insane asylum, becoming the prime suspect when people begin to get hacked to bits again.
The film itself begins with a 1940’s prolog depicting the gruesome events that occurred when Lucy Harbin (Joan) catches her husband (Lee Majors in his uncredited film debut) in bed with another woman. Joan, all dolled up to resemble her MILDRED PIERCE-era self, grabs the nearest axe and CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! goes hubby and his squeeze into itsy-bitsy pieces. The act is witnessed by her little daughter Carol (Vicki Cos), and Lucy is put away for a long stretch in the nuthouse.
Flash forward twenty years, and Lucy returns home to stay with her brother Bill (Leif Erickson), and his wife Emily (Rochelle Hudson ) who’ve raised Carol (now played by Diane Baker) ever since. Carol, now a budding sculptress, has a fiancé Michael (John Anthony Hayes) she wants Mom to meet, but Lucy’s still skittish, so Carol decides to help by glamming Lucy up to look like she did in the fabulous 40’s! Strange things happen after that, with Lucy’s old psychiatrist getting CHOPPED, then the sleazy farm hand (George Kennedy ), finally Michael’s dad – CHOP! CHOP!, and Michael’s mom is up next before the climax that most horror fans will see coming a mile away.
Joan’s silent film training comes in handy, as the consummate screen star gets to emote with her eyes and body language in many scenes. Crawford is in complete control as the is-she-or-isn’t-she killer, and besides BABY JANE this is her best horror picture. The scenes with Joan all decked out in 40’s fashions and bewigged are a little silly, especially when a tipsy Joan tries to seduce her future son-in-law, but it’s all part of the plot written by another horror vet, Robert Bloch (PSYCHO, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD ). Castle lends his own macabre touch, with decapitations and some gripping suspense. The Master of Ballyhoo’s gimmick to put patrons in the seats this time around involved passing out little cardboard axes to theater goers, and Joan even participated in a personal appearance tour to promote the film.
Diane Baker had worked with Joan before, in 1959’s THE BEST OF EVERYTHING, and the two women have a marvelous screen chemistry. The rest of the cast is filled with old pros like Erickson, Hudson, and Edith Atwater as Michael’s rich-bitch mother. This was only George Kennedy’s sixth film, but he holds his own as the creepy farm hand who winds up with his head lopped off. STRAIT-JACKET! had an impact on the later slasher shockers to come, and is more than worth your time this Halloween season, especially for fans of the great Joan Crawford.