Halloween Havoc!: Joan Crawford in STRAIT-JACKET! (Columbia 1964)

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.

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (Amicus 1971)

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Hammer Films wasn’t the only British company cranking out the horrors back in the 60’s and 70’s. American ex-pats producers Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg formed Amicus Films in 1962 and after a couple of films aimed at the teen audience (with American rockers like Chubby Checker, Del Shannon, Freddy Cannon, and Gene Vincent) began concentrating on horror. The team specialized in the anthology genre, or “portmanteau” as the intelligentsia call them. I’ll stick with anthologies!

THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD was a 1971 effort written by Robert Bloch, forever known as “The Guy Who Wrote PSYCHO”. The nail to hang Bloch’s four tales on concerns the disappearance of famous horror actor Paul Henderson, who was last seen at the old house in the countryside. Inspector Holloway (John Bennett) of Scotland Yard (where else?) arrives on the scene and speaks with the local constable, who warns Holloway about mysterious doings past:

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In “Method for Murder”, horror writer Charles Hillyer (Denholm Elliott) thinks the quiet country manor is the ideal cure for his writer’s block, and moves in with wife Alice (Joanna Dunham). Hillyer comes up with a story about serial strangler Dominick roaming the countryside, and soon begins to have visions of his creation lurking around the house and grounds. It’s the old GASLIGHT routine, and though it does boast a double-twist ending, this one’s probably the weakest of the quartet.

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Up next is “Waxworks”, starring Peter Cushing as a retired stockbroker who rents the house. Cushing visits Jacquelin’s Museum of Horrors, and is mesmerized by a statue of Salome that resembles his late ex-love. His friend and former love rival (Joss Ackland) drops by, and he too is enthralled by the figure. The proprietor (Wolfe Morris) tells the men Salome was modeled on his dearly departed wife, who chopped up her lover with an axe and was sentenced to death. Although this segment isn’t bad, it won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s viewed MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM or HOUSE OF WAX.

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Our Inspector then travels to the office of realtor A.J. Stoker (!!), who conveys the final two tales. “Sweets for the Sweet” finds widower Christopher Lee renting the house with young daughter Jane (Chloe Franks). He hires nanny Anne Norton (Nyree Dawn Porter) to tutor the child, whom he treats rather coldly. The father forbids Jane from going to school and interacting with other children or playing with toys, especially dolls. The reason being Jane’s mother was a witch, and the child has inherited her evil ways. This vignette is built up well, with the cast elevating it from merely creepy to suspenseful horror.

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Now we come to the most recent tenant, Paul Henderson, in “The Cloak”. This one’s a lot of fun, as hammy horror star Henderson (Jon Pertwee) begins filming yet another low-budget shocker, titled “Curse of the Bloodsuckers”. Henderson is pissed about the piss-poor sets and costumes, and goes on a tirade about the state of the horror film: “That’s what’s wrong with your present-day horror films, there’s no realism! Not like the old ones, no, the great ones… FRANKENSTEIN, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, DRACULA … the one with Bela Lugosi, not the new fellow!”. After his rant, Henderson receives a card from Theo Von Hartmann, costumer in the local village. Von Hartmann’s a slender, sinister looking old gent cradling a black cat in his arms who sells Henderson an antique cloak. The actor thinks it’s just right for his film, but when he dons it in his dressing room, he’s startled to discover he can no longer see his reflection in the mirror.

While filming a scene with frequent co-star Carla Lynde (Hammer honey Ingrid Pitt), Henderson puts the bite on her for real, earning him a slap in the face. At home, he once again puts on the cloak, and to his horror begins floating around the room. The next day he apologizes to Carla and invites her to dinner, where he tells her about the powers of the evil cloak. This time, the cloak doesn’t work, as Carla’s switched it for a prop (“Property of Shepperton Studios” is sewn in the label!). Now Carla has it, and prepares to sink her teeth into some juicy ham!

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Inspector Holloway dismisses all these tales as rubbish, demanding to go into the house himself, where of course he’s attacked by the vampires, bringing our tales of terror to a close. THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD is okay, no better or worse than any other Amicus production (or episode of NIGHT GALLERY for that matter), and the final two segments are terrific. Subotsky and Rosenberg did other stand-alone horror flicks (THE SKULL, THE DEADLY BEES, THE BEAST MUST DIE), a pair of DOCTOR WHO features, and some Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations, but it’s for their anthologies they’re best remembered. DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS, TORTURE GARDEN, ASYLUM, and two EC Comics-inspired movies (TALES FROM THE CRYPT and THE VAULT OF HORROR) are all worth watching, as is THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD. Nothing groundbreaking, just a good way to spend a dark and stormy night!

 

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