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 TV Havoc!: GHOST STORY “Elegy for a Vampire” (1972)

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NBC-TV tried to bring a horror anthology series back to prime time during the 1972-73 season with GHOST STORY, executive produced by the one-and-only William Castle . Sebastian Cabot played Winston Essex, introducing the tales from haunted Mansfield House hotel. GHOST STORY had great writers, including Richard Matheson (who helped develop the concept), Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison, Henry Slesar, and Hammer vet Jimmy Sangster, some good directors (Richard Doner, John Llewelyn Moxey, Robert Day), and a plethora of Hollywood talent: Karen Black, Kim Darby, Angie Dickinson, Melvyn Douglas, Patty Duke, Jodie Foster, Helen Hayes, Tab Hunter, John Ireland, Janet Leigh, Patricia Neal, Jason Robards, Gena Rowlands, Martin Sheen, and William Windom.

Despite all this, the show got clobbered in the ratings by the CBS FRIDAY NIGHT MOVIE and ABC’s comedy duo of ROOM 222 and THE ODD COUPLE. A mid-season title change to CIRCLE OF FEAR (dropping the Cabot segments in the process) didn’t help, and the series ended after 22 episodes. The following episode “Elegy for a Vampire” is about a killer on campus who drains his victims of their blood, leaving two puncture wounds on their necks! Here’s Hal (BARNEY MILLER) Linden, Mike (M*A*S*H) Farrell, Marilyn Mason, and Arthur O’Connell  in “Elegy for a Vampire”, written by Elizabeth Walter and directed by Don McDougall:

Halloween Havoc: THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (Allied Artists 1959)

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William Castle was The King of the Gimmick Films. A natural born showman, Castle got his start grinding out B pictures for companies like Columbia and Monogram. By the late 1950s, television dominated the country’s entertainment audiences, and box offices suffered. Castle made the film MACARBRE in 1958, handing out $1,000 life insurance policies from Lloyd’s of London to patrons “in case they died of fright” while watching the movie. MACARBRE drew money, and for his next flick, THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, Castle had a plastic skeleton wired up to float over moviegoers heads during a crucial scene.

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THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is your basic “haunted house” movie, with seven disparate characters forced to spend the night at the gloomy house. Vincent Price plays ultra-rich Frederick Loren, host of the party, who offers five strangers $10,000 dollars to stay at the supposed “murder house”. His wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart at her bitchy best) is at odds with Loren, refusing to divorce him. The house is owned by Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook Jr), whose brother and sister-in-law were murdered here, and who claims seven ghosts of murder victims walk the halls. The rest of the guests are pilot Lance (Richard Long), secretary Nora (Carolyn Craig), Dr. Trent (Alan Marshal), and columnist Ruth (June Bridges).

Strange things begin happening, as Lance is knocked out in a secret room, and Nora shrieks after seeing a hideous old hag (more on her later!) The house is locked tight at precisely midnight. When Annabelle is found hanging from the ceiling, everyone suspects each other of the foul deed. A storm is brewing outside the house, while inside unexplainable phenomena drive Nora to hysteria. It’s revealed to the audience Annabelle is alive, and with her lover Dr. Trent they plan to push Nora over the edge and Annabelle’s husband. But Loren’s on to their scheme, and he ends up killing Trent and driving Annabelle to her doom with the help of a mechanical skeleton (which is where Castle’s gimmick came in).

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With the success of THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, Castle continued his spook shows. For THE TINGLER (also starring Price), he had theater seats rigged with electric buzzers to give the filmgoer a jolt! 13 GHOSTS offered special glasses to “see” the spooks in the film. HOMICIDAL had a “nurse” stationed at each theater for “cowards”. After leaving his gimmick days behind, Castle made some suspense films with Joan Crawford (STRIGHT-JACKET, I SAW WHAT YOU DID) and produced Roman Polanski’s 1968 hit ROSEMARY’S BABY. The talented Mr. Castle, his ballyhoo days behind him, passed away in 1977.

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Now about that “old hag” who pops up in the movie…she still creeps me out!! Doing some research, I found out she was an silent film actress named Leona Anderson, sister of cowboy star Bronco Billy Anderson. Leona made a comeback of sorts in the 1950s, billing herself as “the world’s most Horrible singer”. She appeared on TV with funnyman Ernie Kovacs, and even released an album titled MUSIC TO SUFFER BY. Here’s the one and only (Thank God!) Miss Anderson warbling “Rats in My Room”: