Friday, January 14, 2011

Film Review: Strait-Jacket - 2008

Yet another horror film review, written for one of my now-defunct blogs. This time we've got an actual movie star, not a malevolent car or overgrown animals...

This month's selection is Strait-Jacket, legendary movie star Joan Crawford's first collaboration with shock-meister William Castle.

The film opens sans credits (fairly unusual for 1964) and we see a man, Frank Harbin, as he picks up a floozy in a local bar and brings her back to his two-room shack.

In the main room, lay his daughter, asleep. That doesn't stop him though from getting it on with the girl,
with the bedroom door open:

...ewww! Boundaries, Frank! Boundaries!

(Fun Fact: Frank Harbin is played by an uncredited Lee Majors, in his first film role).

Anyway, we soon learn that this woman is not Frank's wife! His actual wife, Lucy, played by Joan Crawford, comes home from a trip and finds his husband in bed for another woman!

This drives Lucy coo-coo for cocoa-puffs. She wanders around, grabs a nearby axe, and:



As if the sex wasn't bad enough for the kid to see, the little girl gets to watch this too. We see the kid scream as the axe flies, over and over. Welcome to...


...that episode of Night Gallery with Joan Crawford?

Nope, it's Strait-Jacket!

Over some simple yet creepy paintings, we learn that Lucy has been committed to a mental institution.

We pick up the story in the modern day, and we see the young girl Carol--now a full-grown woman played by Diane Baker--as she's about to pick her Mom up, after twenty years of being institutionalized.

After an awkward hug, Carol brings her Mom home, and gives her the lay of the land. Carol is engaged, and along with her Uncle and Aunt, they run a small farm.

Unfortunately, within just a few minutes of arriving, Carol has dropped the words "slaughter" and "butcher" (in relation to the farm's pigs), which clearly sets Mom on edge.

A dinner party isn't any better:


Lucy is having a hard time being normal, despite her daughter's cheery disposition.


"Strait-Jacket, brought to you by Pepsi!"

Anyway, the meeting with Carol's fiancee is awkward, and Lucy keeps touching the knives in the house. She also has a "dream" where she sees the two severed heads of her husband and his mistress in her bed.

The family is concerned, and eventually Lucy's psychiatrist comes to visit. Lucy is brittle and tense, and wanders off.

The doctors makes his way into the barn, where it does not go well:


Hours pass, and the family starts to freak out, because the doctor's car is still outside. Where did he go, and where's Lucy?

Oh, she's in the barn, with their creepy farmhand, played by a combo of George Kennedy and Rudy Giuliani's comb-over:


Lucy keeps having more problems, and her behavior becomes erratic. We get a glimpse into Lucy's mind and her seemingly escalating dementia:


Despite all this, Carol sets up a dinner date with Lucy and her finacee's well-to-do parents, who know nothing of Lucy's past.

Lucy doesn't show, and later on the fiancee's father goes upstairs, where he is attacked axe-wielding Joan Crawford!:


...or is it?

There's something...wrong about this, and we are shocked to see Lucy walk into the room! She grabs the axe from the other woman, and we see that this is just a mask. Lucy rips the mask off, and we see its...



They struggle, and the fiancee shows up to see how dinner went! Lucy tries to explain and shows him who Carol is:


"...the engagement is off!"

Carol is stopped, arrested, and eventually committed. We find out that watching such horrible events as a child drover her slowly crazy. When she learned that her mother would be released, it caused her to snap.

She decided to frame her mother for the murders, so she would be recommitted, and she could marry her fiancee and live a happy life.

We're left with Lucy, her brother, and his wife, wondering at how things went so wrong. The ever-lovin' end!

Strait-Jacket has a weird pedigree--it was written by Robert Bloch, who wrote Psycho, so the guy knew scary. But William Castle was, at best, a mediocre director who tended to make everything he shot look like a three-camera TV show, with sort of drab, over-lit sets. I wonder what someone like Hitchcock might have done with a script like this.

Joan Crawford is well suited to this role, because, from what we know about her real life ("No...wire...hangers!!"), she was kind of brittle too, and it suits the character.

The one troubling aspect is that this started a run of movies where Crawford played a woman well past her sell date, but kept throwing herself at young bucks, trying to seduce them.

I don't have any idea whether Crawford was simply playing a lot of characters like this, or she thought this about herself. There's a scene where she creepily flirts with her daughter's fiancee--if you can call drawing your hands around someone's body and cooing at them merely flirting--and its really unsettling.

All in all, not a bad film--it doesn't aim to be much more than an hour and a half of creeps, but it hits its target.

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