Strait-Jacket (1964)

AUGUST 21, 2018


I don't know if it was spoiled in the William Castle documentary I saw a few years back or if I'm just THAT GOOD at movies (it's probably the former), but for some reason I spotted the twist in Strait-Jacket almost instantly, which probably took some of the fun out as I wasn't allowed to be as surprised as audiences were in 1964. But I still had a good time with this more low-key - and largely humorless - Castle film than the others I've seen, and since I think it's the first Joan Crawford movie I've actually seen in its entirety, whatever enjoyment I lost from knowing the twist was supplemented by some nostalgia. As a kid, I saw some of Mommie Dearest on TV and it freaked me out (the wire hanger part), as I didn't understand "camp" or know who Crawford was or anything - I just saw a lady with "paint" on her face (part of makeup regimen, I [now] assume) beating her daughter with a hanger as the child begged her to stop. Even now it kind of upsets me to think about it!

For those uninformed, Crawford (played in that film by Nurse Ratched herself, Louise Fletcher Faye Dunaway - my memory was getting jumbled with Fletcher as the evil woman in Flowers in the Attic!)) was a beloved actress, but according to her daughter (the author of the book Mommie Dearest was based on), she was a goddamn nightmare of a mother who cared more about her career and reputation than she did ever loving her own children. Some of her colleagues have denied the daughter's claims, others have supported them, so only they know if the events in the book are true, but there's certainly no denying that Crawford was a very demanding woman who made many enemies during her career. In fact, after listening to the commentary and bonus features on the disc, I started getting the impression that if she wasn't so tyrannical the movie might not have been as interesting as it is. For starters, the role was originally written for a woman to wear a fat suit, but she steadfastly refused and forced them to rewrite it, so (spoilers for 50+ year old movie ahead!) we end up with someone wearing a creepy AF Crawford mask, which unnerved me a bit, something a fat suit wouldn't likely have done.

As for why the person is wearing a Crawford mask... well, have you seen Psycho II? OK, well this is pretty much the same movie, with Crawford in the Norman Bates role. At the beginning of the film, she murders her husband (a very young Lee Majors! I was watching his S3 episode of Ash Vs Evil Dead on the same day, so that was funny) and the woman he's cheating on her with, and sent away for twenty years. When she's let out, she's trying to adjust to a normal life and reacquaint herself with her daughter, but she gets weird phone calls and sees disembodied heads and people start dying, so it seems she's gone crazy again. But if you've seen Psycho II you'd know that's not the case, and it's someone just trying to drive her crazy and pin some murders on her, with the mask being a damn good way of selling the idea.

I won't spoil the identity of the killer here, but I was tickled how similar it was to Richard Franklin's film, and began thinking that it had to be intentional, because this film was written by Robert Bloch, who as we know wrote the novel Psycho. But what's less known is that he wrote a sequel novel himself, one that they didn't use for the film (it involved a movie being made about Norman's life, and it was very rapey), but since so much of the plot of this film and the one they made (written by Tom Holland) is similar it's almost like he should have gotten a credit anyway. Adding to the fun "trivia" about the whole thing is that Castle's earlier film Homicidal was knocked as being a Psycho ripoff, so it's also like they kind of "paid him back" by ripping off his movie to make their Psycho sequel.

Also Psycho-ish - the last scene of the movie, where everything is explained via rambling exposition. It's a scene that's rather amusing because of how clunky and unnecessary it was, but as the bonus features tell us, it wasn't supposed to be in there. The script ended with the murderer talking to themselves, but Crawford didn't want to be left out of the film's final scene and demanded an epilogue that put her in the spotlight! So again, her insatiable ego resulted in a film that gave me more to talk about 50 years later, so thanks for that, Ms. Crawford. Because otherwise, it's kind of a snoozer at times, feeling like what might have been an OK episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents stretched out to 95 minutes, which is a bit long by the standards of B movies of the day (and is the longest of any Castle film I've seen). Again, maybe some of the fun was dampened because I spotted the killer so early, but I mean... I still enjoy Sixth Sense even though I know Bruce is a ghost, you know?

There's enough good stuff to make it overall enjoyable though, particularly anything involving a young George Kennedy as the Lenny-esque farm hand who not only gets the spotlight in the film's best little scare moment (he thinks someone is following him in/around some hanging laundry, and a shirt sleeve somehow wraps around his throat), but (spoiler) is the victim in a pretty effective decapitation scene. This one didn't have any of Castle's usual gimmicks (apparently, his financial advisers told him to knock it off), save for some cardboard axes given out and Crawford making some in theater appearances, but I can imagine that bit would have stunned folks out of their seats back in the day, as we weren't yet used to seeing heads getting knocked off like we are now. I also liked how they used the familiar Lizzie Borden rhyme ("Gave her mother forty whacks...") but applied it to this film's killer, and again, the killer wearing the Crawford mask is a pretty freaky visual, so it didn't need a plastic skeleton floating by or whatever to get the jolts he craved.

But the bonus features offer the most enjoyment on the disc. Not only does the film historian commentary (by Steve Haberman and David J Schow, plus Constantine Nasr, whose name is curiously absent from the packaging) provide genuine info about THIS movie instead of just going off on endless tangents about the actors' other movies like too many historian tracks often do, but they offer some honest critiques of the film while also touting its high points, and even disagree (good-naturedly!) about a few things, making it far more fun than most of its type. They even read a letter from Crawford where she dismisses the film and says that if she wasn't a Christian woman she'd kill herself if she ever saw Trog on a marquee, so remind me to watch Trog as soon as possible. Then there's what's gotta be a first, or at least, one of the very few: an interview with an actress who wasn't in the movie, because Crawford had her fired! It's a pretty funny story and she doesn't seem to be too hung up on it, so it's an inspired addition, as is another interview with her publicist, who must have been the hardest working man in show business during her reign. There's also a retrospective documentary from a previous release (so fair warning to picky viewers, it's not in HD) and some screen tests, making it one of the more fleshed out packages for one of Scream Factory's pre-70s fare releases.

The film arrives alongside a special edition of The Tingler, and they have (or at least HAD) House on Haunted Hill from the Vincent Price set and did I Saw What You Did a couple years back, so I hope this means more Castle packages are coming. There are still a few I haven't seen (Mr. Sardonicus!), and I'd love to have a boxed set of them all if they could pull it off (and since they managed to get all of the Halloween films in one set, I believe they can do anything). Sure, seeing them in theaters with the gimmicks intact is more fun, but his blend of humor and horror makes most of his films essential viewing, especially at this time of the year. Plus it'd be easier to justify keeping one like this, which I doubt I'd personally want to watch again, but might blow the mind of my kid once (OK, IF) he starts watching horror movies, since I'd like for him to start with smaller ones like this before diving into anything truly gruesome. As he gets older I find myself entertained by watching HIM watch things, which would be helpful for movies like this that were inadvertently spoiled for me by the films that took inspiration from it.

What say you?


  1. "For those uninformed, Crawford (played in that film by Nurse Ratched herself, Louise Fletcher)..."

    I love you, Brian--we all love you--but Crawford was played by Faye Dunaway in that movie, not Fletcher.

  2. Crawford was played by Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest.

  3. Hi Brian. Just wanted to let you know that Powerhouse/Indicator are releasing what looks to be a beautiful (region free!) William Castle box set this October, with more to come.

  4. Powerhouse Films (in England) is releasing a blur ray boxset of Castle films including "The Tingler", "13 Ghosts", "Homicidal",and "Mr Sardonicus" along with the "Spine-Tingler!" documentary on William Castle on October 22. The discs are region-free. I don't know how many of the extra features from the previous DVD release are ported over, but the inclusion of "Spine-Tingler!" alone makes it worth the purchase price.

  5. Whoa, am I missing something? Faye Dunaway played Crawford in Mommie Dearest, right?

  6. Faye Dunnaway played Joan Crawford in "Mommy Dearest" not Louise Fletcher, although that would have been good casting also.

    1. Doh! Fixed (and mixup explained)

    2. Flowers in the Attic is a child-scarring movie as well! p.s. Strait-Jacket was on TCM about a week after you posted this. Watching it now!


Movie & TV Show Preview Widget