Joan Crawford as an axe murderer? Sign me up. I’m there.
That is obviously the type of sentiment that William Castle was trying to exploit when he cast the aging star in Strait-Jacket in 1964. Castle was infamous for marketing his movies with corny gimmicks. Macabre (1958) was released with a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London for any viewers who died of fright in the theater. House on Haunted Hill (1959) featured an inflatable plastic skeleton that zipped over theater-goers on a clothesline, The Tingler (1959) featured joy buzzers installed under theater seats, and tickets to 13 Ghosts (1960) came with blue and red strips of plastic that allow viewers to “see into the spirit world.” Homicidal (1961) had a “fright break” for patrons too scared to watch to the end, and Castle appears on the screen before the final reel of Mr. Sardonicus (1961), pretending to count votes from the audience about how the film should end.
The trademark Castle marketing ploys had begun to wear thin, and, after all, they were incredibly complicated and taxing for theater owners to carry out. Strait-Jacket was to be released without any ballyhoo, but supposedly Castle had little cardboard axes made and distributed to some theaters. Film historian David Del Valle has said “with Joan Crawford, you don’t need a gimmick.” John Waters, perhaps more accurately, pointed out that the casting of Crawford was the gimmick. Crawford’s career had been revitalized by costarring with Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), which launched the whole “hagsploitation” genre, and was a major source of inspiration to Castle, who saw it over 17 times. Castle always felt he was living in the shadow of Alfred Hitchcock and other directors who were able to secure good properties and big-named stars, and he became obsessed with making a film with a star actress and a star writer, despite being limited to his usual budget limitations. The fact that he was able to get both Robert Bloch, the writer of Psycho, and Joan Crawford, who is introduced in the film’s trailer as “Academy award winner and one of the most popular film personalities in the world”, is a testimony to Castle’s unflagging determination.
Despite her reported drinking on the set between takes, Crawford approached her role with the same professionalism that she brought to a big-budget film like Mildred Pierce, and she throw herself into the role, ignoring the fact that she had found herself in what was obviously a B-film. At the same time, she knew how much Castle needed her, and she exerted enormous control over the production, not only demanding a dressing room stocked with brandy and caviar, but also casting the film, getting the actress playing her daughter fired and replaced by Diane Baker, and having the role of her concerned psychologist cast by the vice-president of Pepsi Cola, where Joan was on the board of directors, despite the fact that the businessman obviously couldn’t act. But when the film was released, she graciously agreed to go on tour to do personal appearances for the film.
Crawford had a violent streak in her acting as early 1932’s Letty Lynton, in which she played a glamorous woman who murders her former lover who is trying to blackmail her with some steam old love letters. In A Woman’s Face (1941) she plays the ruthless leader of a criminal gang who changes her ways in the final act. In Strait-Jacket Robert Bloch and William Castle bring the viciousness straight to the surface. At the age of 59, and after the success of Baby Jane, Crawford must have realized that the best way to stay in work was to agree to play more of the same.
Strait-Jacket hits the ground running, opening with the sounds of Crawford’s demented screams and a newspaper headlines shouting “Extra! Extra! Love Killer Insane!” A flashback to 20 years ago reveals that Crawford’s character Lucy Harbin was “very much a woman, and very much aware of the fact.” When she comes home to find her young husband (Lee Majors in his first film appearance) in bed with an old girlfriend, she flips and chops off their heads with an axe, dissolving into a montage of Lucy writhing in a straitjacket. The story then moves to the present day, when Lucy is released after a 20-year incarceration in an institution for the criminally insane, meeting her daughter, who witnessed the murders and is now trying to move on with her life by getting engaged. Lucy seems disoriented and withdrawn, but soon starts to go off kilter. Crawford’s performance isn’t exactly subtle. The scene in which she seduces her daughter’s boyfriend is infamous. “Well, you didn’t tell me he was that good looking!” After pouring him copious amounts of Scotch and caresses his face, even sticking her fingers into his mouth, while her mortified daughter squirms on the couch. Of course, subtlety was not what William Castle was after.