Like all William Castle films, the story of STRAIT-JACKET is slight, full of holes, and often silly to the point of absurdity. Long ago Joan Crawford came home to find her husband in bed with a floozie and snatched up an ax. Adjudged insane, she is locked up in an asylum for twenty years, but now she’s home–and pretty soon some really weird things begin to happen around the old family farm. Could it be, oh, I don’t know… JOAN? Throughout his career, producer-director William Castle liked to build his movies around gimmicks: TINGLER had “Percepto,” 13 GHOSTS had “Illusion-O,” and HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL had “Emergo.” But STRAIT-JACKET had something better: Joan Crawford herself, who plays in a style that can only be described as “Emote-O-Rama.” Say what you like about Crawford, she never gave any performance less than one hundred percent, and in STRAIT-JACKET she gives one hundred and fifty. In the opening scenes, 60-something Joan has the unmitigated gall to play Lucy in her 20s! Later, as Lucy in her 40s, Joan plays the role like a nice little old lady who occasionally drops acid: when she’s not busy with her nervous breakdown, she sucks down bourbon, attempts to seduce her daughter’s boyfriend (even to the point of putting her fingers in his mouth), knits like a fiend, lights a cigarette by striking a match on a record album, raises hell at a dinner party… and all of it about as subtle as a bulldozer.
But they didn’t call her a star for nothing: not only does Crawford manage to carry it off with complete conviction, she actually manages to endow the character with considerable pathos along the way. And I have absolutely no doubt that THIS was the film Faye Dunaway studied the most when preparing to play Crawford in the infamous MOMMIE DEAREST; watch both back-to-back and you’ll know exactly what I mean.
The rest of the cast is pretty interesting as well, featuring Diane Baker as daughter Carol, Leif Erickson as Crawford’s brother, George Kennedy as an unsavory farmhand, and a very young Lee Majors as the ill-fated husband–not to mention Mitchell Cox, a Pepsi V.P. Joan was favoring at the time. There are cheap special effects (amazing, how she can neatly lop off a head or two with a single blow), Pepsi-Cola product placements, and even some dialogue that would do Ed Woods proud. It’s all campy and bizarre and hilariously weird and ramped up to the nth degree by Crawford’s full-force performance.
With a somewhat better script and production values, STRAIT-JACKET could easily have matched Bette Davis’ more sophisticated HUSH, HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE; as it stands, however, it is a cult movie in all caps. The DVD release is very nicely done, with the film itself in excellent condition. A collection of Crawford’s costume tests gives a surprising insight to actress’ personality, and a particularly nice little making-of documentary includes comments from Diane Baker. (Note: don’t watch the documentary, called “Battle-Ax,” until after you’ve seen the film: it’s a spoiler.)