By JUSTIN MCDEVITT
In 1964, Al Steele had been dead five years, Christina was a 25-year-old Broadway actress about to make a brief turn in Barefoot in the Park (before a prompt firing for being difficult), and Joan Crawford was making a film called STRAIT-JACKET, an oddly unsatisfying meditation on murder, rehabilitation, and gaslighting. Following in the footsteps of Psycho and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, STRAIT-JACKET stars Mrs. Alfred Steele (Johnny Guitar, a personal favorite of mine), Diane Baker (Marnie, Silence of the Lambs), and George Kennedy (Airport, Charade). Written by Robert Bloch and directed by William Castle, the film runs a respectable ninety-three minutes but feels much, much longer because no one involved in the making of this film – despite their worthy credentials – has any concept of pacing.
STRAIT-JACKET suffers from an identity crisis from the very opening. The narration makes us feel like we are in a film noir and that Barbara Stanwyck will appear at any moment to usher the viewer into the thrilling world of insurance fraud. Lucy (Crawford) arrives by train to confront her adulterous husband while her daughter sleeps in the living room, very close to the door, which, frankly, makes it seem like they want someone to kidnap her. Anyway, I get it: children are expensive. Our narrator tells us, “They made one mistake in thinking the child was asleep” which is one of many obvious indications this film makes to the viewer that our true villainess is none other than Lucy’s daughter Carol. Lucy gets home and does murders to her hubby and his whore. It’s not easy to find the perfect dress to go with your axe, but our Lucy succeeds!
Cut to present times: 1964, when I was a young twink and Bette Davis was embracing her late career destiny as a Scream Queen. Adult Carol (Baker) has just finished telling her traumatic story to her beau Michael (Leif Erickson). One of my favorite things about her beau Michael is that for the first thirty-two minutes of the film, I was convinced his name was Bob. It should be Bob. He looks like a Bob! Carol concludes her story with, “My mother, a murderess,” which incidentally was the working title for Mommie Dearest.
Lucy is being released from the asylum and is finally to be reunited with her daughter. In a departure from her hyper-glam approach to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Joan plays this one a little different: her post-asylum look is frumpy, matronly, normal. It’s one of the more tangible indications we have that Joan had realized Bette was right in her extreme, unglamorous makeup choices while portraying Baby Jane Hudson. This is probably the closest Joan ever got to looking unattractive on film, unless you mistake her for the troglodyte in Trog (but don’t do that, that wouldn’t be very nice).
As Carol shows Lucy around the farm where she lives, we are introduced to the film’s drinking game. Every time a character references how it’s been twenty-years since they’ve last seen Lucy, drink. Seriously, it happens a lot. Did no one read the script? I know Joan had script approval but this is just ridiculous. Although, if all her lines were the same, it was probably easier for her to learn them. The best part about Joan being home from the asylum is that she has not abandoned her love for pointy brasseries.
Carol kept Lucy’s bangles from the night of the murder. Fuck you, Carol. I’m not even going to tear apart the gaudy bangles, and instead reiterate: it’s so obvious Carol is the Big Evil of the film. Nothing about STRAIT-JACKET seeks to disguise what Carol is up to, which surprises me only because the success of the film seems to hinge entirely on its twist ending. Next up in Carol’s Welcome Home Fuckery – a family album full of photos of the hubby Lucy did murders to….twenty years ago (drink). One scene later we discover the photo album has been tampered with! Gasp. Someone decapitated all the photos of the dead hubby. Joan is instantly blamed, and Carol, performing the role of Professional Gaslighter, makes Joan believe not only that she cut up the photos, but that she didn’t know better. That it’s okay. That she still has work to do. Repeat after me: Fuck you Carol!
This sequence also treats us to some fun product placement. A case of Pepsi rests on a cupboard in the kitchen. Someone ought to put that in the fridge. Would Joan and Britney Spears have gotten along as Pepsi Ambassadors? I like to think so.
Carol takes Lucy to get her hair styled and to buy a new dress. Rather than get with the times, Carol makes sure her mother’s hair looks exactly like it did the night of the murder. “You look just like you did twenty years ago,” says Carol (Drink!), “Just like I’ve always dreamed of you.” Carol openly wants her mother to be like she was the night of the murder. She’s wearing so many red flags she could make a dress for Lucy. And speaking of: why does Lucy only get one dress? And why are we making her wear that one dress for the entire film in which multiple days and murders pass? I’m starting to feel like Tippi Hedren in The Birds.
Next on Gaslighters of 1964: Lucy wakes up with both a decapitated head and an axe in her bed. I feel that. I’m so single I don’t even need a whole person at this point. I’ll take it in pieces. Pro tip: hatchets are much easier to store under a pillow and they still get the job done. By the time she alerts the rest of the house to what’s happened, the head and axe are gone…almost as if Carol had enough time to hide the evidence! Carol is a smart villainess because she doesn’t give herself too many tracks to cover. All she had to put away were the axe and the head. Compare this with the killer in I Know What You Did Last Summer who had to fill Jennifer Love Hewitt’s trunk with crabs (not a euphemism, thank you very much) only to unload all the squirming crabs moments later so that everyone thinks she’s crazy. Talk about making a mess for yourself!
Bob comes over to meet Lucy. Lucy tends bar and then begins unabashedly flirting with Bob in front of Carol. I can’t tell if Joan is playing this scene drunk in the way that freshman in a high school drama class play drunk, or if, in between takes, she saw Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and decided that’s how she’d start playing her character. Either way, it’s cringe but still one of my favorite scenes in the movie because finally Joan has something to do besides act helpless and get lied to by Carol. #FuckCarol. This meeting is a trial run for when Lucy meets Bob’s parents who are wealthy and respectable, and who, for some reason according to Carol, will *probably* look down on having a murderess in the family. Man, people can be so close-minded.
In a crude way, STRAIT-JACKET teaches us that if it looks like gaslighting, it probably is gaslighting. I just don’t understand why this film isn’t more successful, even terribly so. How can a premise in which Joan Crawford plays a killer be boring? I enjoyed her next venture with William Castle, 1965’s I Saw What You Did, much more and she’s in that film for only half the time (not a read, JC).
The film climaxes as Lucy finally gets to meet Bob’s parents. Bob is stalked by the killer in his study, and we even get an almost scary shower sequence in an unnecessary ode to Psycho. Joan Crawford walks in on Joan Crawford wielding an axe. A Scooby Doo style mask reveal gives us our killer: Carol… because killing your in-laws is a surefire way to marry Michael (have I been calling him Bob again?). It turns out Carol went crazy after witnessing her Mommie Dearest murder her Father Slutbag. It’s almost as if the narrator at the start of the film told us this was what was going to happen!
Rather than end the film at this moment, we are treated to another Psycho nod with The Long Explanation where Joan not only reiterates everything that happened, but also selflessly vows to move back to the asylum to be with her daughter. It is a very stupid, unnecessary, improbably scene but Joan did have script approval, and she wouldn’t stand by and have Diane Baker get the last line in the film. Good for you, Joan.
Final thoughts: STRAIT-JACKET should have been a recipe for success, and a second viewing only made me more impassioned in my anger. I want this movie to be better. I don’t even mind its flagrantly awful depiction of mental health practices in America in the ’60s. It’s just not exciting. The movie could have been improved if Joan got more to do and if she started to question the facts as presented to her rather than falling for the gaslighting every time. But, by that same score, the movie doesn’t really work at spreading awareness about gaslighting. Or does it? And would the movie be improved if Bernard Hermann was involved? I only give this one out of four bloody axes, but maybe in a few years I’ll give it another shot. The films that sought to capitalize on Psycho and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? gave us so much (uh hello Lady in the Cage), and even when they’re terrible, they provided work for actresses who were told explicitly that there was no longer a place for them in Hollywood. The horror genre is always happy to have you!