The story is oh so simple in its simplicity: Lucy Harbin (Joan effing Crawford) came home early from an out of town trip to find her younger husband (Lee Majors!) post-flagrante and sound asleep in bed with his chosen floozy. Lucy doesn't scream and yell, oh no; rather, she grabs the nearest axe and makes with the axing, giving the lovers a number of whacks that seems to exceed the Lizzie Borden-recommended forty.
Her young daughter Carol witnesses the slaughter; earlier she witnessed her dad and the floozy floozing out- I guess you could say that Carol had an exceptionally great night.
Lucy is shipped off to the nuthouse ("Extra! Extra! Love slayer insane!") and now it's twenty years on. After moving in with her aunt and uncle, Carol (Diane Baker) has grown up to become a sculptress, a superfox, and the fiancee of the small town's wealthiest, handsomest bachelor, dairy farm heir Michael (John Anthony Hayes). Lucy returns, much plainer and, we hope, much more sane. At Carol's urging, Lucy gets a wig, some jangly bracelets, and a new dress in a bid to pretend that, you know, the last twenty years never happened. Will it work? I mean, wigs can do anything, can't they?
Lucy and Carol work on mending their relationship and getting to know each other, but before long Lucy seems to be slipping back into Cuckoo Town. She hears voices (or does she?) and wakes up to find her victim's heads in her bed (or does she?); she can't keep her eyes off of pointy objects or her daughter's fiance.
Before you know it, Lucy has flipped her new wig and people start losing their heads (like, totally literally), including my man George Kennedy who makes a sweaty appearance as a farm hand.
There's so much awesomeness in this movie, I don't know how they managed to pack it all in to a mere 93 minutes. There are countless touches that make this film a true delight- Joan Crawford trapped in a stripey weirdo bathroom, Joan Crawford knitting like...well, knitting like a madwoman, Joan Crawford lurking, Joan Crawford chopping, Joan Crawford lighting a match by striking it on a spinning jazz record, and OH GOD the film's climax...the list goes on and on.
As you've probably gathered, a great deal of the fun in Strait-Jacket comes courtesy of Joan Crawford. Yeah sure, on the one hand this film is pure William Castle-flavored schlockiness; however, Crawford treats this like it's a much better film and somehow you almost- almost- forget that she's a woman of sixty playing a woman in her forties- and her twenties. Her performance is amped up to eleven but somehow manages to remain largely just shy of pure camp. She's all over the map in the best way possible: she's frail, she's tough, she's brash, she's shy, she's sane, she's psycho. It's obvious she opted to portray Lucy Harbin as if she were Mildred Pierce, Crystal Allen, or any other of the venerable characters Crawford brought to life throughout her rocky career. As such, you find yourself both rooting for and afraid of Lucy- both reactions completely unexpected in a B-trash flick like Strait-Jacket.
Anyone who knows anything about Crawford's personal life will find plenty of parallels to think about with this film, from the Pepsi product placement to that ending (which I just can't give away- it's a treat that needs to be witnessed, not read about), Strait-Jacket is quite the metaphor for the aging starlet's career path.
It cashes in on Psycho (after all, this was also penned by Robert Bloch), it cashes in on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (and every other middle-aged woman as kookadook flick from the '60s); it's lurid and cheesy and it's not so good and it's fucking great...and lord love a movie that ends with this:
Big props and many thanks to the Film Club Coolies, y'all!
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