Strait-Jacket (1964) poster

Strait-Jacket (1964)


USA. 1964.


Director/Producer – William Castle, Screenplay – Robert Bloch, Photography (b&w) – Arthur Arling, Music – Van Alexander, Special Effects – Richard Albain, Art Direction – Boris Leven. Production Company – William Castle Productions.


Joan Crawford (Lucy Harbin), Diane Baker (Carol Harbin), John Anthony Hayes (Michael Fields), Leif Erickson (Bull Cutler), George Kennedy (Leo Krause), Mitchell Cox (Dr Anderson), Howard St John (Raymond Fields), Edith Atwater (Mrs Fields), Rochelle Hudson (Emily Cutler)


Lucy Harbin finds her husband Frank with another girl and decapitates them both with an axe. She is declared insane and locked away in an asylum. Twenty years later, she is released and returns home to the farm to stay with her now grown daughter Carol. Soon afterwards, Lucy starts to have hallucinations, thinking that she is seeing severed heads and bloodied axes in her bed. Next, the people who threaten her start turning up decapitated.

William Castle was one of the great cinematic showmen. Castle was a hack director-producer who found his fame with a series of horror films that he sold using sensationalistic promotional gimmicks – Macabre (1958) with its insurance policy against audiences dying of fright; House on Haunted Hill (1959) with its skeleton winched across the theatre; The Tingler (1959) with its seats wired to give audiences electric shocks; 13 Ghosts (1960) with its Illuso ghost viewer; and Homicidal (1961) with its Fright Break. Into the 1960s, Castle clearly found that audiences were tiring of his promotional gimmicks and, beginning with Homicidal, turned to making a series of psycho-thrillers that were clearly seeking to exploit the success of Psycho (1960) and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).

Strait-Jacket is one of William Castle’s Psycho/Baby Jane ripoffs. The influence of both films is clear in the names of some of the people that Castle corrals – star Joan Crawford from Baby Jane, playing another demented old dame role, as well as Robert Bloch who wrote the original novel that became the basis of Psycho on script.

Strait-Jacket is somewhat better than most of William Castle’s films. Robert Bloch’s script maintains psychology that is at least credible and offers a denouement that is not too implausibly fantastical in its contrivances, although the eventual twist ending is pedestrian. William Castle was at best a journeyman director of passable competence but little style. Some of the shock tactics – the prologue murder, the dispatch of George Kennedy in full view, or the sinister image of the girls dancing – work well. Elsewhere, Castle’s crude shocks – cuts to axes and knives and various hackings and stabbings – are tacky.

An axe-wielding Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket (1964)
An axe-wielding Joan Crawford

Joan Crawford, well into the dregs of her career, makes a fascinating spectacle, flirting with younger men and trying to appear youthful. She plays reasonably well, especially in the scenes trying to seduce John Anthony Hayes and acting disturbed, although her petulant and confused acts fail to come across terribly convincingly. Worth watching out for are performances from Diane Baker, who engenders both likeability and seriousness, and George Kennedy who has an interesting role as a surly handyman.

The premiere of Strait-Jacket was briefly depicted in the first season of the tv series Feud (2017– ) concerning the rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in a scene with an unhappy Crawford (Jessica Lange) reduced to running through a theatre waving an axe urged on by William Castle (John Waters).

William Castle’s other films of genre note as producer-director are:– as director of Crime Doctor’s Manhunt (1945), the sixth in a series of Columbia crime thrillers, of which Castle directed several, featuring a forensicologist against a split-personalitied killer; the psycho-thriller Macabre (1958); House on Haunted Hill (1959); the classic The Tingler (1959), probably Castle’s best film; the haunted house film 13 Ghosts (1960); the psycho-thriller Homicidal (1961); Mr. Sardonicus (1961) about a man with his face caught in a grotesque frozen smile; the juvenile comedy Zotz! (1962) about a magical coin; the remake of The Old Dark House (1963) for Hammer; The Night Walker (1965), a psycho-thriller about a dream lover; the prank phonecall psycho-thriller I Saw What You Did (1965); the psycho-thriller Let’s Kill Uncle (1965); the ghost comedy The Spirit is Willing (1967); the reality-bending sf film Project X (1968); as producer of the classic occult film Rosemary’s Baby (1968) for Roman Polanski; as producer of the anthology series Ghost Story (1972-3); Shanks (1974) with Marcel Marceau as a puppeteer who can resurrect the dead; and as producer of the firestarting insect film Bug! (1975).

Robert Bloch was most famous for writing the novel that became the basis of Psycho (1960). His other genre scripts are:- The Cabinet of Caligari (1962), The Night Walker (1965), The Skull (1965), The Psychopath (1966), The Deadly Bees (1967), Torture Garden (1967), The House That Dripped Blood (1970), Asylum (1972), the tv movie The Cat Creature (1973), the tv movie The Dead Don’t Die (1975), The Amazing Captain Nemo (1977) and an episode of Three Dangerous Ladies (1988?).

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