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"WARNING: STRAIT-JACKET VIVIDLY DEPICTS AX MURDERS!"
Tagline for Strait-Jacket
William Castle made his first foray into what playwright Sky Gilbert has called the "gothic horror aged star comeback flick" with the 1964 shocker Strait-Jacket. It hadn't started out that way, but when he got the opportunity to cast Joan Crawford in the female lead, he jumped at the chance to elevate the reputation of his low-budget horror-exploitation films. He didn't really get the high-class production he had envisioned, but he did make a film that now ranks as a camp classic.
Of course, Strait-Jacket was still an exploitation picture. After several top-grossing, low-budget movies made for Columbia Pictures, Castle joined forces with Robert Bloch, whose novel Psycho had inspired countless psychological horror films that mimicked it. Castle felt Bloch's script for this tale of a woman who had axe murdered her cheating husband and his mistress years earlier, then returns from an asylum only to be haunted by similar crimes, was so strong it didn't need one of his usual promotional gimmicks. When he approached Columbia management about giving the film a less exploitative release, they balked. Gimmicks such as life insurance policies for audience members who died of fear (his ploy for Macabre in 1958) or electrical shocks delivered to selected audience members during horror scenes (The Tingler, 1959) had been raking in big bucks for the studio.
As Castle originally envisioned Strait-Jacket, he didn't have anything to offer the studio in place of ticket-selling gimmicks like that. The script had been offered to character actress Grayson Hall on the strength of her performance as a repressed lesbian in The Night of the Iguana (1964), but she had chosen to return to the New York stage instead (Hall was a legend in avant garde theatre and later went on to star in the horror soap opera Dark Shadows). The next actress offered the role was Joan Blondell, who was looking forward to making the picture.
Accounts differ as to what happened next. Some say that an accident forced Blondell to give up the role. Others have suggested that her friend Joan Crawford liked the script and stole the role from her. Either way, Crawford expressed an interest in the film and, with her recent success in the gothic horror film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), had enough box office clout for Castle to release the film without a gimmick. Their first meeting took place at her New York apartment, where she served Castle and other executives lunch after making them remove their shoes so they wouldn't stain her new white carpet. Then she informed them that before she would agree to make the film, they would have to completely re-write the script to make it a star vehicle. Over the next two hours, she outlined the changes she thought would make the film a "Joan Crawford movie." With her revived popularity, Castle gave in, also granting her co-star and director approval. Fortunately, she agreed to let him direct his own film.
Crawford flexed her star muscles further by insisting that Castle's associate producer, Dona Holloway, fly to New York to pick out costumes with her. She also demanded a rehearsal period, a luxury Castle's budget could barely afford and not a common practice for him. But she was also totally cooperative during her shopping trips with Holloway and at the rehearsals. The other key female role in Strait-Jacket was Carol Harbin, the daughter of former axe murderess Lucy Harbin, whose engagement to a young man from a good family triggers one of the star's many on-screen emotional breakdowns. Originally, Castle had cast Anne Helm, primarily known as a television actress, in the role. On the first day of rehearsal, however, she was so nervous about working with Crawford, she could barely project her voice. After working with her patiently through the morning, Crawford insisted the role be re-cast. In her place, Castle hired Diane Baker, a more experienced screen actress who had appeared with Crawford previously in The Best of Everything(1959). Baker had no problems projecting or standing up to Crawford, which gave their scenes exactly the charge they needed.
One casting decision Crawford okayed was due to a favor Rock Hudson had requested of his former director. Hudson had recently been impressed by a young actor and asked the producer-director to give him a bit part to help him break into the movies. Since Castle had cast Hudson in one of his first movies (Undertow, 1949), he was only too happy to take another chance on what could be a future star. As a result, Lee Majors made his film debut as the husband Crawford decapitates in the film's opening sequence.
Another potential actress lost out on her chance to make her screen debut in Strait-Jacket. Castle needed a child actress to play Baker at six and had asked the actress to bring in some of her childhood photos. Crawford immediately noticed a resemblance between Baker and Castle's six-year-old daughter. Although his wife demanded he not tell the child what the film was about, he rehearsed his daughter at home for weeks for her one scene. The day before it was scheduled, he brought her to the set so she could rehearse with Crawford. As soon as she saw the crew, however, the girl panicked and pleaded with her father not to film her.
In another concession to Crawford, a case of Pepsi Cola was prominently displayed in one scene as a favor to the company on whose board she had sat since marrying executive Alfred Steele. She also had Castle cast Pepsi Vice President Mitchell Cox as her psychiatrist. Although most critics considered his performance laughably inept, Time Magazine at least noted that Strait-Jacket was the first horror film to boast a Pepsi Vice President as a murder victim.
Although he had planned to release the film without any gimmicks, Castle couldn't resist the thought of giving patrons their own plastic axes, complete with fake bloodstains. But Strait-Jacket's real selling point was Crawford, who agreed to do personal appearances for the film's premiere. In New York, Castle got columnist Dorothy Kilgallen to introduce her and had a bus outfitted with a full bar and food service to transport the star, studio executives and press from one crowded theatre to the next.
As a result, Strait-Jacket was a huge hit, which proved a blessing to Crawford, who had taken a smaller salary against a percentage. Reviewers weren't quite as impressed as the fans. Though many credited her with delivering a better performance than the script deserved, others noted that the heavy melodramatics couldn't disguise the fact that the 60-year-old star played a 29-year-old at the start of the film, then reappeared for the rest as a 49-year-old woman. Many also lamented her fall from studio stardom to appearances in low-budget horror pictures. She would continue in the genre, and Castle would continue working with aging stars, casting Crawford again in I Saw What You Did (1965) and putting Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor in The Night Walker (1964).
Strait-Jacket continues to grow in popularity among Crawford's more camp-oriented fans, who delight in the sight of Crawford done up in full '40s drag, looking like Mildred Pierce having a night on the town. Diane Baker's supporting performance, the presence of Hollywood veterans like Leif Erickson and Rochelle Hudson, and a pre-stardom turn by George Kennedy as a hired hand (at a dairy farm that only appears to have bulls in residence), have added to the film's loony appeal over time. The film's fans also delight in Castle's trademark touches, from unconvincing death scenes with obvious dummies (the sound of the axe cutting off heads was really the sound man chopping a watermelon in two) to a great visual joke at the credits' end, when the Columbia Statue of Liberty logo turns up sans head.
Producer-Director: William Castle
Screenplay: Robert Bloch
Cinematography: Arthur E. Arling
Art Direction: Frank Tuttle
Music: Van Alexander
Cast: Joan Crawford (Lucy Harbin), Diane Baker (Carol), Leif Erickson (Bill Cutler), Howard St. John (Raymond Fields), Rochelle Hudson (Emily Cutler), George Kennedy (Leo Krause), Edith Atwater (Mrs. Fields), Lee Majors (Frank Harbin).
by Frank Miller