Stars Joan Crawford, Diane Baker, Leif Erickson, George Kennedy.
The pairing of Joan Crawford with William Castle (the producer-director-carny barker who much later inspired Joe Dante’s Matinee) was always destined to be a marriage made in a burg you wouldn’t want to be in — no matter how much you might be willing enough to give any movie that exploited the point a shot in theaters. (Or, more likely in this case, drive-ins, except maybe for the fact that Strait-Jacket was a January release.) It’s just a guess, but when you’ve taken up residence in a place where a scraggly, stubbled George Kennedy is just outside cutting the heads of chickens, we’re not talking a Lassie or Flipper kind of milieu.
Of course, the very title itself kind of suggests at least the beginnings of what’ll ensue, in that Crawford has returned home to live with her brother, his wife and her now grown-up daughter (Diane Baker) on a California chicken farm after having spent 20 years locked up for having taken an ax to the head of her wayward husband (Lee Majors in his screen debut). As a flashback result, a much younger version of Baker got a real eyeful while Crawford’s actions led to authorities to deck her out for a while in the title garb. By now, though, all she wants is to live in peace as long as, apparently, she’s allowed to dress and palm herself off as someone 20 years younger than she is. This leads to a truly amazing scene where she boozily puts the make on her daughter’s bland fiancé played by John Anthony Hayes (who?) — even to the point of putting her fingers in his mouth. But we’re talking, after all, about a Joan Crawford picture, and what Joan wanted to do she did even down to prominent visual placement of Pepsi products in certain scenes. This is because her husband had famously been a Pepsi exec, which a) helped land her a seat on the cola company’s board; and b) inspired a Bob Hope Oscarcast crack that I sensed she didn’t like about how he wanted to drop off a few empties after the show.
At this point, renewed slashing — no, make that beheadings — get underway, which isn’t to say that Crawford doesn’t give a real performance here. Positioned between What Ever Happened to Baby Jane and her aborted casting in Robert Aldrich’s follow-up Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Castle’s picture was a still early entry in the lamentable but memorable genre that cast onetime movie queens as hags amid ghoulery (even the still-attractive Olivia de Havilland suffered through this) back when cougars were just something that killed livestock. But Crawford gives it her all with a genuine performance, and given the cheesiness that surrounds her (even when seen in split-seconds, the severed heads are obvious prosthetics), this is this is no puny feat.
That we get even blusteringly quick shots of those heads is of note itself — another thumbed-nose to the dying Production Code and a harbinger of Charlotte’s own opening-scene dismemberment later the same year. This would have been a most unusual conceit for audiences to have experienced in 1964, though it ironically hit me during this viewing — as it also does here to laugh-a-minute bonus commentators Steve Haberman and David J. Show — that Leif Erickson and Rochelle Hudson (as the brother and his wife) are still sleeping in twin beds at a time when skulls are flying. Of course, this is already a movie off-center enough to have cast a fellow Pepsi board member (Mitchell Cox) in his only screen appearance as Crawford’s doctor — a one-scene wonder whose character is not without narrative importance, given its limited context. The poor guy’s giving it his earnest all, and in the end isn’t any more wooden than boyfriend Hayes (and, in fact, is probably less so). Fortunately, the two roles that demand real performance get them from Crawford and Baker, which helps. Some.
Though I like a satisfactory amount of grain in my Blu-rays, there are a few scenes here where the visual amp is turned up to “11” at least in terms of my taste — a situation that, admittedly, is often a matter of taste. But the supplements are fun even beyond the backgrounding voiceover, which is just what you want with Castle’s kind of exploitation fare: jokey and knowledgeable. So in addition, we get screen tests and a fun “making-of” documentary carried over from a long-ago DVD but also a pair of juicy new featurettes. One is an interview with Anne Helm — turning 80 in September and once the kind of hottie you’d expect to see in Elvis picture (and she was, as the femme lead in Follow That Dream). Crawford had her replaced with Baker (a former acting associate) after shooting began with continued casting murkiness that began with Crawford’s own hiring after Joan Blondell was set for the part.
The other interview is with onetime Columbia Pictures publicist Richard Kahn, who accompanied Crawford on her enthusiastically undertaken press tour (she had a big piece of the action) that even found her interrupting New York theatrical screenings to stand at an on-stage mic and say hello to the paying slobs. I can just see Billy Wilder OKing that, though it does point out the actress’s willingness to work her behind off to promote her pictures as a component of all-around professionalism, no matter what else one might choose to say about Crawford (and there’s plenty).
In a most unusual confluence of home entertainment events, bargain distributor Mill Creek will soon (Sep 25) be releasing a Blu-ray double bill of Strait-Jacket and Crawford’s penultimate feature Berserk. The latter was still another in a litany of circus-murder melodramas along with Ring of Fear, The Big Circus, Circus of Horrors and so on — though its teaming of Crawford and Ty Hardin cannot be denied (good Lord, Scorsese’s “unholy wife” Diana Dors is in it, too). It’s true that whenever a Mill Creek release manages to look really good, the original material was likely already in excellent shape, so we don’t know if the coming rendering will look the same or at least comparable. But programmatically, I do have to say that this imminent pairing pretty well guarantees an evening of ticklish trash.
On, this note, I always thought that Sony, which controls the Columbia Pictures library, missed a bet somewhere along the line by not releasing its seven Crawford features in a box — from Harriet Craig (which I love) through the actress’s big-screen swan song (hint: its one-word title, short for “troglodyte,” has four letters), a hall of fame camp-fest that nearly everyone agrees was the low point of her career. I suspect such a collection might have been a big seller with gay audiences and more; when I programmed the AFI theater, I did hordes of turn-away business on consecutive nights with a double bill of Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest with Crawford’s Columbia Queen Bee. This fantasy collection wouldn’t have Davis, but it would have had (let’s just say it) Trog. There was even a promotional photo of these co-stars without chemistry having a Pepsi on the set. Call it the pause that refreshes — for about a million years.