Strait-Jacket

No waiting for camp
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1964
Director: 
William Castle
Starring: 
Joan Crawford, Diane Baker, Leif Erickson, Rochelle Hudson
The Setup: 
Mom returns from an asylum for the axe murder she committed 20 years ago. Is she still a homicidal maniac?
Discussion: 

Someone wrote to tell me how much he enjoyed Homicidal, a William Castle film known primarily as a Psycho rip-off with an amusing marketing gimmick, which was a to express concern for the fact that people might have heart attacks and such from its shocking content. This film is now available on the same disc, and is legendary among gay camp enthusiasts as featuring a late-career Joan Crawford going totally over the top and wielding an axe in several scenes. And I am happy to report that it turned out to be everything and a bag of chips.

We open with images of breaking glass and Crawford's face on a tabloid. She is Lucy Habpin, who was out of town while her husband played around. We see him bring a young filly back to the house, checking to see that his young daughter Carol is asleep. But 1) she's not asleep, and 2) Mom decided to come home early. Mom looks in and sees the lovers at play, and--well, there is that axe RIGHT THERE. She grabs it, heads in, and chops the bastard's head off! And Carol wakes up and sees, and is all traumatized! And I'm like Wow--there's no waiting for camp in THIS movie. It goes from zero to OTT in seconds. By the way, Lucy's husband is played by an uncredited Lee Majors, before he went on to Six Million Dollar Man fame.

Oh, and by the way, the above shows the lovers in the afterglow of passion. Steamy, huh? Anyway, we now flash-forward 20 years and meet Carol as an adult, played with overwhelming mousiness by Diane Baker. It seems that mom has been released from the asylum, and is coming home to where Carol was raised by her aunt and uncle. We see Lucy emerge from the train, then her face fades into a painting and--credits! They all have interesting 60s-style paintings, many featuring women without heads. During this time we discover that this story was written by Robert Bloch, author of the book that became Psycho.

So mom comes home, and gives her daughter a big hug, but it takes a while for Carol to warm up to her. There are a few reunion scenes, including one where we see that Carol has become a sculptress of these insipid fauns and suchlike. She’s also made a bronze sculpture that supposedly represents her mother in a heroic pose, but frankly I didn’t see the resemblance. I think they just got it off the shelf at Tuesday Morning and decided never to show it to us very clearly. Anyway, while they’re talking, Lucy casually picks up a knife and Carol shrieks “MOTHER!” as though the woman was about to repeatedly stab anyone who happened near. Then we have this shot of Lucy dementedly watching as Uncle Bill carves up a roast, and this whole theme—that Lucy is struggling with a desire to stab-chop-kill! Stab-chop-kill!—and is so sensitive that the presence of even the tiniest sharp object might cause her to embark on a MURDEROUS RAMPAGE. It makes for great fun when everyone in the movie is basically on edge the whole time, waiting for Lucy to snap, with the biggest fun coming from the fact that this whole fear is just ludicrous and reflects early-psychology hysteria and misunderstanding of criminal behavior. Love it.

So mom doesn’t want to meet Michael, Carol’s fiancé, because she’s just not ready to meet strangers. She hides when he first comes over. Then Carol decides maybe what her mom needs is a makeover, so they go shopping, and he buys mom a dress and jangly bracelets and wig and—she’s making her look, in her own words, “Exactly like you did 20 years ago.” That night mom has a nightmare and wakes up in bed with an axe and two severed heads! She freaks and wakes up the whole family, who go in the room—and find nothing there! Oh dear, this woman really is cracking up. By the way, Aunt Emily, Carol’s guardian while her mom was in the rap, might be familiar as Judy’s mother from Rebel Without a Cause.

SPOILERS > > >
So then we meet Michael—extremely handsome and blank-looking and from a wealthy family—and his parents, his uptight mother being suspicious of Lucy right away. Then Michael is coming over to meet Lucy, who slugs away a few drinks before he shows up. She is dressed in her 20-years-ago outfit, and goes ALL KINDS OF after him right off the bat, while Carol repairs to the couch and huffs. It is QUITE a hoot. Lucy forces Michael to dance with her, and when he sits down, she remains standing with her crotch right in his face, and if you watch around 37:01 you will see her make a little movement rubbing her hands around her abdomen in a way that might be perceived as a bit suggestive. Well, I don’t think she made a very good first impression!

Then, suddenly, her doctor from the asylum shows up! He was ON VACATION and just decided to stop in to see her. He is disturbed by her behavior [she can’t go 30 seconds without doing something insane, which is quite amusing], and tells Carol he thinks she’s trying to recreate her youth. Carol protests that she’s perfectly fine, just a little eccentric, that’s all, and simply couldn’t bear to have her taken away. Well too bad, because the doctor’s taking her away. Or so he thinks, before Lucy jumps out with an axe and chops him to bits in the barn.

Then mom shows up after having been missing for a few hours, and tells Carol that she just CAN’T wear all that stuff like it’s still 20 years ago—it’s just not her! Carol asks “WHERE IS THE DOCTOR!?!?” and mom said he left a while ago. I got a big chuckle when Carol then looks out the window and the doctor’s car is RIGHT THERE. She takes it and parks it in the barn, which is seen by the local redneck goon [every rural house in movies has an attendant redneck goon], who knows the doctor’s been killed. The next day he’s out repainting the doctor’s car—he got him a new ride!—which just makes Carol apoplectic, but the goon really snottily taunts her and tells her is she makes any move against him he’ll just expose her mother as a murderer. And Carol just couldn’t stand to lose her mother again! After a few minutes carol doesn’t have to worry, because men without heads tell no tales. But please be aware of the moment a few minutes preceding his death [when everything is just really spooky for no reason] during which he gets attacked by hanging laundry. Terrors lurk everywhere!Bu the way, the redneck goon is played by George Kennedy, the only person in all four Airport movies.

Soon after Carol has arranged a dinner with her mom at Michael’s parents, and WILL NOT consider any arguments that include the possibility Lucy won’t go. We then go straight into a vision Lucy is having of being locked in a striped room, and find out that she is at Michael’s parent’s house and spilled coffee, a scene which we skipped—SO avant garde. Carol comes in and once again dresses her mother as if it’s 20 years ago, then she goes downstairs, where she is interrogated by Michael’s severe and hyper-judgmental mom, and ends up blabbing that Carol and Michael are engaged [although even Michael is obviously having some serious second thoughts]. This causes Mike’s Mom to hit the ceiling, which triggers Lucy to throw a MASSIVE scene in which she first talks about her trauma at being in the asylum and how she won’t be shamed, then to fly right into a MAJOR scene about how goddamn it, NO ONE will stop that marriage. It’s as if Joan Crawford was trying to make up for all the acting she won’t be able to do after she dies. Then Lucy runs out and goes wandering in the wilderness!
< < < SPOILERS END

It concludes not long after this, with a shocking revelation that I wouldn’t dare spoil for you. I actually had it spoiled for me before I saw it, but upon watching it I realized it would be much better for it to come as a total shock to everyone. You will notice that the Columbia logo that closes the film doesn’t have a head, which is pretty fun. One other thing is that Joan Crawford had final script approval here, and she insisted that there be a tacked-on scene at the end—during which she explains EVERYTHING—so that moviegoers would end on an impression of her, rather than Diane Baker.

This was pretty much a home run all around. It is hyper-campy, mega-melodramatic, and has the aforementioned loose grasp of psychology that has everyone freaking out in an utterly silly way every time Lucy glances toward a sharp object. On top of that, and this is where I may be alone—I thought it was actually pretty GOOD, in its own way. All of the characters are larger than life and have reasonably compelling motivations, so the whole thing because very fascinating in a pulpy way, like a trashy novel or soap opera. You can tell that it was written by a real novelist because as trashy and cheap as it gets, it remains really compelling. The other thing, and this was a real shock to me, is that Castle really knows how to compose a shot! I found myself with too many stills to record for taking off later, and every time I would pause I’d wonder at what nicely-composed shots they were. Take a look back over the pictures on this page and look at how well put together they are. So I’m duly impressed, and looking forward to other Castle films.

So yeah, I was expecting trashy fun with this, but I also have to say I expected it to be a little boring with maybe some camp value at the end, but was surprised to find it totally campy and goofy fun all the way through, genuinely intriguing in a pulpy way, with interesting, vivid characters and with numerous gorgeous shots. It’s an all-round winner!

Should you watch it: 

Yes you should. This is a very safe choice to have a few friends over for, especially if you’re into gay camp.