WILLIAM CASTLE was mostly popular for his laughable gimmicks that he staged for the die-hard fans of his colourful palette of horror films. He never thought that he would initiate a genre unto itself, by the name of Hagsplotation or the Grand Guignol cinema. The original of that kind of movie was ‘Whatever happened to Baby Jane?’ (1962.) by ROBERT ALDRICH, but it was Castle, who kept the dice rolling. The genre domesticated older female Hollywood icons as a killer in a slasher flick. Crazy mothers, cheated wives, tormented sisters and many other Looney Toons gave rave performances for something, which is considered a Z-movie category. In STRAIT-JACKET (1964.), also a low budget picture, JOAN CRAWFORD played her role like she’s a part of a major production, and it is also well-known that she controlled many aspects in making it and that are the only things that really work inside this sloppy dish. The story is pretty simple, a former murderess returns home to her daughter after twenty years, but as soon as she returns, murders start to happen again. Forgotten, but not worthless, this movie has its share of bright moments and shouldn’t be ignored.
LUCY HARBIN’S CHARACTER
Cheating can be very hard to get over and LUCY (Joan Crawford) knows the best medicine for broken hearts. While others try to drown their sorrow inside a bottle of scotch, LUCY prefers to take action and stand up against that kind of injustice with a wielding axe in her hands. By axing her 7-year younger husband and his unfortunate former girlfriend, she earned a twenty-year time-out inside an asylum.
WHY DID SHE DO IT?
‘She is born and raised on a farm. Parents: poor.
Education: meagre. Very much a woman and
very much aware of the fact.’
She isn’t aware, in fact, she is a very shy woman. After she left the farm, she got married. Her then-husband was an older man, which her parents chose for her. He died not long afterwards, and she was available again. However, as a shy woman that grew up on a farm, she didn’t know how to seduce men. Therefore, she had to learn the way of seducing. Her method was getting all dressed up, pretending to be the most confident woman in the world and always to make the first move.
‘When I put those clothes on, something
happens to me. Something frightening.’
It is unknown how many fellows she seduced with that method, but we can see, she was successful with her sweetheart, HENRY HARBIN (Lee Majors), her second husband. He, in turn, married her just because he was a gold-digger and he wanted her property. In the meantime, LUCY liked to be in the centre of attention, she likes to be adored, so her pretending switched to being that woman, until she caught her husband cheating.
After twenty years in the hellhole, she wiped out every ounce of confidence she possessed and came out as her true self, the very shy and nervous woman that is most insecure about herself.
As a new beginning, her daughter CAROL (Diane Baker) took her shopping. In the end of the movie, we learn that CAROL forced her to buy that specific dress and the wig, to relive the past, but the problem is that Lucy began to behave like in the past. Every audience member was shocked and perplexed by the sudden change in character as MICHAEL appeared. In the blink of an eye, she regained confidence and tried to seduce MICHAEL, even though CAROL is standing right there, LUCY forced herself upon the man, just as she learned how to do it twenty years ago. LUCY has a switch that goes on and off, and that afternoon it switched on.
‘My mother, a murderess. And now you know.’
CAROL’s narration at the beginning of the movie explained to MICHAEL and to the audience who LUCY was, but the last time she saw her mother was as a child, so she has only half of the facts right.
’20 years of pure hell. But I’m not ashamed.
I’m all right now. I’m all right.’
SYMBOLISM AND METAPHORS
First of the bat, the names of the characters have a deeper meaning.
LUCY – is a form of Lucian and means ‘the light‘, because we all know she is the star of the picture and she sees the light at the end of the tunnel of depression and tries to enjoy her freedom.
CAROL – her name is Gaelic and means ‘the champion‘, and it is rather fitting, because she wants to get the price, her fiancé Michael and she puts every thought into getting him to be her husband.
THE SURNAME HARBIN – means ‘little bright warrior‘ in the old German language, and is exactly how these women behave. They are both intelligent and they fight for their rights to be happy.
Next up, the paintings that are in the beginning of the movie are a metaphor for ‘Murder is a piece of art’. It represents CAROL’s perfect plan to use her mother for her twisted ideas, and we know CAROL loves to make sculptures, so it seems obvious that the art connection is suggesting she can paint too.
This scene is highly metaphorical, showing both Harbin women, behind a fence. That shot is explaining how both are guilty and need to be locked away behind real bars. The problem is, it’s so early in the movie, that you can tell that CAROL is a loony too.
The dress that LUCY wears has a flower pattern that actually remind of bloodstains. There is another occasion were bloodstains are mentioned. In a casual talk with MICHAEL’S parents:
MICHAEL’S MOTHER: ‘They say cold water is very good if you
use it right away. It even work with bloodstains.
MICHAEL’S FATHER: Now, there is a morbid little household hint for you.’
Since ROBERT BLOCH (screenwriter, Psycho) wrote the screenplay, many familiar plot elements are reused from PSYCHO (1960.). Conflicts with the mother, displaying the unconscious, trauma from the childhood, a fetish on mother’s clothes, weapons ala Freud/Lacan/Jung, with which the man is castrated (in Psycho it’s a knife, in Straightjacket an axe) and an ending scene that explains the plans, motifs and desires of our beloved horror icons.
When CAROL takes her mother to meet MICHAEL’S parents, LUCY spilt coffee on her dress and had to change in the dressing room. This room has no windows, is very restricted and has black and white stripes on the walls. LUCY gets a panic attack, from which the audience understands, that this room is similar to the rooms in the asylum. But it’s also showing a personal problem too. From the high angle shot of the room, the stripes point to LUCY. That means she is in the centre of attention, but she doesn’t want to be, like she said before going into the mansion. This room is an indication that something negative is about to happen and all hell breaks loose. MICHAEL’S parents start to play good/bad cop and interrogate LUCY about all the embarrassing facts from her life.
NO PUN INTENDED
Murder jokes are present throughout the movie. No character seems to watch their language when in company with a rehabilitated murderess. They don’t show her the proper respect and the choice of words seem like an inside gag.
‘Come in here, I know she’s dying to see you!’
‘Pay no attention to him, he has the instincts of a killer.
Inherited from his mother no doubt.’
Even the surprise CAROL made for her mother is a bit over the top. She made a sculpture of LUCY’S head.
‘DOCTOR ANDERSON: What are you making?
LUCY: I don’t know yet, I have to find a pattern!’
‘What is all this silence back there? Just
remember we’re going to a party,
not a funeral.’
There are many unforgiving mistakes made in this movie, so it’s regarded more like a camp film, than a serious A-list motion picture. Although Joan Crawford delivers an unbelievable Oscar-worthy performance, which is not a small task I might add, but the movie has to deal with some stupid Oscar-worthy failures.
The biggest mistake is the superimposed picture of young CAROL over the picture of her mother in a straitjacket. If you blink, there is a chance you might not see it, but other unfortunate audience members are left with the feeling that adult CAROL is not what she seems. This overlapping of shots causes the brain to combine the two, suggesting that CAROL will have the same faith as her mother, and throughout the movie, there are many different signs, which confirm that suspicion.
We all know that this movie wasn’t an expensive major blockbuster picture and based on that, the director should have made different decisions. ‘If you don’t have the money, don’t try to serve us, honey.’ Two words: Fake heads. They linger too long in the frame and the audience becomes aware that the heads are fake and the scare factor is instantly gone.
The mouth seducing moment. Big no, no. Although, it is very well acted, it really is inappropriate, so much that moviegoers haven’t and shouldn’t take it seriously.
For a picture that advertises the horror level as vividly depicting axe murders, the execution is rather tame. No pun intended. There is no gore, no creepy music and the heads are visibly fake. ‘But it’s the 60s, they weren’t that gruesome in that time‘, you might say, but remember that Psycho was shot four years prior to Strait-jacket and the murders are still hard to watch.
The connections to Psycho are too obvious, besides Robert Bloch writing the screenplay and the title alluding to a term connected to an asylum (Psycho/Strait-Jacket).
There is the scene with the shower, which is a hint, dressing up as the parent is also evident and as we already established the last scene where everything needed some kind of explaining. A lesser-known film NIGHTMARE (1964.), made in the same year, had also a theme of pretending to be someone else, just to get something in return. This movie play out as if it were portraying the years after LUCY is sent to the asylum and before she returned home. In Nightmare, a young student JANET (Jennie Linden) has nightmares about her mother that is locked up in an asylum. The memory haunts her, until she finds out that two people close to her staged the nightmares she’s having. They wanted to take away the property, belonging to JANET. The mood is the same as in Strait-jacket and ends in a similar note.
The nursery rhyme, that causes LUCY to have a panic attack, is a variation on the nursery rhyme that describes LIZZIE ANDREW BORDEN’S real-life murders. LUCY’S nursery rhyme:
‘LUCY HARBIN TOOK AN AXE
GAVE HER HUSBAND 40 WHACKS
WHEN SHE SAW WHAT SHE HAD DONE
SHE GAVE HIS GIRLFRIEND 41′
And this is Lizzie’s:
‘LIZZIE BORDEN TOOK AN AXE
AND GAVE HER MOTHER FORTY WHACKS
WHEN SHE SAW WHAT SHE HAD DONE
SHE GAVE HER FATHER FORTY ONE’
This movie has more to offer than it meets the eye. William Castle was indeed an entertainer with the talent to keep the audiences mesmerized. Besides the things that make this picture a feast for camp-fans, it is a pleasure to watch Joan Crawford bring an A-list performance to the table. She carries the film as her intense but sane personality, a true classic in the Hagsplotation genre.
‘We’re going to the movies. There is a murder
mystery down at the drive in. Nice and gory.’