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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

Strait-Jacket  (1964)

Reviewed for by Dustin Putman

The Film
3 Stars
(Release Date: August 21, 2018) – The pedigree behind 1964's "Strait-Jacket" is strong, simultaneously embracing and belying its B-movie reputation. A whodunit shocker directed by William Castle (1959's "House on Haunted Hill") and written by "Psycho" author Robert Bloch, the film arrived in theaters in January 1964—little more than 14 months after the critical and financial success of 1962's "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" By then, 57-year-old Joan Crawford's star was once again on the upswing, albeit now typecast in brusquely nicknamed "Hagsploitation" horror pictures. "Straight-Jacket" is one of the best of the lot, at once slick, atmospheric and deliciously overwrought.

Twenty years after committing the brutal axe murders of her unfaithful husband (an uncredited Lee Majors) and his mistress, Lucy Harbin (Joan Crawford) is released from an asylum and reunites with grown daughter Carol (Dianne Baker). Presumably rehabilitated, Lucy attempts to move on with her life, but little by little is inundated by haunting reminders of her sordid past. She thinks she hears little girls singing a jump-roping rhyme about her homicidal deeds. She wakes to disembodied heads in her bed, only for them to disappear. Meanwhile, new murders start up after her former doctor, Raymond Fields (Howard St. John), comes sniffing around, worried his patient is resorting to old ways.

An undoubted answer to the groundbreaking achievement of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece "Psycho," "Strait-Jacket" proves an effectively helmed knockoff, as well as a progenitor of the modern slasher subgenre—and make no mistake, there are scenes which incorporate the suspenseful conventions of stalk-and-slash fare found a decade later in 1974's "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" and 1974's "Black Christmas." Joan Crawford, who would collaborate again with director Castle on 1965's "I Saw What You Did," brings bravura high drama and tinges of camp to her performance as Lucy Harbin, a scene where she thirstily comes onto Carol's well-to-do beau Michael (John Anthony Hayes) a comic highlight. Most of the picture is treated more seriously, all the better for Castle to craft a number of stylishly ahead-of-their-time set-pieces of tension. As for the twist ending, it works well even today, over five decades later.

Blu-ray Picture/Sound

Making its Blu-ray premiere from Shout! Factory's illustrious horror imprint Scream Factory, "Strait-Jacket" is quite the looker in high-definition. This 1080p transfer is clean and at times even radiant, its only very minor debits being a soft-focus moment here and there (usually involving rear-screen projection effects) and a touch of mosquito noise in some daytime sky shots. Otherwise, there is virtually nothing to criticize about a home-video presentation showcasing the film's beautiful black-and-white photography and a substantial uptick in detail and clarity over its outdated standard-def DVD transfer from 2002. Color contrast is also top-notch, with deep blacks and a piercing grayscale. The DTS-HD Mono Master Audio is terrific in that it sounds accurate to source and features an even-handed aural mix. Dialogue, music and sound effects work in tandem while never overshadowing one another.

Blu-ray Features
  • Audio Commentary with Authors Steve Haberman and David J. Schow
  • "Joan Had Me Fired" - An Interview with Anne Helm (6:47, HD)
  • "On the Road with Joan Crawford" - An Interview with Publicist Richard Kahn (6:35, HD)
  • "Battle-Ax" - The Making of Strait-Jacket (14:40, HD)
  • Joan Crawford Costume and Make-up Tests (3:29, HD)
  • Ax-Swinging Screen Test (0:38, HD)
  • Trailers (2:38, HD)
  • Still Gallery (2:17, HD)
Bottom Line
"Strait-Jacket" is a mystery, a thriller, and an early slasher film all in one, led by Joan Crawford's slinky, committed turn as a former axe murderess who may or may not be losing her mind all over again. Stylish, eerie, and in some ways ahead of its time, the picture works as both a camp classic and a serious—albeit occasionally tawdry—tale of a woman on the verge. Chopping its way to Blu-ray from Scream Factory, the film has been treated to an excellent high-def transfer and comes with a number of informative and juicy special features. This is my favorite of Crawford's post-"What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" roles. The Blu-ray comes heartily recommended.

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© 2018 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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