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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
"When I put those clothes on, something happens to me....something frightening!"
DVD ReviewMaybe it's seeing Mommie Dearest too many times, but somehow, my perfect mental image of Joan Crawford is that on the DVD case here: screaming like a harpy and swinging an axe. Director William Castle didn't need a gimmick for Strait-Jacket. He had Joan.
When Lucy Harbin (Crawford) comes home unexpectedly, she catches young husband Frank (Lee Majors, in his first screen role) in bed with another woman. Being Joan, she grabs an axe and lops off their heads, in view of little daughter Carol. Twenty years later, Carol (Diane Baker) is grown up, living with an aunt and uncle, and engaged to young Michael Fields (John Anthony Hayes), though his wealthy parents don't quite approve of her farm roots. But Lucy doesn't seem quite stable, especially after Carol encourages her to wear clothes and her hair like she did years ago. When the doctor (Mitchell Cox) from the asylum shows up to check on Lucy, all hell breaks loose and the bodies start to pile up. Loyal Carol helps to cover for mom, but after confronted about her past by Michael's parents, there's no turning back.
Crawford, though she must have felt like she was slumming to be in a Castle picture, gives this everything she's got. In fact, I agree with the assessment in the documentary that she would have had an Oscar® nomination if this hadn't been a horror movie. She convincingly goes completely berserk, chopping at her unfaithful husband with gusto, yet also presenting a sympathetic, if not pathetic, character as the post-asylum Lucy. The torment of her returning madness is beautifully portrayed, as well as her shame at the fear of having to return to the madhouse. Particularly memorable are her clumsy drunken effort to seduce Michael and her conversation with the doctor. In the latter she beautifully combines brassy defiance with insecurity; fear and bitter unhappiness poking through momentarily. The supporting cast is rather bland, apparently at Crawford's insistence, so as not to take the spotlight off of her. Notable is a young (though already balding) George Kennedy as the hired hand, Leo Krause, who decides to take advantage of the body count and use it for blackmail purposes.
Appropriately enough, this picture has a somewhat schizoid feel about it. While obviously using the mental illness aspect to its fullest as an exploitation vehicle, it also manages to convincingly, and apparently with sincerity, show how painful discrimination against the mentally ill can be, and how harmful to their rehabilitation.
I wondered why so much of this film seemed familiar, but it wasn't clear until the featurette mentioned that it was written by Robert Bloch, author of Psycho. Then it clicked: Strait-Jacket was (with a few trimmings altered) virtually remade as Psycho II (1983)! It's odd comparing Crawford and Anthony Perkins, but it's pretty clear to me that Joan comes out on top. As much as I dislike her as an actress generally, she turns in a hell of a fine performance here. Keep an eye out for what has to be one of the earliest instances of product placement; Crawford was by this time married to the president of Pepsi-Cola, and she engineered a prominent placement of a six-pack of Pepsi as well as a single bottle!
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic widescreen picture generally looks fine, with plenty of detail and a good range of grays. However, the ample grain in the picture has turned into a compressionist's nightmare. The fact that this is only on a single-layer disc doesn't help, since the video bitrate is a meager 3 Mbps or lower for nearly the entire running time. The result is that any large surface is a veritable field of dancing pixels. If you can block this effect out, it looks great, but my eyes kept getting drawn back to the shimmering of the supposedly solid objects. This really should have been an RSDL release in order to accommodate the heavy grain without this severe artifacting.
Image Transfer Grade: C-
Audio Transfer Review: The 2.0 mono English track sounds quite good. Hiss and noise are minimal, and the dialogue comes through crystal clear. Lucy's ecstatic swing records sound terrific, as does the mournful sound of the wind blowing through the farmyard. A fine mono track.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring Mr. Sardonicus, 13 Ghosts
There are also some intriguing behind-the-scenes materials, such as a 03m:30s clip of makeup and costuming tests for Crawford. But the real gem is a brief snippet of test footage for one of the axe decapitations, with a body gouting far more blood than appears in the picture; apparently Castle wasn't quite ready to pioneer gore, leaving that to Herschell Gordon Lewis the next year with his Blood Feast.
Extras Grade: C+
Final CommentsA tour de force performance by Joan Crawford and some nice extras are somewhat diluted by an overly-compressed video transfer.
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