William Castle and the author of Psycho drive Joan Crawford insane.
Two of the greatest showman filmmakers ever were Alfred Hitchcock and William Castle. The men themselves and their personalities were often front and center in the promotional materials, but while Hitchcock got mainstream respect, it was Castle's lot to become a B-movie hero. That's not a bad thing at all - the man, his movies, and the gimmicks that regularly accompanied them ("ghosts" sent floating over House on Haunted Hill audiences on wires, vibrating seats at screenings of The Tingler, special ghost viewers made for 13 Ghosts) are well loved to this day.
Castle clearly took inspiration from Hitchcock, but it may have worked the other way around as well. It has been said that it was the success of the horror films and thrillers Roger Corman and Castle were making in the 1950s that inspired Hitchcock to make Psycho. What goes around comes around, because it was Psycho that inspired Castle to make Strait-Jacket four years later.
Strait-Jacket was such an attempt to make "the next Psycho" that Castle even got the novelist who wrote the Psycho source material to write the screenplay for his film.
Joan Crawford stars as Lucy Harbin, who becomes known as "The Love Slayer" when she returns home to find her younger husband Frank (Lee Majors) in bed with a former girlfriend and is so hurt that her mind snaps, she grabs an axe and hacks the pair to death. Unfortunately, Lucy and Frank's three-year-old daughter Carol witnesses this horrible crime of passion, and this is the last time she'll see her mother for decades.
Deemed unfit to stand trial, Lucy is sent to an asylum, while her daughter is raised by her brother Bill (Leif Erickson) and his wife Emily (Rochelle Hudson).
The story Bloch came up with for Strait-Jacket is actually similar to the screenplay Tom Holland would write for 1983's Psycho II: twenty years after the murders, Lucy is released from the asylum, but as the film plays out circumstances make the viewer wonder more and more if Lucy should have ever been released at all.
Her now-adult daughter (Diane Baker) is overjoyed to have Lucy back in her life, and immediately dives in to trying to make up for lost time, while also seemingly trying to make her mother over into the image she remembers from when she was three. She buys the gray-haired Lucy a dark wig, gets her a nice wardrobe, even returns to her the jangling jewelry she used to wear... the jewelry she was wearing while she chopped up Frank and his lover... Jewelry which makes so much noise, I theorize that it may have been what drove Lucy insane in the first place.
Looking and dressing like she used to also causes Lucy to mentally regress to the way she was before. Obviously, that's not good, since she was capable of snapping before. It starts to look like she may be close to snapping again, as a scrapbook Carol gave her is found with a knife stuck in it, all of the pictures of Frank within having been beheaded. Lucy has nightmares of her victims' severed heads, and auditory hallucinations (or are they?) of children singing a rhyme inspired by the murders. A rhyme which is actually just a paraphrase of a popular one about Lizzie Borden.
"Lucy Harbin took an axe, gave her husband forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave his girlfriend forty-one."
Lucy's precarious mental state isn't helped by Bill's sleazy farm hand Leo Krause (George Kennedy), who gleefully slaughters chickens in front of her and offers to let her hold the bloody axe.
Crawford had a lot of control over the movie, including script and cast approval. There had been another actress signed on to play Carol, but Crawford wanted Diane Baker in the role. She also personally cast the man who plays her psychiatrist. Crawford was on the board of directors at PepsiCo, and she gave the part of Dr. Anderson to the cola company's vice-president, Mitchell Cox.
It's when Anderson suggests that Lucy might have to go back to the asylum that, 51 minutes into the film, people who are perceived as threats to Lucy and Carol's happiness start getting knocked off one-by-one... with an axe.
Comparisons to Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece are unavoidable, but Strait-Jacket is a great little movie in its own right.
Crawford gives a fantastic performance as the gradually unravelling Lucy. George Kennedy's performance as Krause also has to be singled out for a mention; he makes the guy so slimy and creepy, he can even twist the word "Honey" into sounding like the worst thing a woman could be called.
The movie seems to make it crystal clear that Lucy is the one killing people throughout, but it may have more going on than you realize. There are some very stylish moments, and the black and white cinematography is gorgeous, with some wonderful use of shadows... particularly in the murder scenes.
There's a nice slasher-esque thrill to some of those kills, too. You could almost even consider Strait-Jacket to be an early slasher if you wanted to.
I highly recommend checking it out.