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William Castle’s 1964 B-film, Strait-Jacket, is a psychological horror that follows Lucy Harbin (Joan Crawford, in the worst wig of her career). Recently released from a psychiatric hospital, having decapitated her husband and his mistress in front of her three-year-old child, Harbin moves back in with her daughter, Carol (Diane Baker). However, upon her release, the murders start again.
As horrifying as all this sounds, Castle’s film is more camp-horror than a profound shocker. This is primarily due to the film’s low budget, its slasher elements slightly ridiculous, with cartoonish, bloodless beheadings. But this only adds to the fun of Castles post-Psycho horror romp in a film that never really takes itself seriously. Written by Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho – Strait-Jacket has a lot in common with Hitchcock’s classic. Its narrative, feeling like Psycho’s less scary twin despite some visual shocks and a twisty ending. Yet it quickly forgoes its horror in favour of the ridiculous reasonably early on, marking it out from Hitchcocks 1960 masterpiece.
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Strait-Jacket follows the so-called hagsploitation trend set by Robert Aldrich’s cult classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). This was a horror subgenre that predominantly featured a formerly glamorous older woman who was mentally unbalanced, joyously tormenting all those around her. There’s no doubt that Joan Crawford proved to be an excellent choice for the lead; her delightful performance certainly elevating the film. However, her performance is also surrounded by a hint of sadness, as the parallels between Crawford’s declining career and her character’s inability to be taken seriously by society haunt each scene. Throughout the film, Castle tries to surround his narrative with themes of trauma, internal pain and personality disorder to varying degrees of success. But in the end, Strait-Jacket can’t help but succumb to Castle’s B-Movie past, and while that may not lead to anything ground-breaking, the ride is certainly fun.