Strait-Jacket (1964): William Castle’s Horror Thriller Starring Joan Crawford and Diane Carroll


After the huge, unanticipated success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Joan Crawford and other older actresses, including Bette Davis and Stanwyck, made horror movies in the 1960s.

Strait-Jacket is an item of a 1960s sub-genre often referred to as “Grand Dame Guignol,”because it centers on mature, mentally instable women.

Released by Columbia, this horror thriller, starring Joan Crawford, was produced and directed by William Castle.  The screenplay was the first of two written for Castle by Robert Block; the other was The Night Walker.

Strait-Jacket marks the first big-screen appearance of Lee Majors in the uncredited role of Crawford’s husband.

Lucy Harbin has spent 20 years in a psychiatric ward for the axe-murdering of her husband (Lee Majors) and his mistress, after catching them in bed. Upon release, she moves into the farm of her brother Bill Cutler and sister-in-law Emily.

Lucy’s daughter Carol, a sculptor who was adopted by the Cutlers, also lives on the farm. Carol encourages her mother to dress and act as she did in the past. Lucy begins playing the vamp and makes passes at her daughter’s fiance Michael Fields. She then shocks his parents with a tantrum when they consider their son’s marriage to Carol.

A series of brutal axe-murders then begins. Lucy’s doctor, found in the freezer, is the first victim. All signs point to Lucy as the murderess, who some believe is still insane, and should be hospitalized.

The film’s climax reveals that the murders have actually been committed by Carol.  She has prompted her mother’s return to being a murderess by stoking Lucy’s anxieties. When Carol kills, she disguises herself as her mother, wearing a mask to look like her mother. All this has been done so that she could marry the handsome, wealthy man.

In the end, Lucy accepts responsibility for the illness of her daughter, who’s confined in the hospital.

Crawford replaced Joan Blondell in the role of Lucy Harbin after Blondell was injured at home. Crawford’s deal included script and cast approval, a $50,000 salary, and 15 percent of the profits.  Anne Helm, who was originally cast in the role as Carol, was replaced by Diane Baker; the two had appeared together in the film The Best of Everything (1959).

During the film’s original release, moviegoers were given little cardboard axes. At the end of the closing credits, the Columbia logo’s torch-bearing woman is shown in her traditional pose, but decapitated, with her head resting at her feet on her pedestal.

Critics disliked the film but praised Crawford’s performance.  Castle’s extensive promotion efforts, including a national tour with personal appearances by Crawford, helped the film become a huge commercial hit.