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When famed horror director/B-movie producer/shock pioneer William Castle approached Miss Mildred Pierce/Oscar winner/demented diva Joan Crawford about his newest picture project, Strait-Jacket, he explained that, she the star would play a woman in her Fifties. "Forties" was Joan's quick response, even though in 1964 the larger-than-life part-woman, part-gargoyle was a ripe 60. Fine, fine, fine. Castle conceded anything for Ms. Crawford, which was indeed the case with his Robert Bloch scripted film Strait-Jacket. A mean-spirited offshoot of superior psycho-hag masterpieces like Robert Aldrich's Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Strait-Jacket was really a Crawford-approved vehicle, right down to the lighting (of course), the hiring, and the firing — namely of her first co-star. As told in "Battle-Ax: The Making of Strait-Jacket" (included in this nice DVD package), Crawford didn't like the first luscious, curvaceous young thing who played her daughter, and so had her (ahem) axed from the project. No one in the documentary says why Joan didn't get on with the woman exactly, but apparently she wanted a statelier gal, hence the casting of the lovely Diane Baker (so arch eyed and kittenish in Hitchcock's Marnie). We also get a nice little glimpse into the talented, vizard charisma that is Joan in the disc's other special feature, with her costume and makeup tests. She's in full character, smoking sexily, and she believes she's the hottest thing in high heels, jangling her charm bracelet around all come-hither-boys. Crawford the star and Crawford the woman never wandered far from each other, making her alternately brilliant and terrifying. Stare at these tests and you'll think she just may be one of the most fascinating self-inventions ever to grace, or rather, claw her way across the silver screen. If you watch it more than three times, you just can't help but adore how wonderfully insane she seems. Whatever happened to actresses like Joan? They died away — torn down like the old hat resting atop the Brown Derby restaurant. In the new cinema of the '60s, Strait-Jacket is the procession towards that funeral, and Joan as Lucy is poignant, terrifying, and yes, funny with her portrayal of a woman who loses it when she finds her younger husband in bed with another girl. She grabs an ax (yep, you'll think of Faye Dunaway yelling "Christina get me the ax!") and hacks the lovers to bloody hell while her little daughter looks on. She's then shoved in a mental institution (which, looks truly horrifying in this film) and is finally released after a 20-year sentence. Upon release, she moves in with her brother, who is rather ironically played by Leif Erickson (Frances Farmer's ex-husband. One wonders if any guilt drifted across his mind whilst reading the script). Her daughter (Baker), now a grown woman and sculptress, re-unites with her tentative, insecure mother and helps her along. She even gives her a makeover to look exactly as she did when she hacked off her husband's head. She also encourages Mama to do some subtly unhealthy things. And then similar ax-murders begin popping up all over town. Hmmm. No surprises will be given away here, but upon first viewing, Strait-Jacket definitely marks you for at least part of your life. Crawford is excellent in her transition from saucy lady to crazy broad to shy hausfrau to delusional sexpot (her weird come-on to her daughter's boyfriend is deliciously disgusting), and she's really not as hammy as you'd think. The pacing is suspenseful and the story intriguing, and though some of Castle's effects are a bit cheap, there's something vaguely sinister about his fake heads and blood-squirting necks. It's not real imagery, but rather imagery that wakes you up from nightmares. It's real and unreal — just like Joan. Columbia TriStar's Strait-Jacket DVD presents a fine anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from the black-and-white source, with monaural audio (DD 2.0) and an array of subtitles. Supplements include the lively theatrical trailer as well as two other Castle previews and the short but entertaining "Battle Ax: The Making of Strait-Jacket," where Diane Baker and others wax nostalgic about the film, director Castle (who's viewed as one of the nicest guys in the business), and Joan's placement of her husband's Pepsi Cola company all over the film. Also here are Joan Crawford's unforgettable original Costume and Make-Up Tests and a small bit of film that shows Joan's ax-swinging screen test. A necessary dose of psychosis. Keep-case.
—Kim Morgan

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