Strait-Jacket November 21, 2015
I hesitate to call William Castle an Alfred Hitchcock wannabe because he was so much more obsessed with the art of the gimmick, the extravaganza, of a release, than Hitchcock ever was. While Hitchcock dabbled in publicity stunts, most notably the loud secrecy he shrouded Psycho in upon release (audience members were not allowed to enter the screening late, critics had to see the film with the general public, etc.), he was more concerned with “playing the audience like a piano.” He was a cinematic genius with a rare gift of combining the thrills of commercial filmmaking with the ambition of the art-house.
Castle was another story. To say he loved the idea of making the very act of going to the movies into an event would be an understatement. He liked audience chatter, posters with bold exclamations, inflammatory critical reviews — to him, any publicity was good publicity. Today, he stands not as one of the leading figures of 1960s horror but as one of the leading figures of the 1960s B-movie circuit, from which he differentiated himself by plaguing his projects with different gimmicks that piqued the interests of audiences looking for a cheap thrill.
His second big hit, 1959’s wonderful House on Haunted Hill, cued skeletons attached to flimsy strings to pop out at the audience during the climactic death scene of Vincent Price’s onscreen wife; with 13 Ghosts (1960), the public was provided with 3D glasses that supposedly caused one to see ghouls on the screen during the most appropriate of times — without them, a piece to the puzzle would be out of place.
I cannot say that any of Castle’s films are masterpieces, but many of them remain sturdy as appetizing camp-fests that retain the buzzy magic that surrounded a Castle release during its first few weeks in the theater. Two of his best films, 1961’s Homicidal and 1964’s Strait-Jacket, are either works of chintzy art or chintzy trash depending on your angle. One is a Psycho homage (rip-off), the other a Joan Crawford vehicle (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? success parasite), and though neither passes as something even relatively minor in the ‘60s thriller zeitgeist, they are, nevertheless, bonkers in ways only Castle could perfect.
Homicidal stars Jean Arless (aka Joan Marshall) as Emily, a comely blonde who, within the first half-hour of the film, offers a stranger to marry her for $2,000, savagely stabs the justice of the peace just as he’s performing the ritual, flees to a nearby city where she’s taking care of an elderly woman who has recently suffered a stroke (Eugenie Leontovich), and continues on a rampage of homicidal intent.
With its affection for cross-dressing plot twists, mysterious mansions, and platinum blondes, Homicidal is none too subtle in the way it takes influence from Psycho. But surprising is the way it maintains a convincingly pulpy tone throughout its length, presenting itself as a disreputable work of art that you might have found otherwise in a drug store comic in the years of soda jerks and Coca-Cola. Marshall gives a deliciously hammy performance, and Castle, gimmicks aside, adorns the scenery with swampy shadows and a slightly berserk tone that suggests that he carried a great deal more talent than he was ever credited for during his career.
Strait-Jacket, on the other hand, isn’t quite the shitty masterpiece Homicidal is, as it is so much about Joan Crawford that we sometimes forget that Castle was trying to make a financially successful horror movie with a timeless star, not make a vehicle for a timeless star with a craving for horror. In it, Crawford portrays Lucy Harbin, an axe-murderer returning home after a twenty-year stay at an insane asylum. Staying with her now-grown daughter (Diane Baker), who is in a serious relationship, she attempts to win back the life she never got to live — but just as she begins to get acquainted with being “normal” again do axe murders start to plague the area, with all evidence leading straight back to her.
Strait-Jacket has flashes of campy horror greatness (who can forget the epic showdown between Crawford and the murderer toward the end of the film, or the way the former still manages to chew the scenery after the identity of the killer is revealed), but it doesn’t quite have the inquisitive joy of Castle’s other pictures. Because Crawford was such a force-of-nature during its productional process, it feels like a film made by a woman desperate to grab our attention in a bananas role rather than the work of a schlock master normally auteuristic in his vision. And to see Castle give away much (but not all) of his spotlight seeking charisma is a shame. But the end twist is effective, and Crawford, despite almost turning Strait-Jacket into a one-woman show, is always an actress adept at commanding our attention away from anybody else on screen.
Alfred Hitchcock will forever live in the memories of cinephiles all over the country as one of the film’s greatest directors, and Castle, his less-talented but charming peer, will perhaps only grow as a cult-figure as time passes, his at one-time excusable lack of talent made up by knack for publicity more noticeable than ever. But showmen such as Castle would never make it in Hollywood if not for an ounce of artistic strength, and Homicidal and Strait-Jacket, flaws and all, are hard proof.