Strait-Jacket / Berserk! [Double Feature]

Studio: Mill Creek Entertainment

Dec 13, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Lucille Fay LeSueur will remain one of Hollywood’s brightest and acrimonious stars, boasting an outstanding cinematic career in tandem with her infamous private life overflowing with alcohol abuse, mental illness, and child neglect, extending over four decades. In the early 1920s, after briefly working in a chorus line in Detroit and New York City, Crawford was offered a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to star as a body double for actress Norma Shearer in Monta Bell’s Lady of the Night (1925). After a rather silly “Name the Star” reader contest in Movie Weekly, Crawford’s iconic stage name was finally chosen, Joan Crawford - though she was originally not at all fond of her new moniker, it gave her some security in furthering her film career. Renowned for her tireless, self-fueled promotional campaigns, Crawford rose to prominence in the late 1920s as a consistent romantic lead to several of MGM’s male stars, and she continued her powerful streak as one of the few actors successfully able to transition between silent cinema and the early talkies of the 1930s. She would top the bill in many critical and commercial successes, most notably her multiple filmic pairings with Clark Gable.

However, by the time the 1940s had rolled around, Crawford had gone from being Life magazine’s 1937 “Queen of the Movies” to veritable box office poison, eventually culminating in MGM buying her out of her remaining contract for $100,000 in 1943. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Crawford would kill and revive her career with some astonishing regularity, arguably owing most of her acclaim to her tour-de-force performances in Mildred Pierce (1945), Possessed (1947), Sudden Fear (1952), and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), with the former three movies earning her Academy Award nominations (with Mildred Pierce being her sole career win). Fresh off her glowing success and well-publicized feud with Baby Jane co-star Bette Davis, Crawford would continue her great affinity for the horror and thriller genres with her substantia role and production involvement of Strait-Jacket (1964).

Penned by Psycho (1960) screenwriter Robert Bloch, and directed and produced by William Castle (the once great king of genre films), this low-budget B-movie would capitalize on the genre trope seemingly invented overnight by Baby Jane’s immeasurable success (a film which Castle reportedly adored) - the psycho-biddy. Though having its inspirations in many previous works, psycho-biddy films primarily feature a mentally unstable middle-aged woman attempting to relive her glamorous past, often placed in situations that are physically and mentally detrimental to them and those around them. In Strait-Jacket, Crawford stars as Lucy Harbin, a woman confined to an asylum for roughly twenty years, convicted of axe-murdering her husband (Lee Majors) and his mistress. She is released roughly 20 years later into the custody of her daughter Carol (Diane Baker), and brother Bill (Leif Erickson) and his wife . While she tries to acclimate back into a somewhat normal life, everything is upset when a new string of axe-murders begin.

Like all Castle genre films, Strait-Jacket also had marketing gimmicks to sell tickets, including giving moviegoers small cardboard axes as they entered the theater and in-person appearances by Crawford at screenings. While releasing to pale (and even scathing) reviews by critics who lambasted the its plot, dialogue, and violence, the film was an absolute box office hit.

When seen in context of today, the film is almost laughably tame comparatively to its sensationalist ad campaigns promising “vividly” depicted axe-murders, which all occur deep in black-and-white shadows, through heavy implication, or via hysterically cheap mannequins. However, for the time, I can completely see how this film could have been considered shocking on some base level, especially considering the Motion Picture Production Code was still the standard of movie-making morals. The characters can be wading waist-deep in ham at times, but the superb cast makes the most of the threadbare plotting and characterization. If it were not obvious that this was written by Bloch, the twist shocker ending definitely might ring a few bells. The story surprising us with a subversive final twist that easily supplants expectations while bringing clarity to all previous ambiguous sequences (of which there is a considerable frustrating amount).

After the success of Strait-Jacket, Crawford would work with Castle once more the following year in I Saw What You Did (1965), as well as a few other smaller projects, before starring in her second-to-last big screen role in Jim O'Connolly’s 1967 thriller Berserk! as the circus ringmistress Monica Rivers. The British feature would release to mixed reviews yet utterly fantastic box office receipts, eventually ranking in the top one hundred most profitable movies in 1968, and cementing itself as the most successful film ever released by Herman Cohen (the film’s writer and producer).

When tightrope walker Gaspar the Great (Thomas Cimarro) falls to his death in the opening sequence, foul play is suspected almost at once. Monica finds ways of playing up the tragedy and danger to attract ticket sales, including booking Frank Hawkins (Ty Hardin) a handsome tightrope walker who performs over a floor full of actual bayonets. When further bodies start piling up around the camp, other circus workers start suspecting their boss of wrongdoing, while her newly-expelled daughter Angela (Judy Geeson) arrives with a desire to join her mother’s enterprise. Comparatively to Strait-Jacket, whose world seemed completely artificial and devoid of any believable life, Berserk! is the exact opposite; brimming with a fascinating world of carnies, circus acts, and roving crowds of spectators. Everything seems just so vivid and alive (and that isn’t the beautiful Technicolor palette talking), with each actor bringing a thrilling vitality to what is done and said.

However, where Berserk! thrives in world-building, it simply fails at instilling dread, unease, and is constantly overburdened with veritable avalanches of exposition. Also, while this film’s ending may come as a surprising twist, it hardly has the satisfying payoff that Strait-Jacket managed to pull off. The ending impresses less like a twist reveal, and more like shoddy writing cribbing theatrics and thematic elements from previous, far more competent works.

As both films play with the (then) newly created psycho-biddy archetype, as well as serving as early filmic experiments of gaslighting as a horror and thriller plot mechanic, Mill Creek Entertainment has seen it fit to release both of these ‘60s cinematic oddities on a single Blu-ray as a Psycho-Biddy Double Feature. No special featurettes or commentary tracks, no chapter library or language selection - both films and an option to enable subtitles on a single, static menu. Though the films have definite campy attraction, the real intrigue lies in the production and impact of said films, as Crawford’s story (not at all fully covered here) surrounding these projects are some of the more interesting Hollywood tales that currently exists in a publicably consumable record.

While Strait-Jacket and Berserk! have some commendable elements, mainly buttressed by their excellent supporting casts and stylish productions, neither are strong enough in any particular regard to warrant the current asking price.



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