'Strait-Jacket' screens Sunday at the Heights Theatre

It's Mommie Dearest meets Whatever Happened to Baby Jane this Halloween at the Heights Theater's screening of Strait-Jacket (1964), a gothic thriller written by Psycho author Robert Bloch. Joan Crawford stars this mother-daughter story that, unlike her Oscar-winning 1945 classic Mildred Pierce, casts her as a mom who comes close to the wire-hanger wielding harridan illustrated in real-life daugher Christina's memoir.

Crawford plays Lucy, a woman who has been released from an insane asylum 20 years after hacking to death her husband and his mistress (a charge to which Lucy insists she is innocent of). With nowhere else to go, she moves in with her daughter and her brother. In an effort to help Lucy regain the youth she lost during her incarceration, her daughter gives her an ultimate makeover, complete with jet-black hair-dye, pounds of makeup, and the billowy dresses she would have worn when young. The result, of course, drives her insane all over again, culminating in pathetic attempts by Lucy to seduce her daughter's fiance, giving longing looks at knives and hatchets, hearing mocking voices that bedevil her when alone, and dreams about severed heads in her bed.

Strait-Jacket was directed by William Castle, whose lasting legacy is the employment of tacky but inspired gimmicks that accompanied the screenings of his B-grade horror films. These included the skeletons that grazed the heads of audiences who attended The House on Haunted Hill and the joy buzzers that zapped unsuspecting moviegoers during showings of The Tingler.

Except for some promotional tour presentations where audience members were offered cardboard axes, Strait-Jacket limited its hijinks to those on screen (including a clever variation of the Columbia "torch lady" icon). This was in part due to Castle's desire to appeal to critics and more mature audiences, and at Joan Crawford's insistence that the movie's release be free of such tomfoolery. Her control of production is also evident in the prominent display of a six-pack of Pepsi bottles in one scene, and the casting of Pepsi-Cola Vice President Mitchell Cox as Lucy's doctor. Crawford at the time was on the board of directors of Pepsi-Cola and, thus, was responsible for what is arguably the first blatant product placement in film history.

The prominence of Pepsi on the set and absence of buzzers and skeletons in theaters does not take away from the campy gothicism and trashy thrills that drip from Strait-Jacket. Perhaps fueled by her company's product, Crawford gives it her melodramatic all as Lucy.

Perhaps neither Joan Crawford, nor William Castle, nor anyone else connected with this midnight treat deserve acclaim for this effort, but they are entitled to your attention this Halloween. Even though no gimmick was, in the end, associated with this particular piece of Castle-mania, will the folks at the Heights honor the director's memory with a jolt, zap, or other form of unwilling audience participation?

As you ponder this, here's Joan Crawford with a few choice words about, and shocking images from, her "latest motion picture":


Strait-Jacket screens at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, October 31 at the Heights Theatre 
(3951 Central Ave. NE, Columbia Heights). For more info, visit the theater's website.

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