Saturday, May 8, 2021

Americana Spookerama: Strait-Jacket (1964)

The question of whether the horror genre is ultimately conservative or subversive has probably been over-emphasized by some scholars, considering that there are conservative works, subversive ones, and ones with elements of both. Sometimes terror or suspense, similarly to the murder in a traditional mystery novel, appears as a disruption to be dealt with. When order and normalcy are ultimately restored, the work may seem to veer toward the conservative, but larger underlying problems may be revealed in the process.

William Castle’s Strait-Jacket, a slightly Johnny-come-lately collaboration with Robert Bloch, four years after Psycho, is in this tradition. The horrific parts of the plot appear as an intrusion into everyday life, but are also motivated by, embedded in, the structure of that everyday life. Its climax involves a violent, potentially subversive reversal of expectations, which is then followed by an optimistic coda, leaving us with a meditation on the complexity of the American family and the American Dream.  

The film starts abruptly, with father of the year Lee Majors (in an uncredited debut) leaving his young daughter home alone, while he gets drunk and brings a young woman home from the bar. Witnessing the infidelity would probably be traumatic enough for the child, but then her mother comes home early from a trip.

Joan Crawford is glamorous as Lucy, a 1940s farm wife whose introduction emphasizes her disadvantages in life. Uneducated, grown up poor, married off young by her parents to an older man, she now has property, fancy clothes, and a young, sexy second husband, so that “at last she had what she wanted out of life.” When she finds her cheating husband and his lover in bed (asleep on their backs, fully clothed, probably the placate the censors), she murders them both with an ax, and is taken away in the titular strait-jacket.

The combination of an irresponsible, cheating husband, and a woman whose struggles and insecurities have brought her to a psychotic break, lead to the violent fracture of the nuclear family, as their daughter witnesses the dramatically broken home. Obviously this is very different from divorce, an event increasingly part of the American cultural landscape, but there may be some symbolic resonance, an acting-out of violent emotions of betrayal and loss.

This film’s all-American setting is more down-home than the others we’ve looked at, moving from this isolated farm to the one where Crawford’s daughter Carol has been raised by her aunt and uncle.

The rich boy Carol is in love with has a pompous (but apparently well-meaning) father and a snobbish mother, elegantly dressed and bejeweled, who drink Scotch in their palatial home, but their money comes from the dairy business, and they eagerly show the neighbors a new “cow barn.” These scenes show multiple sides of American agriculture, upholding values of self-sufficiency and family togetherness, but also a business that can bring material success and a separation between the social classes.

At the more modest country house where Carol grew up, everyone is cheerful, certain that “everything’s going to work out just fine” when Lucy is released from the mental hospital, except for Crawford’s insecure figure of gloom. Unnerved by the casual violence of farm life, she’s an ideal red herring when fresh ax murders inevitably occur, but she remains unexpectedly sympathetic. No longer a flashy party girl, she is a respectable-looking matron, and this transformation is a key plot point.

Twenty years ago, trying to distance herself from the hard times in her past, she just wanted to have a good time, and a life full of bright clothes, upbeat music, dancing and cocktails. Part of her still wants to have these things, but the film largely seems to agree with her psychiatrist that it’s a healthier path for her to act her age, with somber dresses and a quiet demeanor.

These reminders that “you can’t turn back the clock” sit alongside Lucy’s attempts to express her feelings and set boundaries, but she’s easily manipulated by social expectations, and especially by the desire to make her daughter happy. When she tries, rightly, to escape a triggering social situation, Carol responds with the commonplace pressure that “they’re expecting us,” and she continually encourages her mother’s fun-loving but inappropriate persona. These mixed messages are symbolized by the jangling bracelets that were Lucy’s trademark, evoking both the enjoyment of life and dark memories of past trauma.

While Anthony Perkins is likeable in Psycho, he does let the mask drop early on. As Carol, Diane Baker (best known then for playing Anne Frank), is as warm, pleasant, and wholesome as a farm girl-next-door could be, and all of her actions early in the film could be plausibly motivated by good intentions.

This makes it more of a surprise when her understandable efforts to bond with her mother, in memories of the past and an almost clichéd montage of shopping and make-overs, are revealed as a calculated attempt to unhinge her. Carol’s madness is completely covered up, although close inspection after the fact does expose a certain manic quality in her performance. Even someone who seems perfectly well-adjusted, having bravely overcome a traumatic past, can still be permanently scarred by it. 

Like Psycho, Strait-Jacket hinges on parent/child dynamics and multi-generational mental illness, but the mother/daughter relationship gives it a different tone. Without the Oedipal implications, Carol's dressing as her mother to commit violent crimes instead echoes more clearly the common idea that children in some sense “turn into” their parents, and what that means in the face of trauma and negative parental influence.

Considering the importance of her physical appearance, it makes sense that Lucy’s eventual freak-out takes place within the crazy patterns of an over-decorated dressing room: just one of the domestic spaces of a comfortable home, along with the bedrooms, bathrooms, and closets, that will become sinister in the conclusion of the film.

Crawford’s speech during her break-down is refreshingly honest, and hearkens back to the description of her hard-knock life in the beginning of the film: “My girl is going to have what she wants out of life. She is. I was cheated. But she’s not going to be.” Her mother’s daughter, Carol’s murder spree was similarly motivated. She wasn’t about to be thwarted from achieving her dreams, even if that meant murdering her boyfriend’s parents and framing her mother to do that.

Despite all this, the film ends on a strangely optimistic note, with a cheerful musical fanfare and Lucy, aglow with purpose, dedicating herself to helping her daughter. This ending suggests a conservative intent, with normalcy and order restored, and Lucy’s character solidified in a respectable, maternal role. But Baker’s likeability and Crawford’s sympathetic qualities, both of them surprisingly relatable despite their brutal ax murders, keep us in mind of the factors within the apparently orderly normal life that brought them to such dark points.

In The American Dream: A Cultural History, Lawrence R. Samuel describes an important part of the concept as “the idea that one can, through dedication and with a can-do spirit, climb the ladder of success and reach a higher social and economic position. For many in both the working class and the middle-class, upward mobility has served as the heart and soul of the American Dream, the prospect of ‘betterment’ and to ‘improve one’s lot’ for oneself and one’s children much of what this country is all about” (p. 7).  Both the women of Strait-Jacket are striving for this version of the American Dream. But as Samuel adds, the problem comes in when “our mythology (is) mistaken for a promise” (ibid).

Americana Spookerama: Macabre (1958)

Released the same year as The Return of Dracula (1958), William Castle’s Macabre is the film that originally sparked my interest in the idea of small-town horrors, although in revisiting it, I can see that in some ways it takes a different approach, not quite fitting in. Apart from the opening, and some abrupt flashbacks, the film takes place at night, giving it a certain morbid atmosphere and a film noir feeling.

Castle was already an industry veteran when, inspired by an enthusiastic audience reaction to the thriller Diabolique, he entered the genre of low-budget horror where he would find his greatest success. This film also marked the beginning of his penchant for promotional PR gimmicks, with an insurance policy against death by fright, and the filmmaker arriving at theaters in a hearse. It also contains a dramatically ticking clock that counts down the hours to the film’s conclusion, and ends with a narrator who addresses the audience directly, asking them not to reveal the ending: “It will spoil the enjoyment of it.” 

Despite this entertaining ballyhoo and the film’s importance in Castle’s career, Macabre has never received the attention of its more well-known counterparts. Other of the director’s famous thrillers have been commercially available on VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray, and The House on Haunted Hill and 13 Ghosts received big-budget remakes in the ‘90s. The sole legitimate commercial release of Macabre, however, has been through the Warner Archives, on DVD-R, although it is now available on some streaming services as well.

The film is surprisingly low-key, which may explain why it’s not as fondly remembered as some of Castle’s other efforts. It’s more of a drama than a full-fledged horror film, although there is plenty of spooky ambiance in the cemetery scenes, and one jarring shock sequence.

As in Paul Landres’ The Vampire, the protagonist is a small-town doctor and single parent to a preteen girl. Dr. Barrett is an outsider who married a local girl, and stuck around after her early death. Now he’s juggling an elegant (but apparently not entirely public) fiancée with the girl-next-door nurse who’s practically a member of the family. His dishonesty with these women is fairly subtle: when the fiancée suggests he’s leading the nurse on, he says that including the other woman was his daughter’s idea, which the audience knows is a lie, although it would be easy not to catch that.

A set of briskly introduced but fully differentiated characters is brought in, including an excellent Jim Backus as the menacing sheriff, and before long, nurse Polly answers the phone, and learns that the doctor’s daughter has been buried alive.

The screenplay, by frequent Castle collaborator Robb White in his first film work, was based on the novel The Marble Forest, later reprinted as The Big Fear; while it changes some key plot points, the film stays true to the book’s general tone. Co-written by a group of mystery writers under the pseudonym Theo Durant, the novel was published in 1951 but set in 1948, and openly engages with some major themes of the genre, including these evocative descriptions of the setting:

“There was his own house again, placid, glimmering white among rain-drenched shrubs. There was the porch light, burning with a steady and commonplace glow that belied terror or tragedy” (p. 23). As the night wears on, with characters trying to find the buried child before it’s too late, “the sight of his white house gave him a sick feeling of despair. It looked … calm and cheerful with its shaded lights, so that the evening took on the quality of a nightmare in which one wanders hopelessly from one half-familiar scene to another, to another and back again; all of them a little wrong, growing hideous at least through sheer recurrence” (p. 114). 

In a bleak vision of human nature, the sleepy small town is revealed as a place where the doctor can realistically assume someone hates him enough to bury his 3-year-old daughter. He considers his patients, “sane, decent people with sane, everyday ills. But one of those ordinary faces was a mask for hate, for a warped, pitiless mind,” counting “at least four good, right upright citizens near enough to that, full of hate, full of sadism, on the borderline” (p. 34, 43). Barrett has been unfairly blamed for some patient deaths, and for reporting another doctor for potential malpractice; interestingly, one of these grudges involves the suicide of a young woman who he refused to help with an illegal abortion.

A version of this speech and this subplot exist in the film, attaching it to Nancy, the little girl’s live-fast-die-young aunt, a blind woman who’d been having an affair with Backus, although she declares the baby’s father is a “person or persons unknown.” 

Various personal dramas – unrequited love, unwanted pregnancy, conflicted loyalties and well-founded suspicions – all lead to the overgrown and atmospheric cemetery, full of dry ice and ancient mausoleums. Macabre seems in some ways less connected to the wholesome settings of Paul Landres’ vampire tales than it is to the contemporary Peyton Place (published in 1956), with the legacy of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street hovering behind them. These works portray the small town as a quaint-looking hotbed of moral hypocrisy, filled with the festering, petty hostilities of people with constrained lives in close quarters.

After several attempts to find the little girl before it’s too late, the main characters attend Nancy’s peculiar midnight funeral, in an extreme form of keeping up appearances. They go through the motions, covering up their trauma, afraid that if people knew what was going on, legalities might prevent them from digging up more graves.

In a major twist (changed from the novel), the kidnapping is revealed to be a hoax. The doctor has drugged and hidden his own daughter, using the situation to frighten his wealthy father-in-law to death. Macabre expands on The Vampire’s portrayal of a threat that originates with a respected member of the community. This time, there’s no Jekyll/Hyde formula to create sympathy for the villain. Instead, the respectable man is simply deceiving the people around him about his character and willing to commit murder for personal gain, which gives the conclusion a darker, more cynical quality. Just as Dr. Barrett is not what he seems, the small corpse they finally find in Nancy’s grave isn’t what it seems: a gruesome wax doll, rather than a dead daughter, which nonetheless provides the film’s biggest scare.

Sociologists like Stephanie Coontz, in her influential work The Way We Never Were, have argued that the 1950s was the time when the nostalgic view of a particular American culture, made up of complacent nuclear families in a prosperous middle-class, was invented. If that’s the case, then the depictions seen even in low-budget horror films were creating this image in front of their audiences’ eyes.

At the same time, in Rational Fears: American Horror in the 1950s, scholar Mark Jancovich reminds us that evidence shows “people were not so complacent in the 1950s as it is often suggested” (p. 22), often expressing “a deep-seated anxiety” with the conditions of contemporary life. That anxiety is often found lurking around the edges of the “normal life” that the 19050s media so often depicted, and the darkness underlying that normality is seen in a film like Macabre, where its clean-cut, close-knit community is a place, in the end, where no one seems entirely innocent.

Americana Spookerama: The Return of Dracula (1958)

Director Paul Landres and screenwriter Pat Fiedler followed up 1957’s The Vampire with a second foray into the American Gothic that directly mixes traditional supernatural tropes with a contemporary small-town setting. This time, the vampire wasn’t created by modern science, but instead is from the “old country,” and does all the things an audience expects: he sleeps in a coffin, suspiciously avoids mirrors, and hypnotizes young women into doing his bidding. 

All this takes place, though, in a California town described as “most picturesque,” and this Dracula, stealing the identity of an Eastern European artist, finds himself in the bosom of a nosy, cozy American family, named -- two years before the airing of The Andy Griffith Show -- Mayberry. There’s a blustery widowed matriarch who bakes blueberry pies, a starry-eyed teenage daughter, and a rambunctious, Opie-like young son. Dracula could pack up and leave at any time, which seems like it would uncomplicated his life, but he does have vampire hunters on his trail, posing as immigration officials, and the Mayberrys provide a cover to explain his presence. 

While this kind of wholesome small-town setting was still an innovation in horror films of the time, similar backdrops were previously used in thrillers, and various commentators have noted this film’s family resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. This is especially noticeable in Dracula (a.k.a. “Cousin Bellac”)’s relationship with teenage Rachel. The actress, Norma Eberhardt, starred the same year as a bad-girl juvenile delinquent in Live Fast, Die Young!), but here she is almost aggressively wholesome, even by the standards of a 1950’s B-movie. 

Apart from her romance with Tim, the literal boy next door, her social life revolves around her closer-knit nuclear family, and the patients at the local nursing home (a brave blind woman and a group of ‘60s-sitcom-ready elderly gossips), for whom she’s planning a big Halloween party. At the same time, she feels restless, identifying with the artistic cousin she sees as more cultured and sensitive than her boyfriend, an ordinary teenager she scolds for his lack of refinement. 

Dracula’s vampiric nature is for a time explained away as artistic eccentricities, and a reaction to how confined and repressed he’d been in the old world, the filmmakers taking advantage of the fact that Transylvania was, at the time, under Communist rule. “That’s why I’ve come here,” he tells her. “For freedom. I must have it.”

Despite her loving family and placid community, Rachel identifies strongly with him, saying that “I could feel the pain you felt, and how you wanted to express yourself, but couldn’t. I know how that is. I feel the same way, too, sometimes.” She has already learned to stifle and downplay her ambitions; while dreams of being a fashion designer, “I guess I’ll end up being a nurse.” 

Later in the film, when she confronts Bellac about his distance from the family, he asks if “there’s a price for your acceptance, for me to conform, to be as you would want me to be,” adding, “if my behavior seems different, perhaps it is because it serves a higher purpose than to find acceptance in this dull and useless world.”

Here, he uses the relatable angle of independence and individualism as an excuse for his evil behavior against those he thinks are beneath him. The Return of Dracula ultimately comes down on the side that non-conformity to the expected social norms is a warning sign, rightly suggesting that the non-conformist is a danger to those around him. This certainly plays to a conservative audience, satisfied with the rightness of their beliefs, which would reject these ideas from the mouth of the villain.

This judgment, though, exposes an irony. The family’s real artistic cousin was escaping Communism, coming to America for freedom, wanting to live his own life and express his individuality, and this societal contradiction is there to be noticed by any members of the audience who share Rachel’s vague dissatisfaction with the status quo.

The tension between the ideal of American individualism and the reality of the need to conform, especially in the culture of the 1950s, was explored by psychologist Robert Lindner, most famous today for coining the phrase “rebel without a cause.” In his 1956 book 1956 book Must You Conform?, he called it “the most vital issue of our era,” the thing that “can be said to characterize the time we are living in … the extreme tension that exists between the individual and his society” (p. x, 149). The pressure to “adjust” and conform means that “uniqueness, individuality difference … are viewed with horror” (168). 

 Early in the film, a scene of the sinister night-time life of the vampire, complete with coffin and full moon, is immediately followed by a homey one in the family kitchen. The contrasts sit side-by-side, complicating our reactions to the world it depicts. When her son’s pet is killed (off-screen), the mother immediately tries to stifle his emotional reaction, emphasizing positive thinking. Later, she judges a funeral as “depressing,” and no one seems to expect Rachel to mourn much for a friend who died in front of her. All of this adds to a sense of normal life as a little unhealthy, as does the minister’s statement that this death is “not for us to question, but to accept”: not a wise approach, considering she was murdered by a vampire.

While these unsettling threads weave through the background of the story, there are other suggestions that the world Rachel and her family take for granted may be passing away, sooner than they think. Despite his seeming to represent an Old World of artistic endeavors, cultured manners, and familiar supernatural imagery, this Dracula’s intentions are focused, like an American, on the future. He doesn’t seem to kill for sustenance, but to create of a kind of planned community of vampire subordinates, and his sales pitch to his victims includes the promise that they will outlive their “dying world.” 

Paul Lederer, a veteran Czech actor, isn’t very imposing as Dracula; the role calls for magnetic charisma, and he’s a bit too passive and low-key. This might be partially the result of his dissatisfaction with a film he “hated.” In a 1993 interview on a program Skip E. Lowe Looks at Hollywood (link here), he says he took the job thinking it was going to be a comedic take on tired vampire tropes. He was unhappy when it ended up being “the same as everything else,” and is openly hostile to its eventual cult success. Eberhardt, too, is a little wooden, which doesn’t help the important connection between the characters feel as real as it might.

Nonetheless, the film has a can-do spirit, and some oddball charms. For fans of Landres’ The Vampire, there’s a cameo from a medical examiner named “Dr. Paul Beecher,” a different actor and obviously different character, but a nice little Easter egg. When one of Dracula’s victims is staked, the film briefly shows her blood spurting in full color, which must have been very effective in its original showings. And the presence of international vampire hunters who pose as immigration officials is an interesting way of aligning the obviously unreal in a more realistic context.

But the film’s raison d’etre is the juxtaposition of creepy supernaturalism with a contemporary setting, and the ideas that sparks about American life, something we’ll see more of in future films.

Americana Spookarama: The Vampire (1957)

Tales of murder and supernatural threat have existed as long as human beings told each other stories, but the development of these subjects as a literary genre had its origin in the work of Horace Walpole (1717-1797). A wealthy, aristocratic eccentric and son of a powerful British Prime Minister, Walpole turned his obsession with medieval ruins and manuscripts into a new form of fiction. His “Gothic” stories became wildly popular, inspiring a wide variety of writing and, eventually, into other media: notably, the horror film
True to its beginnings, the Gothic and its descendants have frequently inhabited the same haunted castles. This became less the case over time, so that by the Victorian era, writers like Robert Louis Stevenson and even Bram Stoker had brought horror to their working class readers, placing it in a contemporary world not so reliant on ancestral mansions or familial curses. The protagonist of the thriller The Beetle (1897), by their contemporary Richard Marsh, is a young woman who works in a London department store. Nonetheless, for much of its history, the literature of terror focused on the nobility, or at least the well-to-do, set in landscapes drenched with history.  

In the United States, where class distinctions were always less rigid, there was still an early emphasis on tales involving wealthy families and inherited estates, as seen in the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Brockden Brown, and much of Edgar Allan Poe. Following that tradition, the early Universal monster films and their imitators were largely set in the U.K. and Europe, an “old world” full of traditional imagery, architecture, and social patterns with lords and ladies on one side, servants and peasants on the other.  

By the late 1950s – a time period associated in the popular imagination with a new prosperity and the flourishing of perceived “all-American” values -- films began to be made in which elements of the traditional Gothic are translated to a vision of wholesome, clean-cut, then-contemporary small-town America. One of the earliest examples is 1957’s The Vampire, directed by Paul Landres, written by Pat Fiedler (her first screenplay), and starring John Beal and Coleen Gray. 

The prolific Landres’ more recent work in films and television had been in the particularly American genre of the Western, and, in the same year as The Vampire, a TV version of the long-running American comic strip, Blondie. He and Fiedler would collaborate three times in two years on genre projects, following this up with both the sci-fi horror of The Flame Barrier and another small-town American Gothic, The Return of Dracula, in 1958. 

The Vampire’s poster advertised “a new kind of killer to stalk the screen!” This is a complete exaggeration, but also kind of true. Some elements of the storyline are reminiscent of the more famous I Was a Teenage Werewolf, and strangely, both films were released in June of the same year. The Vampire places the same central metaphor -- a scientific experiment causing reversion to a state of beastly, primitive instinct -- not on a hormonal teenager, but on a respectable middle-aged man.  

Genial Dr. Paul Beecher lives in a pleasant small town where no one is a stranger. A single father, he dotes on his pre-teen daughter, who in turn cooks his meals and fusses over his well-being, in between the piano and ballet lessons she receives in lieu of payments from patients he’s told to not worry about their bills. But before long, chaos is introduced into this orderly world.

The picturesque streets, lined with leafy trees and white picket fences, become the site of terror, as residents meet brutal violence and death at the hands of someone they have known and trusted for years. All it takes is a single trivial mistake, mixing up some dangerous experimental pills with a dose of migraine medication, to turn an ordinary man into a monster.

Not far into the film, Paul becomes aware of what’s begun to happen to him: a Jekyll and Hyde-esque transformation with a vampiric edge,  causing him to attack others in an amnesiac state, leaving two puncture wounds on his victims’ necks when he attacks them. As scientific advancement began to supplant religious faith as a means of explaining life and the human condition, science becomes the source of the transformation to an evil being, rather than a curse or other supernatural cause. 

Although there are scientific researchers at the scene who might be able to help, including one of his oldest friends, he keeps secret his exposure to the drug causing his devolution, and tries to manage the effects on his own. While he has the presence of mind to send his daughter to live with relatives, in a realistically heart-wrenching scene, his refusal to admit his weakness puts others in mortal danger.

There are hints that Paul is acting on impulses he has long repressed in his roles as a father and a professional adult embedded in a community. While his attacks are, refreshingly for the genre, not limited to attractive young women, the first attack is exactly that. Later, the scenes of most sustained tension involve his stalking Coleen Gray’s Carol, the lovely nurse who works for him. While he has maintained his decorum, treating her as an assistant and friend, a running joke shows he has also tried to keep other men from meeting her, which suggests he would secretly like to keep her for himself. Only after his transformation can he show that interest, in an ugly and aggressive way, much the same way it allows him to snap impatiently at his daughter.

The doctor’s situation parallels the classic werewolf scenario, in which a decent man is overcome by violent animal instincts. What sets him apart as a “new kind of killer” is his position as an eminently responsible man in a quaint, recognizably ordinary American town. The killer isn’t a stranger, come from without, but one who is solidly from within the seemingly safe, cozy community. 

As such, this film brings horror into the world of everyday Americans in a way that recognizes that world’s contradictions, an idea that would be developed and refined in the years to come.