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).

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