Twenty years ago, Lucy Harbin (Joan Crawford), was convicted of a dreadful crime, as her now-grown daughter Carol (Diane Baker) now relates. She had been married young to a older man of her parents' choosing, and when he died Lucy had chosen her own husband, a younger man who cheated on her to the extent that she was close to a breakdown. Carol was three years old when he brought a local woman home, and woke to see them in the bedroom across from her bed, but she was unprepared for Lucy catching the couple through the window and flying into a deranged rage, grabbing an axe and chopping their heads from their bodies. And now she has been released...
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? had a revitalising effect on the careers of many an ageing female star, though mostly in horror and thriller roles, where audiences could see those former screen goddesses slum it in high camp shockers for the most part, the curiosity value in witnessing how well or badly they were ageing proving quite the draw for a new audience who were more used to seeing these actresses on reruns of their old movies on television. One of the chief beneficiaries was Baby Jane's co-star Crawford, who happened to meet director and producer William Castle at a party and he gushed that he would love to work with her on his latest horror flick. Swallowing her pride, she agreed.
There were caveats, of course, and all of those were delivered by Crawford, who insisted on the whole production being tailored to her needs, including rewriting the script to her liking (though as that had originally featured a killer in an inflatable fat suit, you can see her critical faculties were not exactly blunted - that really would have been ridiculous). New cast were brought in, including Baker who she had co-starred with on The Best of Everything, and most egregiously, one of the board members of Pepsi Cola who she gave a role to as a favour and a way of keeping the company sweet, as she was on the board too, since the CEO, her husband, had passed away. All this rampant ego sounds like a recipe for disaster.
At least a good bad movie, and there are some quarters that would have you believe Strait-Jacket is precisely that, but this is not entirely accurate. Sure, the film offers ample opportunity to laugh at the characters at every item of overwrought melodrama and shock effects (we really see those heads go flying), but Castle, though never as accomplished as his idol Alfred Hitchcock, was professional enough and had a subversive enough sensibility to serve up something genuinely entertaining, however bad taste it was. Not to mention, Crawford gave the role her everything, acting up a storm as if the passage of years were negligible and she was back in Mildred Pierce mode, had Mildred ever been a psychotic axe killer, that was. She bulldozed all before her out of the way as she ran the gamut of emotions.
The plot had it that we were building up to this big twist where the reveal of the actual villain was intended to be a shock, though there was only one person it could have been if you discounted the obvious we were guided towards. In the meantime the likes of a then-unknown George Kennedy had his noggin separated from his body as Lucy begins to wonder if she is actually cured, or if the return home to the old family farm is driving her around the bend once again, hearing voices, having vivid nightmares, and so on. In amidst such chucklesome bits as her attempted seduction of Carol's fiancé or admitting to his parents that twenty years in an asylum had been "PURE HELL!" at the top of her voice, there was a provocative disrespect for the notion of the American nuclear family, sending up the idea of mother-daughter love and respect with ill-disguised glee. Castle was not the man to bring much flair, but its mix of plain and outrageous was a potent one. Music by Van Alexander.