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Blu-ray Review: BERSERK and STRAIT-JACKET Psycho Biddy Double Feature

A Pair of Joan Crawford Shockers Come to Blu-ray

Anyone who saw the recent FX series FEUD, knows the story of Hollywood legends and career-long “frenemies” Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. That remarkable and wildly entertaining show saw Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange as Davis and Crawford, respectively, who lay down their never-ending professional rivalries long enough to co-star in director Robert Aldrich’s hyper-melodramatic Gothic shocker WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE in 1962. As both glamorous leading ladies were well-into middle age at this point, with decent roles drying up (as they often did and sadly still do for women in cinema), the chance to essay such intelligently written and scenery chewing characters was a gift and with the critical and commercial success of the film, an unofficial sub-genre of horror film often called”Hagsploitation” was born. Both Davis and Crawford would lead the pack in these sorts of films (along with others like Shelley Winters, Olivia de Havilland et al), which always saw women past their youthful primes driven to madness and often committing murder or just so far gone into psychosis that they become easy marks for the plots of others. Watching “earth mothers” and noted aging screen beauties go bonkers translated into boffo box office…

But while Davis jumped into this new phase of her professional life with open arms, grateful for the work and success, Crawford did not go gently, feeling much of the post-BABY JANE material offered to her was beneath her, and was notoriously difficult to deal with. But master showman and horror producer/director extraordinaire William Castle (13 GHOSTS, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL) was up for the task and landed the actress for his 1964 shocker STRAIT-JACKET, a pulpified slab of post-PSYCHO slaughter that pushed – in typical Castle fashion – its mania and melodrama to fevered, dreamlike heights. Mill Creek Entertainment has paired this masterwork of Grand Dame Guignol with another Crawford, the UK circus psycho flick BERSERK and, while the former outshines the latter by a mile, both films show what a consummate professional and mesmerizing presence Crawford truly was, no matter the low bar set before her.

In STRAIT-JACKET, a wild, surreal opening sets-up the shenanigans to come, illustrating in tabloid-fashion how Crawford’s boozy broad of a wife Lucy walks in on her philandering hubby having a tryst in their home with another woman. She goes bananas and grabs an ax, hacking the humping couple to pieces while her young daughter Carol watches in horror. It’s a stunner of a first act and immediately jumps twenty years later to the present, with Crawford’s traumatized little girl (played by Diane Baker) now all grown-up and preparing for her murderous mom’s release from the local loony bin.

Lucy, now cured but still obviously emotionally disturbed, is now a kinder, gentler woman who has paid for her crimes and had her illness eradicated after years of intensive – and grueling – treatment and only wants to be a good mother. Carol is on the cusp of getting married to a well-to-do lad (John Anthony Hayes) and all seems to be heading in the right, healing direction for the mother and daughter. That is until Lucy begins finding phantom severed heads in her bed and hearing strange sounds coming from locked rooms. And when a spate of gruesome ax murders grip the town, suspicion firmly – and unsurprisingly – falls on Lucy’s trembling shoulders. Is she losing her mind again? Or is there someone else behind the gory killings?

Anyone whose seen a Castle film or read a Bloch shocker will likely figure out the serpentine mystery before the insane – and awesome – corker of a climax. But that’s not why you watch STRAIT-JACKET. It’s a film to savored for its over-the-top plotting, its leering characters (including a young George Kennedy as a sweaty and sinister handyman), its cauldron-bubbling oration and – for 1964 – its brutally graphic head-choppings. Hell, even the grand old Columbia Pictures dame gets her noggin lopped off in the film’s final image. The entire thing is rapturously ridiculous and boiling-over brilliant but none of this hyperbolic cranium-removing mayhem would matter were it not for the presence of Crawford, who fearlessly dives into the part of Lucy, jerking the audience around from terror to pity to disgust to empathy and back again. In the film’s most arresting encounter, Crawford goes up against her daughter’s snooty future mother-in-law, standing her ground and defending her child’s honor while defiantly admitting her crime and the pain she endured in its aftermath. It’s a stunning, moving scene and certainly ranks right up there with the finest of Joan Crawford’s turns.

In 1967’s BERSERK, Crawford plays ball with another cinema showman, British producer Herman Cohen (I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF), whom she would later re-team with for her final film, the notorious TROG, also co-starring the late, great Michael Gough (HORROR OF DRACULA, HORROR HOSPITAL). Cohen was no Castle and director Jim (TOWER OF EVIL) O’Connolly’s tawdry circus-set murder mystery aint no STRAIT-JACKET, but the film is still a warm, affectionate bit of colorful, sleazy trash. Both films also see Joan’s producers trying to put her through the MILDRED PIERCE motions by jamming in an unhealthy mother/daughter relationship and while, BERSERK flunks out on the emotional depth angle, Crawford still gives it her all, playing a sexed up circus owner whose Big Top business is plagued by a psycho killer offing the acts. The romance between Joan and much younger acrobat Ty Hardin is about as believable as the rest of the flick, a riff on classic chillers like CIRCUS OF HORRORS (one of my favorite films of all time) and CIRCUS OF FEAR but with a much odder emphasis on the circus itself. In fact, the plot and its mechanics almost seem like an afterthought to the endless, authentic sequences of real deal three-ring acts. It’s all ludicrous and superlatively entertaining, kinky fun, especially for circus culture fetishists.

Mill Creek gives us a bare bones but handsome looking HD package, with BERSERK looking crisp and bright and STRAIT-JACKET – while not as sharp as the recent Scream Factory release – looking better than any other SD releases ever have. Both pictures are riotous 60’s exploitation gems and both are essential for Crawford junkies.

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