JOAN CRAWFORD’S GOT CLASS! A Psycho biddy double feature

BARGAIN BINNED DIGS DEEP INTO THE RANDOM AND FASCINATING TITLES FOUND IN THE CLEARANCE AISLE

Do you remember when Mill Creek pretty much exclusively released terrible transfers of public domain movies in gigantic combo packs for $10 at Walmart? Seems like it was forever ago, but it was only a couple years back that getting a Mill Creek disc meant you were rolling the dice in terms of how watchable a film might be. There were grainy VHS rips, terribly scratched print transfers, horrible colors due to vinegar syndrome, and audio that may or may not have been audible.

Now, you’ve got the company teaming up with the likes of the American Genre Film Archive to put out new 4K scans on Blu-ray of some impressive obscurities, making them look better than they ever have before. It’s a paradigm shift, but thankfully, some things haven’t changed. Their price points are still pretty low – $12 for a Blu, and you can still nap the occasional combo pack for $7.99.

Another thing that hasn’t changed is where Mill Creek seems to distribute their films. They were a reliable fixture at Walmart for years and years, but another place you could reliably expect to find Mill Creek movies was the gas station. I’m pretty sure the only reason I didn’t purchase the Payback Time Triple Feature Blu-ray – featuring Blind Fury, Silent Rage, and White Line Fever – at a Casey’s outside Iowa City was because we were on vacation.

The largest selection of Mill Creek releases in my area is to be found at our local Menards. For those unfamiliar, Menards is a chain of home improvement stores somewhere between a Home Depot, Walmart, and Ikea. You can buy lumber, a new pair of work boots, a case of root beer, or Halloween decorations. It’s the best. Despite being on the opposite corner of town, I will drive over to wander the aisles, because lord knows what’s going to pop up.

If nothing else, it’s worth hitting the movie display to see what’s new. I’ve snagged the complete series run of Kids in the Hall, which even included Death Comes to Town, for $25, pondered over Krull and Hardbodies, and delighted in the fact that the Andy Sedaris upgrades have made their way to a hardware store in Kansas.

Also, if you’re patient enough, eventually stuff gets marked down to $5 and dropped in the bargain bin by the registers. The island of movies and shows is only so big, so new releases mean older material gets shuffled off the mortal coil to be picked through by bored people waiting in line.

This is my favorite thing to do. Luck of luck, a few months back, I managed to snag the Psycho Biddy Double Feature , a Joan Crawford two-film Blu-ray including 1964’s William Castle-directed Strait-Jacket, along with Crawford’s penultimate film, 1967’s Berserk! After 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Crawford’s career experienced a bit of a revival, wherein she made a string of shockers, concluding with 1970’s Trog. You’d think, what with the double-feature angle and the Mill Creek label, that these two films would be for ironic enjoyment only, but I’m quite surprised to reveal that they’re both actually pretty entertaining.

In Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud, author Shaun Considine is less than kind in his assessment of these Crawford pictures: “Throughout the sixties, to a new generation, the names of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were synonymous with horror movies. Of the two it was Crawford who caused the most damage to her reputation, by appearing in a series of cheap, exploitative films that were many watts away from the classic days of Mildred Pierce and Grand Hotel.”

He emphasizes the point by quoting director George Cukor, who directed Crawford in the likes of The Women and A Woman’s Face, who said of the actress’s work post-Baby Jane, “She would write to me about these pictures, actually believing they were quality scripts. You could never tell her they were garbage,” and also referring to the films as “a regrettable cycle in motion pictures.”

It’s echoed by Judith Crist’s review of Strait-Jacket in the New York Herald-Tribune, quoted in David Bret’s Joan Crawford: Hollywood Martyr, when she refers to the film as one of “these housedress horror B-movies. Miss Crawford, you see, is high-class. Too high-class to withstand in mufti the banality of Robert Bloch’s script, cheap jack production and/or vacuous supporting players and direction better suited to the mist-and-cobweb idiocies of the Karloff school of suspense.”

Ouch. For the record, I quite enjoy the fact that Joan Crawford starred in a Bloch-scripted and Castle-directed ’60s film precisely because she offers a bit of class. As Donald Spoto notes in his biography, Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford, “Joan’s achievement in the picture may be fairly described as an A-plus performance in a B-minus picture.”

The plot is, for the record, as follows:

“Movie queen Joan Crawford (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) gives a terrific performance in this chiller from pioneer horror movie producer William Castle. Lucy Harbin (Crawford) goes berserk when she finds her husband in bed with another woman. Lucy axes the couple to death and spends twenty years in a mental institution for murder. After she is released, she moves in with family and hopes her nightmare is over… but a string of ax murders suddenly start occurring in the neighborhood and police think Lucy has reverted to her old ways.”

In Strait-Jacket, Joan chews the hell out of some scenery, and there are far more decapitations than I expected. Also, it’s intriguing that, given the fact that Bloch wrote the original novel for Psycho, and that his script here maybe anticipates Psycho II by decades, with a past killer framed for current goings-on.

As Lucy Harbin, Crawford gets to have a lot of fun with her role, because she gets to go from harried woman to murderous to dowdy, and then gets to vamp it the hell up for the middle part of the picture. As her daughter, Carol, Diane Baker offers up a staid counterpoint, but definitely shows that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.

Unfortunately, despite what Cukor said, in Possessed, Crawford’s quoted as saying, “All the pictures I did after Baby Jane were terrible. I made them because I needed the money or because I was bored, or both. I hope they are never heard of again.” She might’ve been excited about them at the time, maybe, but as the end of her life neared, she evidently quite regretted them, which is a shame, as they’re pretty fun.

Next up is Berserk!:

Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce) stars as Monica Rivers, the owner of a traveling circus plagued by a series of mysterious deaths. When a high-wire performer becomes the first victim, he is replaced by an even more daring aerialist who begins a romance with Monica. Their relationship draws envy from her business manager who is the brutal killer’s next victim. As the police begin to investigate, bigger audiences flock to the show. The mystery swirls as a cast of suspects and motives rage with jealousy and revenge.”

Berserk! is the lesser of the two, but it has its charms. If nothing else, the unidentified killer whom we only ever see the gloved hands of is contemporaneous with gialli like Blood and Black Lace, and the Rube Goldberg-ian kills are all too familiar to modern viewers. I can only imagine how much fun they were for folks not yet jaded by decades of the formula.

Despite being 100% proto-slasher, with a great start and good ending, there’s a middle that draaaaags. There’s some great circus footage in there, though. Author Bret refers to it as “an A-movie made on a B-movie budget,” and it’s a pretty accurate assessment, especially given that we never get the gruesomeness of Berserk!

A lot of the action is shown leading up to a demise, and then a cut, and then the aftermath, with none of the fun of the former picture’s gleeful exploitation elements. It’s the difference between American William Castle and the British Jim O’Connolly, whose work was more in the vein of crime dramas. That’s the direction he leans into, and it’s not nearly as crazily enjoyable. Crawford’s performance, especially, is pretty sedate, and while she’s very good in the role, her chance to chew some scenery is middling, and that’s a damned shame.

Unsurprisingly, there’s another version of Strait-Jacket out there from Scream Factory, with a whole slew of extras, and it’s evidently taken from the same restoration on this double-feature. Granted, it’s twice the price for half the movies, but if you don’t want to encumber yourself with an unnecessary film, or want something with the original poster artwork, it’s probably your go-to.

Either way, while only one of these films encapsulates the madcap joy in the likes of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? or Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte, both films show that, even as her star power was fading, Joan Crawford would bring the full strength of her talent to bear, no matter the size of the project. As Norma Desmond says in Sunset Boulevard, “I am big! It’s the pictures that got small.”