Thursday, July 18, 2013

An Ax to Gab

Werth: Hello, Wise...

Wise: Should I be more scared of the ax you're holding or the blouse and skirt combo you're wearing?

Werth: Women with axes are scary. Just ask today's birthday gal, Lizzie Borden.

Wise: Old L.B. is about to get the Lifetime treatment care of Christina Ricci.

Werth: Lizzie got some small screen attention care of Elizabeth Montgomery in 1975, but she's never sliced up the big screen like some other axe-totin' gals. In 1964, Joan Crawford "brought out the ax" in William Castle's chopped ham-fest, Strait-Jacket.

Wise: Which, unfortunately, did not feature Adrian-designed shoulder pads. 

Werth: Crawford is Lucy Harbin, a woman who has just been let out of an insane asylum after a twenty year sentence for chopping off the heads of her two-timing husband (a barely glimpsed Lee Majors) and his chippie. 
Lucy's young daughter Carol (a pre-Silence of the Lambs Diane "Love your suit" Baker) is anxious to help the mother she never knew and moves Lucy into the country home of her aunt and uncle. Carol hopes that surrounding her mother with a loving family and a bunch of chickens, will help her start a new lifeone free of brutal ax-murders.

Wise: I have a feeling that's not going to end so well.

Werth: Lucy seems tame enough at first, but once Carol gives her a makeover which consists of a form-fitting dress, a stylish wig, and a set of bracelets that can be heard a mile off, Lucy begins to not act her age. When Lucy practically dry humps Carol's fiance over cocktails, it's clear that Lucy might need a little extra time in the booby hatch. And once a shadowy figure starts taking the heads off of a nosy doctor and a lecherous handyman (George Kennedy) it's clear that this family needs to hide their sharp implements.

Wise: Except for the shovel.
Werth: Crawford by this point was enjoying a career resurgence thanks to her role in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), but the roles she was being offered gave her little opportunity for serious acting. Films like Strait-Jacket, I Saw What You Did (1965), Berserk (1967), and Trog (1970) were B-Level schlock at best, and are best viewed with a camp sensibility. 
But with all the outrageousness of the script and Crawford's  bigger-than-the-part persona there is a tinge of sadness. Crawford refuses to be in on the joke of how bad Strait-Jacket is. Her sense of professionalism (or obsession?) made her work just as diligently portraying Lucy Harbin inching her way from fragility to sanity, as when she played Mildred Pierce clawing her way through social classes and motherhood. 
The scene where Lucy flirts with Carol's beau could describe Crawford's cinematic existencean older woman fighting to be young and relevant, seducing men and an audience in the same determined way she always had. Crawford never stopped giving her audience the best she had, even if Hollywood had axed her long ago.
Wise: Women on the verge of a homicidal breakdown also feature prominently in So I Married an Axe Murderer (19993), the first film project for Saturday Night Live alum Mike Myers after the success of Wayne's World (1992).  The role of latter-day beat poet Charlie Mackenzie landed in Myers' lap only after the role had been circled by Woody Allen, Chevy Chase, Albert Brooks and Martin Short.  

Once Myers was on board, the script underwent heavy revisions was tailored to his abilities, becoming more broadly comic and less about paranoia.  Afraid of commitment, Charley nevertheless falls for the demure Harriet (Nancy Travis), a butcher with a sister, Rose (Amanda Plummer), who's clearly off her rocker.  

Werth: Never date a butcher with a screwy sister.

Wise: Everything seems perfect until Charley begins to suspect that Harriet is actually an axe murderer.  His best friend Tony (Anthony LaPaglia), a bumbling cop with aspirations to be Serpico, tries to convince him that he's just getting cold feet.  His doubts barely assuaged, Charley goes through with the marriage only to face his worst fears on his wedding night.  

Werth: His worst fears? Imagine having to sleep with Mike Myers.

Wise: The film is full of flannel and Doc Martens, plaid skirts, coffee houses, bad music, and the kind of asinine humor audiences have come to expect from a particular kind of mid-90's SNL flick. But even with all the one-liners and sight gags (including an hilarious Phil Hartman cameo), there's still something deeply charming about the film.  
Myers is awkward and sweet as a twentysomething looking for love, yet still able to launch himself into the over-the-top funny in the dual role of Charley's booming Scottish father.  
Nancy Travis makes a lovely ingenue, but is sill twitchy enough to make the audience wonder if she might really be the wielder of the titular axe.  
The film was a flop at the box office, but gained a following once it was released on video because, one suspects, of the affectionate fun it pokes at the excesses of Generation X, who feared adulthood almost as much as Charley feared that axe.  

Werth: I fear my skirt is riding up. Hold my ax while I adjust myself.

Wise: Tune in next week for more cinematic slicing and dicing with Film Gab.

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