Monday, February 25, 2013

House of Psychotic Women by Kier-La Janisse

House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films is Kier-La Janisse's newest film criticism tome. Just before her screening of Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll in Philadelphia last November, she was kind enough to speak with me about the book, which was named after the alternate, U.S. title for Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll, a Spanish giallo starring Paul Naschy and directed by Carlos Aured. I am finally getting around to writing a review, even though I think I finished reading it about three days after I picked it up. Janisse’s book, the first of its kind, is an “autobiographical exploration of female neurosis in horror and exploitation films.” 

If you are unfamiliar with her name, Janisse is extensively involved in the North American horror community. She’s been a contributing writer for Rue Morgue, Fangoria, Filmmaker and others, and has already published one book with horror/cult publishers FAB Press, A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi. She co-produced the documentary EUROCRIME! The Italian Cop and Gangster Films That Ruled the ‘70s and been the subject of the documentary Celluloid Horror. Janisse has programmed films at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse and Fantastic Fest, at Canada’s CineMuerte horror film festival, etc. She edited Fantasia International Film Festival’s former online magazine Spectacular Optical and founded The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies. She also founded and curated the now-defunct Montreal film center, Blue Sunshine. Learn more about her at her personal site, Big Smash! Productions. 

House of Psychotic Women is chock full of film facts, history, and criticism, combined with essays about Janisse’s personal life. She essentially compares crazy women in genre film with herself and the other crazy women in her life, opening up a dialogue about the role film plays in our own personal narratives. This is one of the most interesting examinations of female hysteria and madness and comes highly recommended, whether you want to read about horror films or you are a memoir junkie. It is also a great reference work. Janisse mentions hundreds of films, some of them well known, but many are more obscure. She breaks the book into ten sections, organizing the films and chapters of her life by subject. To give an idea of the range, she covers things like The Entity, The Corruption of Chris Miller, Singapore Sling, 3 Women, Repulsion, Let's Scare Jessica to Death, The Haunting of Julia, Secret Ceremony, Cutting Moments, The Piano Teacher, Possession, Antichrist, Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly, Martyrs, Images, All the Colors of the Dark, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and many, many more.

The book took Janisse over a decade to finish and is a combination of critical film writing and autobiographical essays, merged together and loosely related. Though she has stated in interviews that an autobiography of a non-famous person is slightly ridiculous, I disagree. There are certainly readers who will see this as an exercise in self-indulgence, but it is a fascinating look at why one person is able to relate to certain works of art, this case, certain horror and exploitation films. I’m honestly surprised that no one had previously thought to do a combination of film theory and memoir, as the latter subject is so popular (just look at the rankings for David Sedaris over on And as someone who grew up watching horror movies as a way to escape from a bad childhood, I think it is academically valid to examine the relationship between spectatorship and catharsis, voyeurism and therapy. 

Janisse’s autobiographical sections mirror the horror and exploitation films she discusses. She covers her abusive childhood, her mother’s rape, running away and being sent to teen detention centers, drug use, dysfunctional adult relationships, mental breakdowns, and more. Her writing style is neither sensational or sentimental and though she discloses many candid, personal stories, she spends an equal amount of time talking about damaged female characters and film personalities, moving fluidly between memoir and analysis. One of my few criticisms is that, outside of relating various life events and connecting these to certain films, she is unable to create a full, compelling narrative arc, as the best memoir writers are able to do. She needs more narrative and a more cohesively structured one. But it is easy to forgive this because her book is fascinating and brave and I hope to see more film writing like it. 

Also included is a lengthy appendix of reviews. If the film was covered earlier in the book, it only gets a short paragraph, otherwise Janisse writes up to a page about a number of films that fit in with her subject matter. While I understand why this section was necessary, it’s a little disappointing that this takes up half the book, but it is a great reference and, as far as I'm aware, the only one about female characters in horror. 

Pick it up from the wonderful FAB Press. Though the beautiful hard cover is sold out, there are still paperbacks available through the FAB Press site directly or through Amazon. This 360 page volume is as lovely to look at is it is interesting to read, with many, many images throughout. There are 32 pages of full color stills, posters and promotional artwork, as well as family photos, illustrations and mementos from Janisse’s life. FAB Press never fails to release great books on genre cinema and this is surely one of their best. I can't wait to see what Janisse comes out with next. 

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