Spooktober Special: House of Psychotic Women

House of Psychotic Women - Paperback Cover

With October again upon us, the time has come for the seasonal tradition of Spooktober to begin once more. This year, however, I’m going to be doing something rather different. Rather than delve into a bunch of horror-themed things, I am going to limit myself to an intensive look at just one subject. There are a number of reasons for this; I haven’t been looking for new horror movies, books, and games with the fervor of previous years, I’ve had a number of personal issues crop up that have cut into my productivity, and I’ve come to find I’m not that comfortable doing a lot of write-ups in a short space of time. I may do another review if fancy strikes me, but for now this will be the main event.

Fortunately for you guys, I’ve found a real treat: the book House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films, by the Canadian film writer Kier-La Janisse.

Kier-La (pronounced “Kayla”) Janisse is someone who probably isn’t known that well outside of horror circles, so a brief background is in order. She’s worked since the late 1990s as a writer for various venues, including the self-founded Spectacular Optical, Rue Morgue, and Fangoria. She’s also worked as a film programmer for various venues in Canada, the US, and Australia, including a memorable stint at the Alamo Drafthouse, and has even founded a few of her own, most notably the Cinemuerte festival in Vancouver, which ran from 1999 to 2005. Suffice to say she has the ideal background for this book, but there’s more to it than just film criticism.

To be honest, House of Psychotic Women is something of a difficult book to review. With most monographs discussing a single wide-ranging subject, it’s traditional for the author to either arrange her various examples to support a central thesis, which a reviewer can then argue for or against, or to arrange them chronologically, to show how the subject changes over time. Janisse does neither of those things. Instead, House of Psychotic Women is an “autobiographical topology,” or to put it more plainly, a biography with film reviews. Each chapter of the book is centered around a particular era in Janisse’s life, with discussion of key events interspersed with discussions of movies that mirror or relate to the event in question. I must admit that I did not always understand how certain films connected with her experiences, but I suppose that’s the nature of personal logic; you make connections that not everyone can see.

Taken solely as a work of film criticism, the book is fantastic. “Female neurosis in horror and exploitation films” is a very broad subject to cover, and Janisse does her best to attack her subject from multiple angles. The films discussed and dissected run the gamut from well regarded horror classics like Sidney J. Furie’s The Entity (1982) and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), more mainstream fare like Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987) and Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994), numerous giallo films by Mario Bava and Dario Argento, cult classics like Lucky McKee’s May (2002) and Andrej Zuwalski’s Possession (1981), and even trash classics like Nick Phillips’ “Criminally Insane” (1975), the prequel to Crazy Fat Ethel II. There are a few films included which even Janisse admits push the boundaries of her topic, and doubtless cinephiles will think of many more that could have been included. As an example, I was sorely disappointed that Excision (2012) was released too late to be included in the book, though Janisse conducted a short interview with director Richard Bates Jr. that sorely hints at what could have been. As it stands, the book is a wonderful resource for cinephiles looking for something new. Indeed, the last half of the book is given over to reviews of some 192 films, more than enough for anyone to chew on. (Even more remarkably, not all of the reviews are positive; Janisse has no problem calling it like she sees it.)

For her discussions of the various films, Janisse employs an interesting methodology. Roughly speaking it could be described as a mixture of feminist criticism and psychological discussion, but even that deserves qualification. In the introduction, Janisse describes herself as growing weary of academic criticism, and as a result the book is remarkably free of jargon. There is a certain intriguing ambivalence in her approach to feminism. A number of the films in the book are discussed as depictions of women enduring or breaking under the control, oppression, and violence of men, but it never seems like the predominant focus of the book. At the same time, Janisse embraces a number of films many would dismiss as irredeemably misogynistic, and even discusses a few of her own idiosyncracies, such as her love of rape-revenge films. (To state it briefly, her main attractions to the genre are the rituals the protagonist undergoes in her transformation into an agent of revenge, such as the cutting of the hair, the androgynous clothing, the martial arts or firearms training, and the fact that, in a society where rape as seen as a fate worse than death, anything the protagonist does to her attacker can be justified by the audience provided the film immediately ends after the revenge has been completed.) Janisse attributes this to coming of age in the late 1990s and 2000s, when more women were moving away from feminism, a sentiment that sounds a bit odd from the perspective of 2017. (Given Janisse’s discussion of herself, I would suspect that she and the modern incarnation of Western feminism would not see eye to eye on many things.) Janisse is on surer footing with her psychological analysis, which takes a few minor points from Freud without coming across as overtly Freudian. Her discussion of the obsessions and deviance of the female characters under her microscope is both insightful and sympathetic; while these character may be monstrous, she never condemns or dismisses, but seeks at every turn to understand what drove these women to become what they are, to discover how their minds work.  It’s an wonderful approach to take with her subject matter, and it reinforces something I’ve grown to believe over the years: a lot of the time, the most interesting damage is the damage we inflict on ourselves.

Kier-La Janisse’s book is a chronicle of lost and damaged women, centered around the lost and damaged figure of Kier-La Janisse herself. At heart, the book is Janisse’s study of her own life, and suffice to say, it has not been a happy one. Her story begins in 1972, when she was adopted by a couple who thought a baby could save their faltering marriage. As could be expected, it didn’t work, and she ended up in Windsor with her mother and brother in 1975, and gained a new stepfamily shortly thereafter. Her childhood was deeply dysfunctional; she had a distant withdrawn mother, a departed stepsister who she built into an idealized self-portrait, and a physically abusive stepfather who nonetheless was the only family member she felt any connection to as a child. Naturally, she grew up with a lot of anger and several decidedly “unfeminine” interests, and had her share of problems at school. As she became a teenager, the problems with both her family and school only intensified, and after she was expelled for keeping an empty gun in her locker, she was sent through a series of unwanted counselling sessions culminating in a stint in a juvenile home. She was eventually emancipated from her parents, and while she was able to live on her own thanks to government support, she developed her own problems with roommates, sex, alcohol, all while slowly putting her life into a semblance of order by using her love of horror movies to get her video store work and some writing gigs. Throughout all this, Janisse is unsparing of her younger self. Perhaps one of the hardest parts of the book to read is the discussion of her brief, abortive marriage to “Bobby” from 2000 to 2002. She lays the blame for her marriage’s failure squarely on herself; with hindsight she admits that doesn’t have the right personality to accept the give-and-take and mingling of families that marriage requires. By her account, her husband was a decent guy who would sacrifice everything for her…which only encouraged her to demand more.

If there is an underlying theme to Janisse’s  memoir, it is the relationship between her and her mother, a nurse named Julie. The defining moment in their relationship, and in both their lives, came early in their tenure in Windsor, where a young Janisse interrupted her mother’s rape. (Janisse notes that this is the earliest memory she can recall with any certainty.) Janisse speculates that this event forever twisted the relationship between the two, with her mother being both grateful to Janisse for saving her and resentful for having been caught at the worst moment of her life. Their relationship only grew worse through Janisse’s early life; her mother not only sank deeper into drugs and alcohol with the occasional suicide attempt, but she also came to believe that she should both accept and endure whatever violence was dealt to her. Being both too young to understand this and dealing with anger problems of her own, Janisse fought with her mother constantly, and when she became an adult she strove to cut off all contact with her. The last time Janisse ever spoke to her mother was in January of 2009, a few weeks before cancer claimed her. In some sense, this book is an act of therapy, a great project created by Janisse to put her own life into perspective and try to enact some sort of catharsis regarding her mother. As to whether the project succeeded, not even Janisse can say.

While a lot of movies are watched simply for their entertainment value, I would say a large number of our favorite films are those that resonate with us, that pick out some aspect of ourselves and put it on the screen. At its heart, House of Psychotic Women is a study of Kier-La Janisse through the films that have stuck with her through the years. All of the movies discussed, with their women driven mad in rambling Victorian houses, women who bond in grotesque family relationships, victimized women who metamorphose into angels of vengeance, women who fixate and obsess, women who are at odds with their bodies, women who build private worlds with their own savage rituals, were chosen because they resonated with Janisse, with her own anger, her own obsessions, her own problems relating to other people, her own anxieties. They also resonate with some of my own thoughts and feelings, and I daresay many others would say the same thing. House of Psychotic Women may never become part of the film criticism canon, but it is a powerful work that deserves to be read all the same.

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