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09/10/2012 19:58 by Kier-La Janisse

From Sound on Sight
Reviewer: Bill Mesce

Back in November of 2011, Sound on Sight contributors were invited to write about their “gateway” films – the movies that first lit them up to the power and magic of cinema.  What became apparent to me over the course of that series of posts was how much our respective choices were shaped by who each of us is.  It was never as simple as, “Well, then I took Film Appreciation 101 and saw Citizen Kane for the first time…”  Nothing’s that simple.  Where we were from, how we were raised, the lives we led…all of that and more in some way influenced the choices each of us made.  No surprise, that:  we view everything – sex, politics, the way the world works – through the prism of our own experience.  Why not movies?

But I’ve never seen the dynamic so clearly at work – or demonstrated so emphatically – as it is in Kier-La Janisse’s House of Psychotic Women:  An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films, recently published by FAB Press.

It’s a mouthful of a title, yet even that doesn’t quite capture the boiling stew Janisse has cooked up.  Let the book fall open at random, and, depending on the page, House of Psychotic Women (the title comes from the American release of the 1973 Spanish chiller, The Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll) is a deep investigation of women-victimizing grindhouse splatter; another page and Janisse is off on an extended discussion of psychoanalysis, or cultural gender roles, or religion’s place in society; and yet another, and it’s a disturbing memoir of a traumatic upbringing right out of Dickens.

A la the six blind men trying to describe an elephant, House… is not quite any of these; and yet is all of them.  It’s neither hybrid nor blend, but a bubbling up of different ingredients surfacing from one page to the next.  And the more one learns of Janisse, the more that makes sense.

Janisse, a writer and film programmer as well as the author of A Violent Professional:  The Films of Luciano Rossi (FAB, 2007), is an anomaly:  a fan of the kind of blood-drenched low-budget flicks which more typically draw in young males, and persistently tick off the feminists with their depictions of women as victims, manipulating victimizers, and brutal avenging angels.  To throw a little more gas on the fire, she’s particularly fond of the made-on-the-cheap grindhouse fodder of the 1970s-early 1980s; think flicks like Ms. 45 (1981), Roadside Torture Chamber (1972), and Prey (1977), and imports like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), and The Blood Spattered Bride (1972).

But it’s not visceral shocks Janisse is interested in (at least not solely).  In those movies, she’s found some chord resonant with her own scarred psyche.

Born in 1972 in Winnipeg – “…an isolated city in the dead centre of Canada known for its long, harsh winters and its citizens’ tragic propensity for alcoholism and violent crime” – she suffered through abandonment by her birth parents, a philandering adoptive father and an emotionally abusive stepfather.  In the time between her mother’s marriages, Janisse has memories of listening through her bedroom door to her mother being assaulted by an intruder.  There’s a parade of foster homes, self-destructive acting out, relationships in which she is sometimes the abused, other times the abuser, an increasingly neurotic and eventually distant mother.  She found her own real-life horrors reflected in distorted funhouse mirror fashion in the excesses of a Ms. 45, the fetishistic gore of Italian giallo, and even upscale portrayals of female neuroses/psychoses like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), and Persona (1966).

To the dissatisfied memoirist or the impatient splatter hound, the book may seem unfocused, unsure of what it wants to be.  But House… – like its author – is its own animal, following few rules, going where compulsive curiosity drives it, however tangled that route may be.  What holds it all together is Janisse’s powerful pen:  “Guilt ran through 1970s genre films like a parasite, eating away at the psyches of female characters, who oscillated between domestic responsibility and the desire for autonomy.”  But she never writes more beautifully – or drolly – then when telling her own story:

“…given my erratic emotional and social patterns, my Christian Aunt Pam started to worry about my mental and spiritual well-being.  After all, I was a sketchy juvenile delinquent with a gun living in the basement listening to Anarchy in the UK about a hundred times a day.  One night…she and her weird friend Beth came down to my room…they were going to save my soul with the help of Jesus Christ.  I was really tired and asked if they could save my soul some other time.”

Whether you’re in the camp that considers exploitation movies an undervalued form of subversive, underground cinema, or that it’s gory pandering of the worst kind, what’s clear in House… is the honest connection Janisse makes between her own traumas and grindhouse excesses.  Hers is – with a painful, tragic obviousness – a sensibility shaped by the course of her life, related in compelling, insightful, and even, at times, touching fashion..

In the end, that may be the real value of House of Psychotic Women.  It’s not about horror and exploitation films, nor is it purely about Kier-La Janisse, but an illustration of just how subjective film criticism is, how non-existent absolute concepts of “good” and “bad” films are, and how the value of what we see is determined not by what’s on the screen, but the personal lens through which we view it.  As Janisse writes:

“Everything we see onscreen is a fiction that we are asked to believe, and we believe in it because we can find truth in that fiction.”



Reviewer - Scott MacDonald

   I subscribe to that Spielberg quote (that I am seriously going to get wrong here), about loving to read about cinema, just as much as I love to watch it.  My shelf is covered in books from capsule review guides that used to be my method of finding out about new and interesting films, to biographies or directors, actors, writers, and histories of film/film genres. So when I first heard about House of Psychotic Women through a friend, I knew it was to be a must read.  I was told it was an exploration of women in horror and exploitation cinema, from an intellectual perspective, Where do I sign up?

   Kier-La Janisse's book is subtitled An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films. I had assumed from the brief description that I had gotten that it would be a simple genre exploration, an analysis of female-centric horror, and exploitation cinema, maybe a bit of a history, but the subtitle seemed to indicate much more than that.  Due to a busy schedule, it was a few days before I got to crack open the cover beyond perusing the pictures, and the wonderful film guide in the back, only to discover that the subtitle accurately reflects the content of the book, and creates what could only be described as one of the most unique, interesting, and fulfilling experiences in genre film literature.

   House of Psychotic Women (the title taken from a Carlos Aured film) is essentially a biography of the author, through her traumatic childhood experiences. She then writes about genre movies that apply to these experiences, and analyze them from the perspective of both the films as independent entities, and how they relate to her existence growing up in very difficult circumstances. 

   The author's selections of topical films runs the gamut from critical darlings like Lars Von Trier's The Antichrist to understated and obscure horror films like the sleepy shocker Let's Scare Jessica to Death. The selection of films coupled with the autobiographical nature of the tome, offers some interesting insight into the nature of film criticism itself. It is obvious that Kier-La is a very distinguished film fan, her book references filmmakers from Roman Polanski to Ingmar Bergman, but of course, the primary thread that ties the book together is the horror genre, proving that critical taste truly is in the eye of the beholder, and is weaved into the life fabric of the viewer.

   If the main body of the book weren't enough to justify the purchase price, the book also includes a large capsule review section in the latter half of it discussing the films in the book, and many others.  This is an invaluable reference guide to film fans who may want to add another avenue of exploration to their viewing agenda.

     The book seems to have an organic flow to it. It never feels like the author decides here is the part where I discuss my life, here is where I write the plot of a movie, and here is where I analyze the film, and apply it to my existence.  House of Psychotic Women more than any other film-related book I have ever picked up feels like a true entity upon itself, and honestly that is the books most rewarding aspect. I have read an epic amount of books on film, but none like this, and I doubt I shall ever come across one like this again. Kier-La Janisse has created a truly invaluable piece of film literature.


From Starburst Magazine:
Reviewer Martin Unsworth

10 out of 10

Subtitled “An autobiographical topography of female neurosis in horror and exploitation films”, this is a rather remarkable look at the horror genre as seen not only through the eyes of the author, (a highly regarded writer who has written for Rue Morgue and Fangoria as well as programming several US and Canadian film festivals) but also how she relates to them through a rather turbulent personal life. Taking its title from the US re-naming of the 1973 Paul Naschy film, The Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll, the union of real life traumas and psychological and often extreme horror films makes for compulsive if uneasy reading. Janisse's dissections of the films are as brutally honest and insightful as the passages on her own life, family and relationships. This blending works perfectly, and in doing so opens the reader up to make their own connection to the films that they may have parallels to themselves. We may not all have had experiences nor upbringings like Janisse, but we may have traits that push us to love the grotesque and often disturbing films we watch.

While the obvious titles are covered; Black Swan, Repulsion, Antichrist and Carrie, there are also a plethora of films that only the most hardened horror buffs would have come across such as Venus Drowning, A Gun for Jennifer and an array of foreign titles.

After the obligatory but nevertheless impressive 30+ page colour photo section, the final 150 pages are made up of mini film reviews of key films, again with many rare and obscure titles getting some well deserved and reasoned attention. This mini encyclopaedia is almost worth the price alone. The book is illustrated throughout with many rare stills and film posters and looks marvelous.

The book has been available as a limited edition hardback from the FAB press website for a while (and very few copies remain), but now the paperback has hit the shelves and online stores there is no reason not to purchase! Highly recommended.



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