Book Review: House of Psychotic Women by Kier-La Janisse


By Keri O’Shea

Explorations of unhinged femininity have long been archetypal in horror and exploitation cinema. It’s that whole ‘hall of mirrors’ effect: anxieties and fears regarding women make for overblown, engrossing movies, and the depiction of all facets of female behaviour and concerns – to include adolescence, relationships, sexuality, pregnancy, motherhood – have been present in genre film for as long as there’s been such a thing at all. When you sit and think about it, sometimes it seems like behind (nearly) every great work of exploitation cinema, there’s an elegant female breakdown-in-waiting, or else the angel of the house is not all that she seems. Sometimes cathartic, sometimes cartoonish, delinquents, whores and hysterics make the genre film world go round.

psychoticwomenHowever, although many books have considered the role of women in outsider cinema, and some have done so very well, there’s really never been anything quite like House of Psychotic Women. To give it its full title, what we have here is An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films. An ‘autobiographical topography’? Wow. This makes it abundantly clear that we’re not simply going to be faced with a book of film lists. Without knowing exactly what we were going to get, though, I was pleased to discover such an unusual, complex and yet endearing blend of film scholarship and considered confessional.

I’ll be honest: despite having read the ‘autobiographical’ bit of the title, the structure of the book still caught me by surprise. To continue in the vein of honesty, at first I felt a little uncomfortable with the level of depth and detail about her own life which author Kier-La Janisse has poured into this volume. Well, I am British after all (stereotypes come from somewhere) and when people start talking with any earnestness about early traumas, the convention is to look off into the middle-distance somewhere and wait for an opportune moment to shift the topic onto the weather. No option to do that here – but the more used to the book I grew, the more I was able to appreciate the innovative way it works. As a long-term fan and someone who found herself identifying with a whole host of female characters down through the years, Janisse has intermeshed her own story with a dizzying array of films – many reasonably well-known, and others obscure as hell. Where she sees something of herself in a specific character or movie, she demonstrates why she sees that link, and then uses it to broaden the discussion, taking in a range of other films along the way and following whichever common thread she’s identified that runs through them.

The end result of this approach is manifold; the first and most obvious side-effect is that you find your Wishlist growing exponentially, but that’s almost a given, reading a book like this. The second effect is that you find yourself falling in love with the author’s honesty. Getting to a stage in your life where you can openly and usefully reflect on events which may have been problematic and unhealthy for you and those around you is no mean feat. We scoff at this these days, but nothing takes away from the fact that really, really being able to reflect on your life takes guts – because you’re not always going to come out the hero. I’m in awe of that frankness, and I can also see something of myself in that urge to pitch headlong into left-field cinema. I think a lot of long-term fans would at certain points see something similar, whether or not that was the book’s intention.

As for the book’s comment on film, it boasts a very strong balance between the author’s continued, ardent enthusiasm for these movies and a measured response to them. House of Psychotic Women is informed and detailed without ever trying to lock the readership out via godawful academic writing or adherence to a pet theory on the psychology of cinema (Janisse considers a few theories and approaches but never slavishly, and isn’t shy about stepping outside of certain received-wisdom feminist critiques of horror and sleaze). Although a great deal of the focus is on films from the 60s and 70s, the book spans several decades, getting up to films as modern as Martyrs and Antichrist to complement its exploration of early Argento, Moctezuma, Zulawski, Buttgereit, Ferrara and De Palma (to name a few). There’s also an extensive appendix of film reviews which fit the bill in terms of theme – in fact, this ‘appendix’ takes up around half of the volume, and shouldn’t be overlooked as its reviews really are excellent.

Illustrated throughout its ten chapters, with a collection of colour rarities between the book’s end and the appendix, House of Psychotic Women is an ambitious, innovative project; it’s a completely new look at the role of women in cult cinema, one which is exhaustive in its level of meticulous knowledge and detail. I may be a little late to this party, but I’m very happy to have a copy of this book on my shelf – and if you think it could be for you too, then you can pick up a copy here.