Flipping through second-time author Kier-La Janisse’s book, House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (published by FAB Press), which shares a name with the alternate title of the 1974 film The Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll, at times feels like sifting through someone’s diary. It’s a new kind of autobiography, one that intertwines Janisse’s experiences growing up in a dysfunctional family and beyond, with detailed reviews of films featuring neuroses-ridden (anti-)heroines. Janisse goes further by relating to these flawed female figures in cinema, and recognizing certain family members in their personalities.
Not since Go Ask Alice has this reviewer read such an unprimed, bold statement of an adolescence lost. But Janisse’s story — which charts adoption, abuse, cutting, suicide attempts, parental neglect, juvenile lockdown, and even sleeping in a coffin — is told in a matter-of-fact manner. You don’t feel pity for Janisse so much as are interested in her intricate and difficult upbringing, and how cinema became her sole form of survival. Without an outlet into fantasy in which she identified with such woman-on-the-edge films as Sisters, All the Colors of the Dark, Marnie, Ms. 45, Carrie, and The Brood, she may not have lived to write House of Psychotic Women or A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi, founded CineMuerte Horror Film Festival, or programmed for the Alamo Drafthouse and FanTasia.
Consider this passage of House, in which Janisse compares a strange night with her weirdly religious aunt to the film Alucarda:
“The hysteric screaming in the film by the possessed girls — which is abundant — is paralleled by the religious ecstasy of the nuns as they pray and self-flagellate; one ceremony is very like the other. Setting up this lack of distinction between service to God and service to Satan posits the real issue here as being Alucarda’s neediness and vengefulness over her own abandonment. Being put in a place where no love is given to her has made her cling fiercely to any new person in the hopes that they will be the one to show her unconditional love and stay with her forever.
Not surprisingly, 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, after all the kids had gone to bed, she and her weird friend Beth came down to my room to get me. They brought me into the living room and told me that 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. Not deterred, they made me sit on the couch and told me to stay sill, while each kneeled down on either side of me and put their hands on my knees. And then they started speaking — in tongues.
This went on for several hours and I fell asleep sitting up on the couch. The next morning Aunt Pam was upset with me — supposedly the exorcism hadn’t worked because I fell asleep. Thank God, I was still possessed.”
What compelled Janisse to bare her soul? “It took about ten years from when I started to when I finished,” she explains. “There were many years in between where I didn’t work on it at all. A couple times, I considered abandoning it because it was just dragging out too long. When I got to the ten-year mark, I said this is it – either I finish it this year, or I throw it in the garbage and never think about it again. Luckily, that motivated me to finish it. I was motivated originally by my friend Sam McKinlay, who is a very astute observer of my weird behavior, and he told me one day that all my favorite genre films had crazy women in them. I had never noticed this before. So originally I was just going to write essays about many of these films, or cobble together writings from my old fanzines. I did here, too, to some extent; a couple of the film analyses come partially from previous writings. But then it morphed into something else.”
Though the names in House are changed, those closest to Janisse know who they are, and she did receive a bit of backlash from family members. “Some relatives who are mentioned peripherally in the book are upset at how they are portrayed. My grandmother is very upset that my mother’s picture and life story is in a book alongside such violent imagery. My father, Oates, didn’t speak to me for two months after I sent him the first draft. It was hard. We had finally repaired our relationship to where we loved and respected each other, and then I dropped this bombshell on him. But I knew that he would have issues with it, so I sent it to him almost a year before the book came out, and told him that if he wanted to dispute anything I said, I would add his voice into the book. Ultimately he just let it be, and now I think we’re okay. He even posted about the book on his Facebook page, which I told him kind of defeats the purpose of me giving everyone fake names!”
“My stepfather and I had a rather hilarious conversation about it,” Janisse continues. “I told him I had disclosed all kinds of personal info from my childhood in the book, and that he might not want to read it. He was like, ‘What kinds of personal things?’ I said, ‘Well, remember that time you threw frozen shrimp at my face? Stuff like that.’ He said, ‘Oh, okay. Did you talk about the time I taped your hands to your face for a whole day because you wouldn’t stop biting your nails?’ We both burst out laughing. I didn’t remember this incident, so it’s not in the book. But the fact that we both started laughing about it illustrates what our relationship is like.”
Janisse has been traveling throughout North America; at each stop, she has introduced one of the films she profiles in her book, and signed her 360-page tome afterward. She’s presented film prints in Montreal, Austin, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Philadelphia; Boston may be next. One of Janisse’s biggest delights is screening films to crowds who have never been exposed to her preffered brand of extreme cinema.
“So far, a lot of the audience has not seen any of the films before, but told me they really liked them, so that’s great,” Janisse says. “It’s cool to see fantastic films like The Mafu Cage getting some love again because of the book. Austin screened that film, and now New York is going to play it, too, on 35 millimeter. Someone who attended the screening in Austin even mentioned that, as a result of seeing the film. He was inspired to look into mounting [You and Your Clouds by Eric Westphal,] the play the film is based on, so if anyone knows where he could get an English translation of the play and the rights, they should get a hold of me so I can pass it on!”
Those who crave horror and exploitation cinema considerably more than lengthy discussions on psychology and its connection to film studies will have plenty within House‘s pages with which to whet their voracious appetites. Make no mistake: this is also a film book, a heavy paperback filled with capsule reviews and reproductions of lobby cards, illustrations, posters, stills and more, splayed throughout its pages, including a 32-page, lurid, full-color spread that will prove delectable to cult connoisseurs all on its own. A glance at the book’s cover casts a curiously alluring spell over its viewer. Its cover shot (in paperback only; the limited hardcover edition has sold out) depicts a softly lit actress, eyes closed in a kind of fever dream, covering her face with her fingers spread apart, her enormous, sparkling ring glinting. House is an impressive coffee table book worth savoring, and one that announces to guests that they should tread lightly. Its owner may possess a certain madness.
By Michele Galgana