House of Psychotic Women: A confessional approach to exploitation films


House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films
By Kier-La Janisse
FAB Press 357pp £19.99

Never speak – or write – too soon. In the last Cine Lit column two new books on horror were reviewed and the speculation posited, ‘What more could possibly be said about the genre with such a tsunami of texts already out there?’ Well, I hadn’t counted on Kier-La Janisse’s House of Psychotic Women dropping through my letterbox. The subtitle alone invites one to wonder what hybrid narrative lies within and the author states very clearly – and contentiously – within what terms this cultural confessional will unfold. It is worth quoting at some length as it gives a precise indication as to the tone and uniquely subjective nature of the book:

When I first started edging into film writing in the mid-’90s, I was all about girl power; how horror films (even slasher films) were empowering to women, how most horror films were about men’s anxieties concerning the nature of femininity and female sexuality, gender relations, castration anxiety – all this great meaty stuff… For a female horror fan/exploitation fan, that’s a great place to start; certainly much more productive than denouncing the whole genre all together as some counter-revolutionary, misogynist exercise… I wanted to explore neurotic characterization as comprehensively as I could, but I didn’t want to write a dense book on horror theory… if I started leaning too much on Freud and Lacan I’d be out of my depth. I needed to focus on what I know: namely, that the films I watch align with my personal experience that every woman I have ever met in my entire life is completely crazy, in one way or another. [A good thing a man did not write this!]

She goes on:

I myself have been the subject of a film Celluloid Horror, 2003… the film delved into some uncomfortable subject matter: my adolescent propensity for physical violence, my history in group homes, foster homes and detention centres, and the years of involuntary therapy…Most painful of all, it captured the disintegration of my brief marriage. My constructive participation in genre film exhibition and promotion has curbed my (often misdirected) aggression to a great degree. As my own neurosis became more subdued I found myself unconsciously drawn to female characters who exhibited signs of behaviour I had recognized in myself: repression, delusion, paranoia, hysteria…my life is enveloped by chaos…Unresolved issues weigh heavily on me: feelings of failure, sabotaged relationships, blinding anger…

As she points out, the book ‘follows her personal trajectory’ as she examines cinematic patterns and weaves in and out of film synopses and critiques as they relate to her, and she is clear on this point: it is primarily a book about her life. Of course, the problem with such a unique autobiographical approach to film writing is whether the reader really cares about the author and his/her life and hard times, and with regard to that I remain ambivalent.

It is a problematic tightrope to walk between film analysis taken as a personal critical odyssey on the one hand, and film analysis as an excuse for self-indulgent therapy on the other. And here Janisse falters, sometimes delivering a fine balancing act, sometimes falling off the wire. For her breadth of knowledge of the genre and her erudite and insightful critiques of individual films there is much to admire in, and learn from, the book, but whether writing it from such a psycho-therapeutic point of view adds to the reader’s appreciation or knowledge of the genre is in question – as is my (male) awareness of the gender politics that bear on it. There was a curious sense of guilt, atonement and apology arising between the lines, which was distracting, and the book – absorbing and even brave as it is – comes off as an articulate and intelligent volume of confessions that frame the films, rather than the other way around. A one-of-a-kind experience to be sure.

James B. Evans