HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN: Film Writing That Gives ‘Til It Hurts

If Schlockmania has a single criticism of film writing in this post-blogging era, it’s that the writers often demand total ego gratification without giving back anything in return.  Readers might find themselves trudging through a piece of writing in which they are bludgeoned at every turn with first-person opinion mongering that allows the writer to make themselves the subject of the piece as much as the film they write about… but you seldom get insight into who the writer is or what drives them beyond surface-level discussions of film watching experiences or nostalgic memories.

Those who wish to use their film writing gigs to position themselves as “personalities” in the fandom world need to be willing to give more of themselves to earn that honor.  If you’re going to put yourself on a pedestal alongside your cinematic subject matter, you better be willing to bleed a little on the page. If you want an example of how this is done, one of the most notable entries in this critic-autobio genre is House Of Psychotic Women by Kier-La Janisse.

It’s two books in one.  The first is a study of films about the subject of a woman losing her mind, written from a scholarly female perspective.  The second is an autobiographical chronicle of a troubled young woman who uses her celluloid obsessions to do battle with a difficult life.  Janisse twists the two threads together until they are an indivisible double-helix, piecing together the shards of her life by juxtaposing them with films that allow her to make sense of her own jagged persona.

The result is not an easy read but it is an engrossing one.  Janisse’s sense of game as a critic is impressive.  Her choices of film range from grindhouse double-bill fodder (Legend Of The Wolf Woman, They Call Her One Eye) to obtuse arthouse fare (Secret Ceremony, Images) and gives each a insightful treatment that explores it in terms of the “mad woman” theme while delving into broader cultural and genre contexts.  No title is ever condescended to: everything is explored with the same level of obsessive, often academic analysis.

That said, what really makes House Of Psychotic Women linger in the memory is how Janisse allows the film analysis thread to dovetail with a soul-baring autobiography.  As she plunges into her past history, she shows a fearless, nostalgia-free sensibility as she draws connections between the films that consume her imagination and the often traumatic story of her life from childhood to early adult years.  She leaves no past pain unturned as she delves into family traumas, broken friendships, romantic disasters and psychological issues.  Few of today’s writers would be willing to be as frank about their own sufferings and shortcomings as Janisse is in this book.

The autobiographical part only lasts half of the book’s length, roughly 186 pages, with the remainder devoted to a quick, eye-catching section of stills and ad art plus a capsule review film guide that is almost as long as the main text.  However, it’s the autobiographical section that makes the case for the book as a necessity for horror/cult film aficionados.

A great film book should keep giving insight after the first read… and House Of Psychotic Women gives until it hurts.  It’s rare to get such an incisive, daring treatment of this subject matter from a film perspective and, as such, it should occupy a place of honor in the cult film text arena.


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