Sunday 18 May 2014

House Of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films

Top Kier

House Of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films
by Kier-La Janisse 
FAB Press 
ISBN: 978-1903254691

Wow. This book is really great.

You know, when you get to my age and you start reading books about your passions - in this case the art of film  - you start realising that a lot of factual errors are getting into print these days. I can only conclude that a lot of the people writing these things are way younger than me, do not know quite what they’re talking about and, worse, don’t have anyone at their publishing house checking their facts. Either that or they’re all very ancient and suffering from senility or some such unfortunate condition.

I’ve also noticed a lot of spelling mistakes creeping into print these days too... which I find almost inexcusable.

Kier-La Janisse’s mouthful title of a book, House Of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films, doesn’t suffer from any of this stuff and, I have to say, it’s certainly the most interesting book I’ve read on genre film, and one of the best tomes on any kinds of film history that I’ve read in a long time. I’m not saying it doesn’t have any faults... you know me, I always find something to complain about, but those faults don’t stem from the writing in any way (yeah, don’t worry, I’ll get to them later).

One of the things that make this book seem like a breath of fresh air in a wilderness of genre studies is the approach to roughly the first half of the book... it’s actually like having two heavily illustrated books in one, which is a bargain. The two halves are split by a generous section of colour photographs highlighting posters and film stills from various movies discussed here, with the second half being an absolutely invaluable appendix section of alphabetical reviews of some of the author’s favourite films that have a prominent psychotic woman. Some of the entries in this section are quite small but, in those cases, it’s because the writer has already covered those films in more detail in the first half of the book.

And the first half of the book just blew me away.

The author has been a film programmer for various famous cinematic venues in America but, she is also a self confessed psychotic woman... her term for a quick character reference, not mine. It is this bold revelation which gives the thrust of the title and its contents, of course. The whole first half of the book deals with her own bad behaviour and mental insecurities and expressions but she choses to tell her story in a convoluted and wildly entertaining way... by comparing her true life experiences of various traumatic episodes with those of her favourite, female, celluloid psychos and so, each chapter covers a few films which she briefly summarises, passes critical judgement on and then relates back to her own life in some way. This is fantastic stuff.

Just to give you a quick taste, here’s a quote from the book where she’s talking about a documentary film made about her called Celluloid Horror (it’s on my "to acquire" list):

“... my adolescent propensity for physical violence, my history in group homes, foster homes and detention centres, and the years of involuntary therapy that only encouraged my rebellion further. Most painful of all, it captured the disintegration of my brief marriage.”

And that’s just from the introduction.

What’s marvellous about this work is the author's ability to look at her own life history, good and bad, and treat it with an objective and critical eye, which demonstrates both her intelligence to question and rationalise it... before she feeds it back into certain psychotic women from various horror and exploitation movies made over the years. I don’t know who this woman is but she “had me” from the opening pages and I became an ardent admirer of her writing style, expressive flourishes and insight very quickly. I didn’t always agree with her judgements of certain characters or inclusions, particularly in the case of Four Flies On Grey Velvet and Morvern Callar... but that’s okay. I’m surprised I agreed with so much stuff she was saying.

Another good thing which came out of this book, asides from a really great read on this kind of material, is the fact that I now have a lot more films I need to see... which I find quite amazing. When I read books on horror and exploitation... and Janisse doesn’t fall into the trap of mistaking one for the other, as a lot of writers do... I usually have a short list of about four or five films which have managed to get past me and which I would like to add to my growing backlog of movies to watch. This time I came away with a list of 37 movies I definitely need to see. That’s a lot and, the worst of that is, I reckon at least half of them aren’t commercially available either. Time to start asking around at the Westminster and Camden film fairs again, methinks. But this is all good stuff and it was the final straw that brought me to finally purchase Zulawski’s Possession and watch the damn thing (expect a perplexed and bewildered review of that movie on this blog sometime in the next few weeks).

I said there were a couple of not so good things about this book and they both stem from the design... which is interesting. The thing is, the layout of the book looks great... but it’s not so functional or practical.

The length of line, for example, is way greater than the 12 - 16 words you would get in the majority of books and so the strain from both concentration and eye flick is appalling. Coupled with this, the print in the book is really tiny. It looks like it’s 8pt or something and although there’s a lot of content and this may have forced the decision from a financial issue, I think this was a big mistake. I had some trouble but the psychotherapist/counsellor I showed it to over a stolen lunch hour found it so difficult to focus that I know there’s no way she would ever read it in this form... which is a shame. And, of course, the small print also contributes to that problem with “length of line”. If the publishers were this dead set on going down to this size then I would have preferred to have read it either double or triple columned, if truth be told (which also lessens the page count, as a bizarre typographic symptom... something I always find amazing, even when I know the science behind it). Note to the publishers: there’s so much content in this book that, if you’d have blown the type up a few points and then published it as two separate volumes, I would have happily shelled out double the money for the same content dressed differently. It would have been an even easier read than it already is, too.

That aside, Kier-La Janisse’s House Of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films is easily one of the coolest, riveting and entertaining books I’ve read on film in a good few years. I would recommend this wholeheartedly to anyone who is into horror and/or exploitation films and, also, for anyone who is into the idea of a “case study” owning her own perceived neurosis and converting it into something knowledgable which enriches other peoples lives through what can be learnt from it. An absolutely invaluable resource and a truly interesting work from a truly interesting character. One of my few “must reads” of the year.

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