Kier-la Janisse’s House of Psychotic Women is not only the most important piece of longform film criticism of the 21st century, it’s the best. It’s a book that melds the blog world memoir culture with smart, historically-minded film crit, and in doing so it makes both literary genres stronger.
If you’re a fan of horror or exploitation movies you’ve answered the question ‘Why do you like this stuff?’ a million times. Sometimes you’ve even posed it to yourself. Janisse’s book gets right to the meat of the matter, weaving in autobiographical moments with movies whose themes and motifs reflect or resonate with those moments. And those moments are personal - Janisse’s mother’s rape (which is disbelieved by her father) leads into a discussion of the extraordinary ghost rape movie The Entity.
I’ve always bristled at the memoir aspect of some blogging film critics, but I think it’s because it’s done so poorly. Nobody cares what you ate the morning you saw a film. Nobody cares what your drive to the theater was like. I want your opinion of the film, not your sister who you dragged along. But there’s always been a sense that subjectivity is key to film criticism, even as we all pretend to be as objective as possible.
Janisse’s brutal honesty is the breakthrough needed. This isn’t just a generic ‘my life as a movie buff’ tome - House of Psychotic Women is very specifically about neurotic women in horror and exploitation film. Those neurotic women - those killers, those hysterics, those victims, those victimizers - present mirror images of Janisse’s life. When she’s put in a juvenile facility at 16, Janisse talks about JD movies. Her issues with her father (and step-father) are reflected in a slew of movies about daddy issues. The elements of her life impact the way she approaches and interprets these movies, and her life story gives us a new view of films we might otherwise dismiss.
What I like best about Janisse’s honesty is that she’s honest about how not bad her life is. Sure, by a lot of middle class standards she lived a rough childhood, but her time in juvie and the street punk culture led her to meet others who had it worse; the people who claim their childhoods were the worst are always the lamest people, the most self-involved, the least interesting. That Janisse downplays some of her traumas makes them only more immediate and real and makes her all the more relateable and human.
The memoir aspect is gripping; Janisse’s clear-eyed, self-aware writing almost veers into self-deprecating territory, but she never sells herself short. And she doesn’t sell anyone else short, either - she’s very empathetic even to the hurtful people in her life. Each trial, tribulation and triumph is smartly and seamlessly woven into an examination of film, and that stuff is even more gripping than the memoir aspect.
Janisse is just as clear-eyed when it comes to the movies. She’s measured and careful but enthusiastic; as is the case for the best film enthusiasts she understands that you can find greatness in films that aren’t, on the whole, particularly great. Janisse mines these films not just for the great bits but the great meanings and how they relate to her. What’s especially intriguing is the fact that Janisse, a woman and a feminist, is confronting a bunch of movies that could often be charitably called misogynistic. Instead of coming at them with a kneejerk political correctness, Janisse approaches them on their own terms. Again, she’s an enthusiast.
At the end of the book Janisse answers why SHE likes these kinds of movies. She explains what they say to HER. The journey to those answers reawakened the same questions in me, the kinds of questions I had put aside years ago in the aftermath of the grindhousing of cult culture. Exploring Janisse’s life led me to think back on mine, to connect the dots between my experiences and the fucked up, weird movies that float my boat. That’s the sign of truly great writing, that it transcends the purely personal and motivates you to examine yourself.
It’s worth noting that Janisse is a machine; I’m well-versed in exploitation film and yet House of Psychotic Women contains dozens of films I’ve never heard of, let alone seen. The first half of the book is the memoir interwoven with criticism, while the second half is an encyclopedia of films mentioned in the first half. It’s an essential reference item, a book you should have next to you wherever you find rare films. Consult this book often!
House of Psychotic Women explodes the boundaries between personal and objective examinations of films. Kier-la Janisse exposes herself completely, and in doing so allows us a totally new way into an often-maligned, little considered genre of film. I feel bad hoping for a sequel, because it might mean more bad life events for Janisse, but I do hope she returns with another book soon. We need smart, fearless voices like hers.