Mental about movies: Kier-La Janisse’s House of Psychotic Women

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The Montreal anglo arts and media scene is very small and incestuous, to the point where the line between “community coverage” and “back-scratching nepotism” is sometimes blurry. And so it was with some hesitation that I approached an interview with Kier-La Janisse—intrepid programmer at Fantasia, Film Pop and the late, lamented underground screening room Blue Sunshine, as well as the author of the new book House of Psychotic Women, published by Fab Press.

Although we are not close friends, we know each other through a multitude of overlapping roles—I was her editor at a certain recently departed weekly newspaper, and she programmed a documentary of mine at Film Pop and other festivals. But I’ll swear on the tattered remains of my journalistic integrity that I’m hyping her book here not because of these connections, but because it’s eminently worthy of attention.

House of Psychotic Women is a new kind of book: an in-depth analysis of the ways female neurosis and psychosis are portrayed in horror films, woven through with a bracingly candid autobiographical story that unsparingly chronicles the author’s shockingly dysfunctional childhood, extreme relationship dramas and multiple mental breakdowns.

“It seems kind of self-absorbed to write an autobiography when no one knows or cares who you are,” Janisse admits with typical self-deprecation. The book took over a decade to complete, but as she explains, “most of that time wasn’t spent writing, most of it was spent reorganizing the material. Originally there were no autobiographical elements at all. It was going to be a book of essays about different films, many of which I’d already published in my fanzines and stuff.”

Her university studies found her detouring into feminist film theory, but as she recalls, “I got disillusioned with academic writing and then had to start it again from scratch.” After discussions with friends who urged her to “write from the gut,” she asked herself: “Ultimately, what’s my point? What am I trying to accomplish? And I realized that what I was trying to accomplish was personal. Once I started focusing on that, the writing got a lot easier.”

On top of the film analysis and autobiography, the 360-page tome includes an appendix exploring the films in even more detail, plus a coffee table book-worthy gallery of lurid film posters. It makes for a unique read that defiantly straddles genres and markets. “I definitely worry about horror audiences just wanting the movie stuff, and thinking it’s totally self-absorbed and narcissistic. So I’m expecting a lot of negative criticism from that side. Also, feminists are probably going to hate it,” she laughs. “So I don’t know what the audience will be.”

But there’s a lot to appreciate in the book, both in her counterintuitive but persuasive feminist reading of a genre often dismissed as misogynist, and in the courage she shows in recounting her personal struggles. She sets the tone early on when she defines the project’s goal with the powerfully simple statement: “I wanted to know why I was crazy.”

“A lot of this talk about craziness was kind of a reclamation of the word, and how it’s not that bad to be crazy,” she declares, concluding with a laugh: “I think of it as a superpower that can be used for good or evil.” ■

Kier-La Janisse launches House of Psychotic Women at Fantasia with a screening of Richard Loncraine’s 1977 supernatural thriller Full Circle (aka The Haunting of Julia) on Sunday, July 22 at Concordia’s J.A. De Sève Theatre, 3:15 p.m. Fantasia is also screening other films analyzed in the book; more info here.

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