In 2012, Kier-La Janisse’s House of Psychotic Women hit bookshelves – forever altering how critics approached writing about film. Interwoven with deeply personal anecdotes and well-researched film history, Janisse charts horror cinema’s love of using the “crazy” woman archetype and how it altered, spoke to, and enhanced her life. The lines between memoir and movie review blur as Janisse explores the impact these texts (often overlooked films) have had on cinema history, hers, and ours – an approach that was then novel and boldly brought films like Possession into the esteem it has today. Her seminal book questions why and how horror films have used women’s psychological trauma, pain, and neurosis as the backbone of their stories. And, as importantly, how viewers can find catharsis and emotional resonance through their journeys with each film.
Ten years after its groundbreaking debut, Janisse rereleased the title under Fab Press in 2022 – including over 100 film additions and a lush 48-page full-color spread of gorgeous movie posters and film stills. To celebrate the book’s recent rerelease, I spoke with the filmmaker, author, and scholar about how it felt to revisit the text, expand it, and revisit the neurotic women of horror cinema a decade later in a global book tour.
You’re about to go on tour in the UK to discuss this expanded edition of your work. Before we dive into the book, I’d love to hear what are you most looking forward to about the experience.
Kier-La Janisse: I've been traveling since July with it. I'm going to Spain in two days. But the UK one is interesting because it's being arranged by this group called Matchbox Cine. They’re sort of rogue programmers that do events all over the UK, so they got special funding from the British Film Institute because they have a horror season that they were accepting kind of grant applications. Matchbox applied for it to bring me all over the world on tour partnered with all these other regional festivals and stuff like that.
It is really a whirlwind tour. I arrive and I'm in each place for like one day, and then I'm on the train the next morning to the next place. Normally, when I visit places, I like visiting locations and stuff. I won't be able to do any of that because it's just bam, bam, bam!
I don't think I've ever done something that's the equivalent of what a rock band does when they go on tour – where it's a different town every night, and they perform each night. So it's the first time I've done something like that. I used to go to the UK all the time and this is my first time back in a long time, so I'm really looking forward to that, meeting some new people at some of the festivals that I've spoken to online with for a long time, but have not met in person. I think that'll be really fun.
I love this line from the book’s preface: “It was imperative to me that the book remain as it existed then, a piece of its time and a document of where I was as a writer, a thinker, an ‘expert,’ a person.” For a lot of writers, there’s definitely a kind of seduction to the idea that you can get a redo but that brings up a lot of questions about what you want to conceal of how you felt then versus now. What ultimately led you to decide on this pathway for the expanded edition?
I think a big part of that is because it's an autobiographical book, so the subjective is really important. Who I was in 2012 is really important to the book.
I have a friend who wrote a book about Andy Milligan, the filmmaker, and that came out around 2002 – [The Ghastly One: The 42nd Street Netherworld of Director Andy Milligan by Jimmy McDonough.] He just re-issued a new edition, so he revised his. A part of why he revised his book is that he learned new things about this filmmaker’s life, so he had corrections. The focus of that book – even though his book does have a sense of the autobiographical in it because he knew Andy Milligan in person and helped him out a lot in the later years of his life – is for others to learn about that filmmaker…. It's more important in that sense for Jimmy to go in and update things if he has new information or facts – correct things that may have been errors the first time around or omissions. In certain types of books, it makes sense to revise the book and update the book, but I felt like with House of Psychotic Women, because it was so personal, it really needed to be left alone. That was something that struck me like I would be being like false if I started going in and meddling with it. Like it would be getting filtered too much through like who I am now. Not to mention, I don't like reading my own writing. [Laughs]
I look back at the writing I did and I just cringe. I'm just like, “Oh my god.” I have not reread House of Psychotic Women. But I flipped through it because, for instance, I started writing a new capsule for Misery thinking I had not written about it the first time around. But then I checked the book and realized that I had written it and my write-up is so obnoxious. The last sentence of my write-up for Misery is like, “Oh, this is like a movie for people who can't handle possession…” or something. I would not write that now, and it's embarrassing. It's also embarrassing because when I first wrote the book, I didn't think anyone would ever read it. But now there's a possibility Stephen King might read that, you know? I feel like if I went through the whole book and read it again, I would just want to change everything. I would just be like, “Oh, I hate that turn of phrase.” Or, “I love that movie now, and I hate that one.” There may be all kinds of politically incorrect shit in it that changed in the last 10 years. So I just decided, “Look, it is what it is. That's where I was in 2012.” I'm going to add to it. I do wish that I had thought to demarcate somehow which movies I added to the appendix now versus then.
Yeah, there are at least 100 more movie additions – like Resurrection, which I loved. What were the qualifications for them to be here?
I feel like there are movies that if I was going to be making like the definitive, comprehensive book that was going to have like, every movie of this type, there are movies that aren't in it, that should be in it. But a lot of it came down to it something like Mulholland Drive. Mulholland Drive is mentioned throughout the book – it's mentioned in other reviews like when I talk about personality swapping and things like this – but it doesn't have its own capsule. Part of that was like, “Okay, I can only write about 100 films..” Since I have limited time and space, I think it’s important to focus on films that don't have whole other books written about them. Rosemary's Baby, for instance, part of why it didn't have an entry the first time around was, I was trying to limit the gaslighting type of movies – like where the woman isn't actually crazy. But she's depicted as crazy the whole time, and then you realize it's all real. I tried to limit those movies because the woman is not actually crazy but they're definitely playing with that language. But I break my own rules constantly based on terms of like what's included and what's not. So I'm making an exception for other movies like that, but not Rosemary's Baby because people have written entire books about Rosemary's Baby. Nobody needs a 500-word capsule [review] from me on that movie. So I would rather use that space to write about a different movie, and then mention Rosemary's Baby and Mulholland Drive in the context of other movies as they're relevant.
The definition or categorization or the eligibility for what would make it into the book was really all over the place. A lot of it came down to whatever I felt like watching or writing. Again, with a lot of other writing projects I do, I don't indulge myself as much as I do with this one… With other book projects, I take a much more methodical approach where it has to make sense why it's there, and it has to be more comprehensive. House of Psychotic Women, because it's so personal, I just don't stick to any real method or logic. It’s all based on subjective feelings like how I feel that day and whatever I want to write about and even some of the write-ups themselves. I'm barely talking about the movie… Like the Steven Soderbergh movie Unsane. I don't think the movie is a masterpiece or anything like that. But I feel as though I've been in situations that are similar to that. And so that movie triggered all kinds of paranoia I have about somebody taking your agency away like that in the medical system and the way that people look at who's an authority on the truth, and how you lose that authority. As soon as you're in a hospital, suddenly, you have no credibility at all. So for that write-up, I'm basically talking about if anyone ever tries to get you to admit that you're suicidal, deny it – which is probably horrible. Somebody could get very mad at me for giving that advice. I'm not saying don't tell anyone, but if you tell a professional, they have to lock you up. It's their job. If they think you're going to hurt yourself, they are required to take action. Unfortunately, when that happens, it just makes things worse for you. If somebody puts you in a hospital against your will and takes away your ID and your phone and you have no contact with the outside world – nine times out of 10, that's a worse situation for you to be in…
Like isolating someone who already feels isolated?
Yeah. In that write-up, I'm almost talking about that stuff more than the movie. Even the write-ups themselves don't follow a structure where it's like one paragraph of synopsis, one paragraph of criticism, or something. It’s all over the place in terms of how I was feeling writing about that movie and what that movie triggered for me, or how it resonated with me. I would focus on that thing. It's an interesting project because I've obviously worked on a lot of writing projects, and I don't think I approach any of them the same way that I did this one.
Since its release and rerelease, is there a certain film people come up to you to explain how your book made them look at a film in a different way? Like, Possession comes up a lot in your book –
Well, Possession is that movie. This sounds totally asshole-ish to say, but my writing about Possession changed how people write about that film. I know that just based on like Daniel Byrd, who was Andrzej Żuławski’s biographer and archivist, somebody who was like writing about him in English language periodicals… In the ‘90s, he started championing Żuławski, because he was not known or appreciated in the West, really, stateside. This was decades before people liked that film. People hated Possession. They absolutely hated that movie. You know because I played it at a horror festival in 1999 and people hated it. I guarantee you those same people are wearing Possession t-shirts today as we speak.
I consider Byrd to be an authority on the history of these films and their audience reception and stuff like that. He wrote this article that was like, “Let's talk about how Possession became popular…” He was like, this was not a popular film. People did not love this film. In the last 10 years, all of a sudden people love it… So in that article, he said that more than any other piece of writing, it was my book that changed the perception of that movie. I think that Byrd and Stephen Thrower were writing about Possession much earlier than me. I had written about it from this really personal perspective. They took a much more production history [approach] of how the film was made. They were interested in Żuławski as an auteur, as a director. My writing about it was not interested in that at all. It was more about the feelings of the movie and what it inspired in me and what I got out of it. Daniel was saying that basically, that's how people started writing about Possession. He was like, “Before, people found it a mess.” They didn't know how to describe it. They didn't know how to appreciate it… When I started writing about it from this purely emotional state, that's when that movie clicked with people – when they realized that they could just relate to it on that level. All of a sudden, people love Possession.
I don't wanna say understand it because it's not a movie, you can easily understand. But it resonated with them in a powerful way, once they knew that they could relate to it purely on an emotional level. Possession is one of those movies for sure. I feel like there are other movies where the book really popularized them to a certain extent. Like ones that have kind of been forgotten and now they're much more appreciated like Karen Arthur's movie The Mafu Cage. But I would say Possession is the only one where I think that my book actually had a hand in how people even relate to the movie, which I don't think is the same for The Mafu Cage. I think with that one, it was that it was a forgotten movie and then I made it more important in my book, so people were like, “Oh, what's this movie…” Once they found the movie, they went on their own journey with it. But I feel like Possession was the one where it was like I could feel an actual change in how people culturally accepted that movie based on my writing about it.
How does feel to have a hand in that? To know that your writing did that for Possession? It might feel incredible.
But at the same time, now I'm so sick of that movie. [Laughs.]... I feel like it's so oversaturated that it's like Star Wars cups at McDonald's. That’s just what happens when you get oversaturated with something: You cease to engage with it. It just becomes part of the noise. Unfortunately, Possession is relegated to that role for me now.
I have to introduce the movie at the BFI as part of my tour, so I have to talk enthusiastically about it. But I feel as though I've had a long journey with that film, and it's kind of at an end. So other people are now on their journey with the film and that's fine. But I've gone as far as I can go with it, I think.
Are there any newer films that you included in this book – either that you saw recently at festivals or what have you – that you’re having a journey with right now?
One of the last movies that I got into the book before it had to go to print was the movie Sissy – which is on Shudder now. I was done. I had handed in the book and there were a couple of last-minute additions and Sissy was one of them. I saw it at SXSW and then I just instantly went over to the computer and started writing about it. Again, it was because of the mood that I was in at that time.
When I watched it, I just had a good friend basically telling me they didn't want to be my friend anymore. I was a pain in the ass or whatever. I was in this state watching this movie. I was watching the difference between like this character [and her world.] She’s a social media guru with all these followers. She shares all this advice that's supposed to be healing, holistic, and calming, and people are like, “Oh my God, you've changed my life so much. You've done all these amazing things for me and helped me navigate the world better.” But then, she gets pulled back into an old high school social clique at this country getaway. Immediately, all this old baggage comes back – all the anxieties. So she keeps going to the bathroom, to go on Instagram and absorb the positive messages that people are giving her to try to calm herself down, try to recenter herself, and try to affirm that she is loved. Most people in the world do not think she's a piece of shit.
The way the movie is set up, I don't think it necessarily means to say the thing that I got out of it, but, when I was watching that, I kept thinking, “Some people, that's all they have.” Some people, the only people they have in their life that ever tell them that they are love are total fucking strangers on the internet. If that's all you have, there's nothing wrong with that. That was how I felt at that moment because I just had a friend telling me they don't want to be my friend anymore. And yet, on the internet, there are people who read my book, and they'll say all these nice things to me. So I felt like I related to the character at that moment where I was just like, “You know what, that's okay. It's not valueless. It's not like, “Oh, it's fucking fake. They don't know you.” It's like, “They know a part of you. They know something about you.” That still has value.
That was a movie that resonated with me at that moment, so I got it in the book at the last minute. The filmmakers were totally shocked when I told them that it was in the book. They thought I must be talking about some other movie called Sissy. They were like, “Our movie is too new. It wouldn't be in there.” I was like, “No, it’s your movie. I watched it at SXSW.” They couldn't believe it... I really liked that movie. Plus, it's super fun. It has all this fun slasher stuff going on. But it also just had this thing about it that I related to at that moment and that I felt like I needed to hear.
House of Psychotic Women Expanded Edition is now available for purchase from FAB Press.