Film programmer/curator Kier-La Janisse will be making a trip to PhilaMOCA on Wednesday, November 28 for a screening of Paul Naschy’s Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (1973) that ties into her latest book, House of Psychotic Women, an “autobiographical exploration of female neurosis in horror and exploitation films.” Event co-presenter Joseph A. Gervasi recently spoke to Kier-La at length regarding the publication, childhood horrors, and her own mental instability.
CINEDELPHIA: Would you please outline the basic premise of your new book, House of Psychotic Women?
KIER-LA JANISSE: It’s an examination of female neurosis in (mostly) horror and exploitation films, told from an autobiographical perspective. There are two parts to the book: the first part which is where personal stories from my life interweave with the film analyses, hopefully forming some sort of coherent narrative; and the second part, which is a large appendix of individual reviews of a couple hundred films featuring crazy or neurotic women.
C: What was it about the subject matter that compelled you to write the book?
KJ: I just love crazy female characters in films. Well, I love crazy characters, period, but I’m always interested in that breakdown of propriety, and seeing how people react to it. And women have been culturally pressured to avoid histrionics — they’re so aware of that “hysterical woman” stereotype and how it immediately results in a dismissal of one’s ideas or anxieties. So they really fight against showing those emotions, even when they are totally, absolutely warranted. So when you have a movie full of women freaking out, screaming, breaking and smashing stuff, well to me it’s like looking at something you’re not supposed to look at. To see the transition of “in control” to “out of control” and trying to catch it, to figure out what makes that switch go off. Where is the dividing line? And I mean ultimately, I realized that my fascination was personal, it was because I was self-analysing through these characters.
C: The phenomenon of “hysteria” can function as both catharsis and self-destruction. Do you ever see a positive side to these breakdowns — both for characters in certain films and for yourself as a spectator? [This question was submitted by Lisa Jane Davis.]
KJ: I see a positive side in these breakdowns in fictional characters for sure, because they become points of comparison for real life behaviour, and, in my case, have often been the barometer against which I measure my own crazy behaviour. As for the positive side of hysteria in real life, I haven’t seen a positive side in relationships, it is just alienating behaviour that I wish I could control — although like any form of mental instability (stereotypically speaking), it goes hand in hand with my creativity.
C: Writing and assembling a book such as yours seems as if it would be a tremendously exhausting and demanding process (and perhaps even psychologically draining considering the personal nature of some of your research). Do you feel the birthing process of the book was rough on you?
KJ: Yes, especially as it got toward the end. I really didn’t want to finish it. I mean, I wanted to, but subconsciously I didn’t, I was really fighting against it. I kept making myself so busy that I never had time to work on it. And I knew that it was because there was some stuff I would have to talk about at the end that I didn’t want to talk about.
C: FAB Press is known for their lavishly-illustrated, gorgeous books. How did you feel upon holding the completed product — your word and image baby — in your hands?
KJ: It seemed like it must be somebody else’s book, it seemed too nice to have come from me. But then again, that’s FAB Press, they specialize in these beautiful film books, overflowing with stills and posters. So I was lucky that Harvey was interested in this book and willing to give it the FAB treatment. The hardcover in particular looks pretty impressive.
C: In putting a work of both critical and personal nature out into the world where it stimulates the brains of so many people you don’t know, how did you prepare yourself for the reception of those outside your circle of friends and peers?
KJ: I’m not prepared! So far I’ve only really heard from people I know, and they seem to like it, but I am not prepared for the anonymous bloggers.
C: Having seen so many movies both in film programming and in your writing research, did you come upon some films that were so rancid in their misogyny (either inferred or implicit) that they personally repulsed you? If so, could you name some and perhaps detail a bit of what you found so repellent about them?
KJ: Ha ha, no. I think for me to be really repulsed, the protagonists have to be the misogynists, and so a movie like John Carpenter’s Vampire$ (1998) was more offensive to me than something like Rape Squad (1974; aka Act of Vengeance) or The New York Ripper (1982).
C: As kids, we all saw films — likely those we may not have been psychologically prepared for — that left an indelible impression upon us. These are movies that may not hold up well or may suffer from serious creative or budgetary flaws when viewed by the cold and analytical eye of an adult, but still retain a potency in at least some of their scenes or imagery. For me, some of these early and disturbing viewings were of films such as The Exorcist (1973), Death Dream (1974), Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971), Fear No Evil (1981) and a handful of others. What were yours and did any of them plant a seed in your brain that later bloomed into your book?
KJ: In terms of horror, well some of the kids horror films, Watcher in the Woods (1980) and The Devil and Daniel Mouse (1978) definitely affected me, moreso than many adult horror films. Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) was another one, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1973), and for some reason the film Foul Play (1978) scared the CRAP out of me as a kid. I saw it in the theatre with my dad, and I remember getting in an argument with my mother afterwards because she kept trying to tell me Foul Play was a comedy, but I wasn’t buying it. I was sure it was a horror film. Here’s an anecdote: when I was a kid I would never flush the toilet if I got up to go to the bathroom at night, and my mom always thought it was because I forgot, and she would give me hell about it. But the real reason was that I was convinced that if someone attacked me in the bathroom, the toilet flushing would be so loud that my parents wouldn’t hear me screaming. And I’m pretty sure that fear came from Don Calfa attacking Goldie Hawn in the bathroom in Foul Play.
Joseph A. Gervasi and PhilaMOCA present a screening of Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (aka House of Psychotic Women) on Wednesday, November 28 at 8:00 PM (doors at 7:30). Kier-La Janisse will be in attendance with copies of her book.