Kier-La Janisse’s Work Meets a New Feminist Essential in House of Psychotic Women: Rarities Collection

Movies Features Kier-La Janisse
Kier-La Janisse’s Work Meets a New Feminist Essential in House of Psychotic Women: Rarities Collection

Who gains the most from Severin’s impressive House of Psychotic Women: Rarities Collection: The psychotic women in each of the set’s four films, or Kier-La Janisse, the scholarly woman who coined their appellation? It’s a head-scratcher. Fortunately, there’s always an easy way out: Pick option c), the audience, the ultimate beneficiaries of both Janisse’s efforts at mapping cinema’s long history of presenting beleaguered female characters as they unravel before our eyes, and Severin’s efforts at restoring deep cuts in Janisse’s psychotic women canon.

Typically, mention of Janisse’s seminal genre text, House of Psychotic Women, first published in 2012, conjures up a handful of popularized titles: Thriller: A Cruel Picture, Repulsion, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and especially Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession, the standard-bearer of psychotic women films. Though words like “epic” or “iconic” have been drained of meaning by pop culture, “iconic” is the most correct way to describe Possession. A picture arguably known best for the image of Isabelle Adjani thrashing in a quagmire of her own inscrutable bodily fluids, a viscous breakdown suffered alone in a West Berlin subway station, Possession occupies considerable real estate in the psychotic women movie canon. There’s nothing wrong with the influence it wields, mind you. It’s held in high esteem for good reason, Adjani’s performance in particular.

But a canon mustn’t be defined by a single movie, or even a single subset of movies, and here lies the value of House of Psychotic Women: Rarities Collection: Spotlighting a quartet of films typically overlooked when invoking the phrase “psychotic women.” In Grzegorz Warchol’s I Like Bats, Izabela (Katarzyna Walter), a young, single vampire content with her unlife, falls hard for hunky psychiatrist Rudolf Jung (Marek Barbasiewicz), and rapidly loses her grip on her selfhood; in Jane Arden’s The Other Side of the Underneath, experimental cinema combines with radical theater in a surrealist, challenging and mentally taxing series of therapy sessions with a handful of schizophrenic patients; in Luigi Bazzoni’s Footprints, Alice (Florinda Bolkan) wakes up one morning to find that she’s either slept for several days straight or forgotten what happened to her throughout those days; and in Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s Identikit, Lise (Elizabeth Taylor) takes a Roman holiday in search of something she won’t articulate and which the audience doesn’t find out about until it’s too late.

House of Psychotic Women: Rarities Collection gives each of these titles their first U.S. Blu-ray release, but Identikit is clearly intended as the set’s marquee film: Taylor’s image serves as the box’s cover art, as well as the menu background on all four discs. This feels like a nod to the immediate recognizability conferred on Taylor by her screen legend status, which in turn confers recognizability on the set. Taylor commands attention, a quality central to Lise and Identikit’s fractured narrative: She strides through space after space, room after room, performatively purposeful but obviously unnerved, like she’s cold but either too proud or too bashful to put on a coat. It’s impossible not to look at her, for viewers, for passersby in the streets, for INTERPOL agents observing her through security footage in between interrogating people who have randomly encountered Lise while going about their days. Partly it’s Lise’s outfit—she resembles a runaway circus tent wearing a knotty, bedraggled wig—but mostly it’s her deportment. She carries herself like a star when she’s more of a bolide.

Why would Lise want to attract attention to herself while architecting her own murder? That’s Identikit’s real mystery. But attention plays a key role in tying House of Psychotic Women: Rarities Collection’s films together through a common theme, apart from the “psychotic” detail. Izabela vigorously eschews male attention in I Like Bats; Alice is wary of attention in Footprints; the therapist in The Other Side of the Underneath, played by Arden herself, attends her patients’ breakdowns and mental unrest, not necessarily the products of behavioral illnesses but undoubtedly influenced by behavioral strain. Wanting to be seen and not wanting to be seen, and the complications of how society sees women period, are core attributes to these movies. In a bitter stroke of irony, the audience plays into or tramples over the wishes and desires of each protagonist by the mere act of watching, which could be read as part of the point of the exercise.

In watching these films, the old becomes new as the boundaries of viewer complicity blur, then dissolve. It’s slightly disingenuous to qualify, say, Footprints or I Like Bats as “old” being as neither of them received Stateside releases; The Other Side of the Underneath and Identikit, meanwhile, did, and yet the latter barely played in theaters before tumbling into the bootlegging void while the former could have played in theaters for all eternity and still likely would have attracted a meager, niche audience. Underneath isn’t to everybody’s taste or constitution, which isn’t a knock on Arden’s work as much as fair warning that watching her film means entering an agreement with Arden’s topsy-turvy depiction of mental degradation: You, the viewer, do all the heavy lifting and the film burdens your shoulders with weight.

Identikit falls under a similar heading of pseudo inscrutability. Griffi’s movie, at least, arrives at cogency by the end, where the fragments of narrative and plot scattered throughout its 102-minute runtime assemble into the truth of Lise’s visit to Rome. Until that point, Identikit, like The Other Side of the Underneath, comprises so many alchemies and impressions of reality that we can’t separate fact from fiction, much less determine motive. Even at the end, once Griffi has supplied us with the “what,” we still don’t quite know the “why,” but here’s the real question: Does it matter? Do we need to understand why Lise travels abroad to find the right man to administer her death? Do we need to understand the impetuses that have driven each of the women in The Other Side of the Underneath into the therapist’s care, or do we simply need to appreciate that they need care at all?

In both movies, the leads eat themselves the way fire eats candles, which seems far more important than playing detective to discover the cultural forces that have led them to their self-consumption. Those forces are meaningful, of course, but Identikit and The Other Side of the Underneath emphasize experience over concrete revelations. Comparatively, Footprints is downright straightforward, and that’s saying something in light of the dissociative identity disorder and paranoia both functioning as gears for the plot. How does Alice fall asleep in Rome, wake up in the Turkish island of Garma as her alter ego Nicole, then wake up again in Rome two days later without an inkling of “what” or “why”? It’s a mystery tied to childhood, sort of a prototype for films like Oldboy and Shutter Island. As twisty and bendy as Bazzoni’s work gets, though, Footprints is an easier read that’s likewise focused on experience, with the added effect of offering us the “why” that Griffi and Arden deny us, and not just the “what.”

I Like Bats is the second disc in the collection, but save it for last: It’s easy, breezy, bleakly hilarious in the way comedy-adjacent Eastern European films tend to be, and brisk at roughly 80 minutes, a perfect chaser for the set’s other three shots. Izabela doesn’t want a man. She doesn’t need one. The serial killer stalking around town slaying hapless women is no match for her, and her milquetoast suitors aren’t either. Jung is her undoing, a man so dashing and, well, manly that she tells him that she’s a vampire, and eventually sacrifices her vampirism for his sake. Where Lise, Alice and the league of patients are fiercely protective of or submerged in their womanhood, Izabela is willing to give hers up after spending Warchol’s film blithely hanging onto hers. She’s an outlier, and yet that’s why I Like Bats fits well alongside Identikit, Footprints and The Otherside of the Underneath: Female identity and sensation is the heart of their stories, and that they interrogate and explore these dual elements with sensibilities opposite I Like Bats’ further layers the “topography of female neurosis” Janisse established in her original book.

Ultimately, though, it isn’t the book that benefits most from this set, though, or even the movies. It’s the canon. As more psychotic women films are released—see 2021’s Censor and 2022’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair for a pair of recent candidates for the canon—our understanding of what Janisse intended to accomplish when she popularized that phrase in 2012 must expand to include new depictions of female madness in horror cinema (and, for that matter, genre cinema writ large). House of Psychotic Women: Rarities Collection facilitates that expansion. Like Janisse’s text, it’s a new essential.

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer..

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