Living in the Muck: A Conversation with Kier-La Janisse

The cult, horror, and exploitation specialist discusses the new edition of her essential tome "House of Psychotic Women."
Margaret Barton-Fumo
Canadian author, director, festival programmer, and publisher Kier-La Janisse is a true renaissance woman when it comes to film, having sculpted a unique career focusing on cult, horror, and exploitation cinema. Through her small press, Spectacular Optical, she has published books on French fantastique director Jean Rollin, the satanic panic craze, Christmas horror, and bizarre children’s films, among other fantastically niche topics. In recent years her directorial debut, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror (2021), won Best Documentary at several festivals, inspired folk horror film screenings in theaters and on Shudder, and was released as part of a massive, fifteen-disc box set through Severin Films. And now, ten years after its initial publication, FAB Press is releasing a new edition of her essential tome, House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films
Now including a preface and 100 new capsule reviews, the anniversary edition expands Janisse’s pioneering work on the depiction of female neurosis in horror films, while drawing attention to the evolution of the genre over the past ten years. There are many more women directors working in horror now, plus the emergence of acclaimed distributors like A24 that specialize in marketing so-called “elevated horror.” For better or for worse, horror is taken more seriously now than it was in 2012, and Janisse’s new capsule reviews take this into account, adding to an already thorough appendix of titles. Horror-psychological thriller hybrids like Andrew Semans’s Resurrection (2022) are included in the new edition, as are chilling, stylized dramas that bear that genre’s influence, like Pablo Larraín’s Spencer (2021). However, Janisse’s ten essays at the front end of the book remain unchanged, as they are an earnest and intensive analysis of a past that cannot be changed. Experimenting with her own brand of autofiction, Janisse combines her personal recollection of a rocky upbringing with relevant particulars of horror film theory, history, and analysis, sketching out the life of an underground cinephile in striking detail. Think of Martin Scorsese or Bertrand Tavernier’s respective journeys through cinema, except really fucked up, with a dedicated breakdown of Jörg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik (1988). Or for a literary comparison, Nathalie Léger’s hybrid monograph Suite for Barbara Loden, which was coincidentally published the same year as House of Psychotic Women.
As she explains in the following interview, Janisse has been driven to share her knowledge of film from a young age, often discovering now-major filmmakers years before their spike in popularity. Her work with the Miskatonic Institute, which she founded, has helped spread horror studies on an international scale. Speaking to us from her home in Canada one fall morning, she further educated us with anecdotes about her own life, information about the new edition of her book, and her thoughts on contemporary horror.

Let's Scare Jessica to Death (John D. Hancock, 1971).
NOTEBOOK: You’re largely self-taught, right? You constructed an education outside of schooling in order to learn more about film?
KIER-LA JANISSE: I did go to university—I didn’t finish, but I went, so I did have to do essay writing, but in terms of film and genre studies in particular, I never took any single class that dealt with that at all. 
NOTEBOOK: Have you always felt the urge to share your knowledge about film or was it a natural extension of your own intense study?
JANISSE: I think it was always important for me to share things with other kids. I went home for a visit one time as an adult and the neighbor across the street said to me, “I heard you’re running a film festival now; you were always such an organizer in the neighborhood,” and I was like, Really? And she told me how I was always organizing events and things like a circus and getting the neighborhood kids involved—and I never thought of that before but I guess it’s connected, you know? I always wanted to find some way to share my enthusiasm somehow, rather than keep it to myself.
NOTEBOOK: You’ve done a great service encouraging alternative forms of education with the Miskatonic Institute. How did that come about?
JANISSE: I started out organizing events and I got to know so many scholars that were never able to teach the topics that they were really good at. That was one of the problems that I had with higher education, that you’re paying so much money to be taught by someone and that’s not even their research area. So Miskatonic for me was partially about tapping into that knowledge and allowing teachers to give a whole class about one element of horror that they were interested in, and encouraging them to get really niche. 
It’s weird because there’s always been great horror critics, and a lot of great horror writing, but it just never crossed over. I feel like it’s totally exploded in academia within the last decade, since I’ve been doing Miskatonic, but when I started it, at the time, horror was not being taken seriously. 
NOTEBOOK: For a long time there was just Carol J. Clover.
JANISSE: Carol Clover doesn’t even care about horror movies. I mean, that book [Men, Women and Chainsaws] is essential, but it was like a momentary point of interest for her. It wasn’t like her life was about horror. I feel like a lot of academics now are fans of horror and they’re changing academia, infecting academic writing with their enthusiasm in ways that are unstoppable. They were always told before to curb that enthusiasm, to remain objective and neutral in academic writing. But I think that academics are really changing that right now, insisting that enthusiasm is a part of making these works accessible and challenging the idea of the elitism of academic textbooks. A lot of academics are also pushing towards the accessibility of their books, especially with e-books, because the universities can no longer use it as an excuse that printing books is too expensive.
NOTEBOOK: I think that your book incorporates the best of those different worlds. It’s a great hybrid and the layout appears to be inspired by underground magazines like Eyeball, or cult movie bibles like Danny Peary’s Cult Movies trilogy, Midnight Movies by Hoberman and Rosenbaum, or Nightmare USA by Stephen Thrower. Were you influenced by different types of publications?
JANISSE: My writing was definitely influenced by a lot of things like that, especially Eyeball. I was buying issues of Eyeball in real time, in print, when it was a magazine and before the issues were assembled into a book. But in terms of the layout, I designed it myself. The publisher is very good at mimicking things, so I laid out basically ten pages, and I also laid out the color section, but I feel like there’s elements that definitely come from other things. 
NOTEBOOK: My first copy of your book has a montage of images from Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) on the cover. I’ve read that the original hardcover had an image of Possession (1981) and this new one has a still from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981)—is that your favorite of the images?
JANISSE: That is my favorite. That was the first paperback cover but it was a short run because the publisher didn’t like the image. He thought it looked too grainy and that people would think he didn’t know how to scan an image properly. He never liked it but he did a short run of it to appease me, and as soon as it ran out, he switched it to the Let’s Scare Jessica to Death cover.
NOTEBOOK: I like that one too but the Borowczyk cover is more immersive . . .  It’s such a hazy, dewy image.
JANISSE: It feels much more personal to me, like that’s often my state of mind. [Laughs.]
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (Walerian Borowczyk, 1981).
NOTEBOOK: So in the original House of Psychotic Women there are the essays, the capsules. In the new edition you’ve added something like 100 new capsule reviews. Did you consider adding another essay, or did you just want to keep it at ten?
JANISSE: I really wanted to keep it as it was because I wanted it to be a book of its time. It’s so subjective and personal, so much about where my head was at when I wrote it, and I thought that was important to preserve. So for better or for worse I’m just leaving it as a time capsule. However, I knew that the appendix could stand to be updated, especially because there are so many more women making these kinds of films now just in the past ten years and there’s hundreds more movies. There’s definitely more that I could have added, and I did add a new preface, but I just wanted to leave the chapters as they were so that I could remember what I was like at that age. I think I had just turned 40 when I published it. That’s where I was in life, as a writer, and that was how I thought. 
NOTEBOOK: You mention in the preface that in the future, you might expand the capsules even more to include not-quite-horror films.
JANISSE: Yes, and it’s such a big project that I might be sick of House of Psychotic Women before I get to the point of considering it. When I started collating everything, I only had time to write a hundred new reviews so I really needed to privilege the horror ones because that is what the tagline on the cover says. Even movies like Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970), for instance, could fit into this book. But in the future there could be an edition of the book that doesn’t have that horror and exploitation categorization.
NOTEBOOK: Another change that I’ve noticed since the first edition was published is the growing popularity of Andrzej Żuławski. He’s now much better known. When I interviewed him a long time ago he had already changed his stance on the term “hysterical” and found it very offensive. 
JANISSE: Yes, and I even quote what he said in Eyeball in my book—“hysteria: I love this word”—but I think this is what happens when criticism becomes reductive, when people use a word instead of analyzing a work. I think also he was bothered around that time when a lot of the language selling his films was very sensational, and people just weren’t getting the context of his films. Even the way that I write about his films in terms of their emotionality—Daniel Bird, who's the best known Żuławski expert—he always thought it was so interesting that I wrote about his films from that perspective because he would write about them as political films. He knows all of the Polish history that goes into the storylines, and the characters and their analogues in Polish history. 
NOTEBOOK: I love that you also wrote a separate review of Szamanka (1996), because even now that one is still on the back burner.
JANISSE: I feel like all of those movies are still on the back burner. It’s as though everybody fell in love with Possession, and then just didn’t bother to watch any of his other films. On the Silver Globe (1988) got a new 4K restoration and it played around festivals a few years ago, so I do think there’s a cult following for that film that’s still not quite at the level of Possession. It’s just night and day from when I first played it at my festival in 1999 and everybody hated it! Everyone walked out calling it a piece of shit movie. 
It’s so weird because I think for younger people today, they can’t imagine a world where Possession isn’t a respected film. I think it was in 2011, Brian Block organized the first restoration of Possession and toured it around. That started the rumblings of a fanbase, but then it was like a year later that Cinefamily did one, and BAM did one in New York. Between them, they created a blitz, and that was where a lot of the acclaim came from.
Szamanka (Andrzej Żuławski, 1996).
NOTEBOOK: Since the first edition of the book, the term “trauma” has really entered pop culture and the public discourse. I take it you’ve noticed this as well?
JANISSE: Oh yes, I’ve noticed it as well as the backlash against it. And whoops, I have some bad news for you: those narratives have always been in horror. That’s why I have content for my book. I don’t think it’s just about my trauma, I think so many horror films begin with the loss of a child or the loss of a husband—so many horror films use grief as a kind of framework. That is horror, and horror films use the everyday experiences of people, because all people have some sort of trauma in their lives. Horror exaggerates it into an intense and sometimes unrealistic situation. But there are definitely people who are sick of it by now because everyone is talking about it more overtly—within the films themselves, and also within criticism surrounding the films. It’s not that trauma hasn’t always been there in horror, it’s just that for whatever reason, the films themselves are addressing it, like, “I’m having my trauma! This is a manifestation of my trauma!” It used to be that the directors claimed not to know what their movies were about and now people are actually articulating, “My film is about this type of trauma.” So it’s become a much more obvious part of the conversation, whereas before it was something you had to tease out.
NOTEBOOK: It’s very apropos that you included Promising Young Woman (2020) in the new edition because that’s a perfect example of a massive mainstream hit that overtly addresses these issues. I like how you phrase your final assessment of the film, that it’s kind of messy, “but I live in the muck, so I love it.” I’m guessing you ultimately enjoyed the film?
JANISSE: Oh yeah. I definitely loved it. This isn’t even a criticism of the movie, but as for the main character, I don’t like the person, or this idea of her going out and being deliberately predatory in order to entrap people. In terms of someone’s moral character, I don’t like when people try to trip other people up. And then at the end, luckily all of that aligned perfectly so that this great justice could occur because otherwise this so easily could have given off a mixed message and we wouldn’t have had that ending. 
I also just like it because a couple of years ago when I was playing my folk horror movie around festivals there was someone who interviewed me who asked if you ever made a narrative film, what kind of film would you make? And I said, I would probably make a rape-revenge film. Partly because I wanted to make a movie that reflected my own taste for revenge that would be long-term, something that was very calculated, that had ripple after ripple, ruining this person’s life. And then I saw Promising Young Woman and thought okay, this is like that. 
NOTEBOOK: Actually, on a side note, the way that you write personally about living with anger, it reminded me of Mary Woronov’s memoir, Swimming Underground. It’s not something that you see often in this type of personal writing, this acknowledgment and admission of living with anger. I admire that and I think you do it well.
JANISSE: Anger is my biggest problem, for sure. I spend a lot of my day trying to control it. A lot of my energy throughout the day is spent trying not to get mad about things. Obviously I’m in therapy and all of these things, I’m really good about talking about it, making connections and associations. I can appear to be very analytical about myself, but that doesn’t actually stop me from getting insanely angry. So I always know what I’m reacting to, what weird stuff in my past is triggering it. I know all the things, but it still doesn’t stop the emotions from being overpowering. So a big part of what I relate to in many of the characters in these movies is the struggle to control their behavior, because [it’s] what I’m often telling myself. I can’t necessarily control my anger, but I can try to control the behavior that results from my anger. I can’t just get angry at other people and lash out at them because of something that is my personal problem, because in some cases I’ll literally get mad because someone emailed me to say hi, for no reason. I’ll get mad about the stupidest things. As for how this relates to the films, I write in my book that when we’re faced with neurosis in film, we want to investigate rather than avoid. I feel like the book is like that, in reference to me—people can read about me and my behavior and find it really interesting, but dealing with me as a person is a whole other matter. 


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