In 2012, Kier-La Janisse published House of Psychotic Women and forever changed the landscape of film analysis. Subtitled An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis, the book is an exhaustive look at films from all genres, each featuring one or more female characters with some degree of mental instability. House of Psychotic Women is split into two sections: memoir and appendix. Janisse begins by examining significant moments in her own life, confronting generational trauma, a troubled childhood, her teenage years as a juvenile delinquent, and her journey to festival programming through the lens of narrative film. Each stage of her life is paired with at least one movie in which she seeks to understand her own experiences by comparing them with a character facing a similar issue. Janisse’s vulnerable and unflinchingly honest writing invites the reader into her psyche while inspiring a deeper look into our own lives.
The memoir is followed by a gorgeous Image Gallery filled with poster art, stills, and promotional imagery from films mentioned elsewhere in the book. This lush collage is followed by an extensive appendix in which Janisse lists an astonishing number of films each featuring a memorable and usually unhinged female character. The collection includes a range of entries from obscure curiosities like Autopsy and The Mafu Cage to mainstream Oscar winners such as Misery and Black Swan.
Last year, ten years after House of Psychotic Women first hit bookshelves, Janisse released an expanded hardcover edition in a larger format including 20 pages added to the full color image gallery and more than 100 additional films in the appendix. A special anniversary edition also features Janisse revisiting one of the original psychotic women of literature in an audio version of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Much of the new content concerns films released in the last ten years, but there are a surprising number of classic titles newly explored within the pages.
The following is a collection of ten new (and three old) films covered in the new edition of Janisse’s extraordinary book.
Among the few bright spots of Covid era filmmaking is Alone With You. Written and directed by Justin Brooks and Emily Bennett, who also stars, the film follows Charlie (Bennett), a young woman waiting for her girlfriend Simone (Emma Myles) to return home for an anniversary celebration. As the minutes tick by and Simone is nowhere to be found, Charlie finds that she is unable to leave the apartment and must face perhaps the greatest horror of all: an eternity of isolation with nothing but her own thoughts for comfort.
Taking place almost entirely over a single evening inside Charlie’s apartment, the film is a claustrophobic nightmare perfectly capturing the terror of early Covid lockdowns. Writer-director team Brooks and Bennett filmed the movie in their own apartment, making the best of the options available to them in the unprecedented lockdowns. Barbara Crampton makes an unsettling cameo, a scene she filmed in her own home across the country. Alone With You perfectly captures the terror of indefinite solitude and Janisse describes the story as, “the kind of film that acknowledges with tremendous sadness that what you summon from inside yourself is the darkest of all.”
Amelia Moses’s first feature-length film is a study in social awkwardness. Brought along as a third wheel on what was supposed to be a romantic winter getaway, Rowan (Lee Marshall) finds herself struggling to find a comfort zone in a remote cabin with her hosts Emily (Lauren Beatty) and Brendan (Aris Tyros). Even worse, she keeps waking up with mysterious cuts and worries that her doting host may actually be stealing her blood. In close quarters, Rowan and Emily begin to learn each other’s secrets and see the truth behind the façade of perfect friendship they’ve constructed in their heads. Janisse describes the evolution of this relationship as “infected by a paranoia about how to recognize and sustain real bonds between people.” The story is a fascinating exploration of codependency as the weekend causes all three characters to redefine their relationships with each other and explores the difficulty in establishing adult friendships.
Written and directed by Mitzi Peirone, Braid is an intense psychological horror film that examines the friendships we form as children and the power those early bonds hold over us as adults. Tilda (Sarah Hay) and Petula (Imogen Waterhouse) are young drug dealers who travel back to the home of their deranged childhood friend Daphne (Madeline Brewer) hoping to steal her large stash of money to pay off their supplier. In order to stay long enough to find the safe, they must subject themselves to Daphne’s bizarre and violent role playing games in which she is the mother, Tilda is the daughter, and Petula is a visiting doctor. As Daphne’s delusions escalate, the grisly games become more dangerous. When the likely cause of her mental instability is revealed, the bonds of friendship Janisse describes as a “lifelong entanglement” come more clearly into focus and cast the girl’s decision to return in a new light. Peirone’s stunning film expertly examines the different roles we play at various times in our own lives and how these assumed identities shift and corrode as we age.
One of the classic films Janisse explores in her updated edition is Herk Harvey’s atmospheric Carnival of Souls. The story follows Mary (Candace Hilligoss), a young organist who survives a horrific car accident only to find herself trapped in a different kind of nightmare. Mary travels to Salt Lake City determined to start over with a new job and a new life, but finds herself haunted by a mysterious Man (Harvey) who seems to be shadowing her every move. Janisse calls the film a “pioneer of the purgatorial subgenre” and despite the fact that we’ve now seen its infamous twist copied countless times, the final frame still lands with a devastating blow. In addition to a haunting score and gorgeous black and white cinematography, Carnival of Souls culminates in a fabulously haunting sequence in which Mary is drawn to the lake by the Man and surrounded by dancing specters of the dead. One of the pillars of psychological horror, Harvey’s film has stood the test of time, retaining its power to shock and horrify for sixty years.
Prano Bailey-Bond’s gorgeous and gory film is a perfect addition to a book that uses horror movies to explore trauma. The story follows Enid (Niamh Algar), a young woman who works for the British Board of Film Censors during the era of Video Nasties and the instability of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Describing the film’s authenticity, Janisse says, “Censor does a terrific job of situating its story within a well-defined political movement.” Years after witnessing her sister’s disappearance, Enid is still clinging to hope that she will be found alive and refuses to accept her parents decision to have her declared legally dead. She is further triggered when a violent crime is blamed on a movie she approved and begins to descend into a violent fantasy world which offers her the answers she fears she will never find in reality. Bailey-Bond uses a small story of lingering guilt as the entry point into a larger exploration of the power art holds over our perception and the temptation to avoid grief by clinging to delusion.
George Cukor’s Gaslight premiered nearly 80 years ago, but feels more relevant now than ever. The origin of the term “gaslighting,” Cukor’s film follows Paula (Ingrid Bergman), a young newlywed slowly driven to the brink of insanity by her nefarious husband. After nearly walking in on the murder of her famous aunt as a child, Paula travels abroad to study music and is eventually swept off her feet by her suave accompanist Gregory (Charles Boyer). The lovebirds marry after a whirlwind courtship lasting just two weeks. But the honeymoon doesn’t last long and Gregory begins to slowly manipulate his wife, convincing her that she’s a kleptomaniac and causing her to fear being alone in the large and rambling house she inherited from her aunt’s estate. The entire relationship is merely a ruse to gain access to the priceless jewels in the house and it seems Gregory may have a darker connection to her past.
Boyer plays against type in a fantastically villainous turn as Paula’s conniving husband alongside a young Angela Lansbury who plays a mysterious housekeeper. Janisse calls the film a “blueprint for a whole subgenre of thrillers,” and its influence can be felt weaving through the following eight decades of horror as well as our everyday vernacular.
This visually stunning film from writer/director Lukas Feigelfeld is set 100 years after the bubonic plague in a small mountain village in Germany. Albrun (Celina Peter) is the only daughter of a woman known only as Mutter (Claudia Martini) and the two live in isolation, constantly fending off harassment from local villagers accusing them of witchcraft. Abrun’s life is turned upside down when Mutter becomes ill, her psychosis posing a threat to her young daughter. The film then catches up with an adult Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen), still living in the same mountain cabin but now with an infant daughter of her own. Feigelfeld explores the dangers women faced during this harrowing time period when even the slightest misstep could cast a deadly shadow over a woman who doesn’t submit to extremely narrow ideals of femininity.
As Janisse notes, “Albrun is born into suspicion as a witch because her mother is independent.” Whether or not these accusations are true is irrelevant and Feigelfeld focuses more on the effects of this suspicion than on anything Albrun has done to deserve them. The film is a study in generational curses and inherited paranoia making an explicit connection between the spread of disease and the spread of religious persecution. Hagazussa is a languid and harrowing trip back to a time period of real life horror for women.
Placing our appearance in the hands of a stranger is an extremely intimate gesture that most of us do without thinking twice. Veteran hairstylist Jill “Sixx” Gevargizian explores the power of this particular type of service industry work in her feature-length film The Stylist. Claire (Najarra Townsend) is the titular coiffeur with a deadly compulsion stemming from her own loneliness and vague childhood trauma. To cope with crippling social anxiety and self-loathing, Claire murders and scalps the occasional client then creates a wig from the newly styled hair. Wearing this bloody accessory allows Claire to temporarily escape the pain of her own past by assuming the glamorous life of her client. Olivia (Brea Grant), one of Claire’s regulars, bursts the tight bubble of control Claire has created by asking her to style her wedding hair and attempting to forge a friendship. Claire begins to believe she might be able to become one of the real women she constantly pretends to be, but the stress of navigating a personal relationship proves to be too much and she finds herself falling back into old patterns.
Janisse calls the beautifully gory film, “a heartbreaking study of loneliness, identity, and attachment issues.” It’s also a fascinating meditation on the price of appearance and the intimate connections we make with people who live on the periphery of our lives.
Perhaps the most curious film on this list is Identikit. Also known as The Driver’s Seat, Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s film stars Elizabeth Taylor as an unstable woman named Lise who leaves her London home and travels to Rome in search of a dangerous liaison that will claim her life. We’re introduced to Lise as she berates the employees of a dress shop, a harbinger for the unlikeable character we will soon get to know. She meets several men and women on her adventures–including a cameo from Andy Warhol in an uncredited role as an English Lord–but seems hellbent on steering the course of her final days, for better or worse.
The film is a cacophony of destruction and the hostile Lise is seemingly pursued by Interpol just as she seems to be pursuing her own demise. Told in a non-linear format that mirrors its source material, the novel The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark, Janisse notes that unlike the true crime novels Lise browses through, this film has the effect of “deconstructing rather than reconstructing her final days.”
A spiritual sister of sorts to Gaslight, Resurrection is a film filled with painful manipulation and emotional abuse. Rebecca Hall stars as Margaret, a successful businesswoman who keeps everyone at arms length except for her teenage daughter Abbey (Grace Kaufman) whom she smothers with overprotective control. Abbey’s impending departure for college combined with the reemergence of David (Tim Roth), an insidious figure from her past, trigger memories of an abusive relationship she suffered when she was Abbey’s age. Margaret delivers a heartbreaking monologue in which she describes giving birth to a son then returning home from a trip to the market to find the baby gone. The fact that Margaret tells this story for the first time to an uncomfortable intern shows the lengths she’s gone to isolate herself and protect her daughter.
Resurrection is a painful study in magical thinking, trauma, and motherhood. Margaret believes that she has recovered from what she describes as her past wrongs and has found a way to maintain control of her life, but as Janisse notes “the bonds of abuse are not easily broken.” The film’s conclusion is as illogical as it is shocking and director Andrew Semans gives us no easy answers, but Resurrection is a heartbreaking examination of the emotional cost of kindness and caregiving.
Of all the films on this list, Run may be the most harrowing. The film stars Kiera Allen as Chloe, a paraplegic teen hoping to leave home for her first year in college. Sarah Paulson is her doting mother Diane, who hides a disturbing secret while claiming to be a selfless mother. Janisse declines to explain why she’s included the film in her book to avoid spoiling the captivating story and so will I, but references to Stephen King’s Misery and the Manson Family Murders hint at the dark story underneath the loving mother-daughter façade. Allen is phenomenal in the role and Janisse notes that she is “the first real-life wheelchair user to lead a mainstream thriller since 1948.” Chloe’s resourcefulness and strength are extraordinary and an agonizing escape sequence midway through the film may be one of the most impressive in recent memory. The film also provides a terrifying window into the difficulty people with chronic illnesses and disabilities encounter while navigating physical barriers unseen by the able-bodied world as well as the frustration of being dismissed as “sick and confused” and not to be believed.
Ryan Glover’s The Strings is a haunting meditation on isolation and the interconnected nature of humanity. Set on the snowy beaches of Prince Edward Island, Catherine (Teagan Johnston) is a musician who takes a week away at her aunt’s isolated cabin to work on new material. While visiting an abandoned farmhouse with her new girlfriend, Catherine inadvertently captures the attention of a dark spirit that follows her back to the cabin. What initially appears to be a straightforward ghost story meanders and weaves its way to an intensely unsettling experience in slowly mounting dread. Catherine’s contagious melancholy, combined with a score full of resonant vocalizing and Teagan Johnson’s own contemplative music, immerse the audience in the film’s icy world and draw us into the slow-paced story. Catherine tries to purge herself from connections to her past in order to find new inspiration, but Janisse notes Glover’s overall message that our attachments “remain in our psyche, able to make themselves known when we’re most vulnerable.”
Of all of the films on this list, few are as powerful as Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s Swallow. The story follows Hunter (Haley Bennett), a placid young newlywed who’s husband Richie (Austin Stowell)’s nepotistic job allows her to stay at home all day doing essentially nothing. Shortly after becoming pregnant, Hunter develops pica, a compulsion to eat small objects like marbles, thumbtacks, and batteries. As it turns out, Hunter’s disorder is related to deeper issues regarding pregnancy stemming from her own parentage. Her husband Richie feigns supportive understanding until it no longer suits him and Hunter learns that he’s been bribing the therapist he forced her to see into sharing details of their sessions. He is quickly revealed to be a callous and cruel narcissist who will do anything to maintain control of his picture perfect life.
Describing Richie, Janisse says, “like so many who present as allies, he turns easily when he is inconvenienced or embarrassed.” The powerful film is an exploration of compulsion, self-harm, mental illness, and control, a harrowing but validating and ultimately uplifting watch for anyone who’s ever sought to punish themselves for the actions of others.
This Australian film from Kane Senes and Hannah Barlow, who also stars, follows Cecelia (Aisha Dee), a self-help influencer with the childhood nickname “Sissy.” Cecelia trades in empowerment and setting healthy boundaries, bolstered by her thousands of adoring fans, but we learn that she has a much harder time maintaining IRL relationships. After bumping into her childhood friend Emma (Barlow), she’s invited to an engagement party and dragged along to Emma’s Hens Weekend in the country. Just when Cecelia has screwed up her courage to step out of her carefully constructed online world, she realizes that the trip is hosted by her childhood bully who still holds a grudge due to a violent incident from their past. The film descends into a glossy and gory nightmare as Cecelia desperately clings to the persona she’s created for herself while thrust back into the trauma of her youth.
Despite the story’s many shocking twists, Janisse finds Cecilia sympathetic and describes her as, “a woman who practices love even as she is denied it, who has cultivated a highly curated existence where she really can believe her affirmations if she can just shield herself from the people and things that trigger her.” What makes Sissy so powerful is its shifting sympathies. None of the characters are right and none are wrong. They are simply flawed human beings doing their best to muddle through their own messy lives while presenting a facade of perfection to the rest of the world.