"What happens when you feed crazy with more crazy?"
Winnipeg-born film programmer Kier-La Janisse poses that question in her newly published book, House of Psychotic Women, tellingly subtitled "an autobiographical topography of female neurosis in horror and exploitation films."
If that sounds overly academic, be assured the book is often shocking, emotional, funny and painfully personal. It is a rare film book that can bring tears to the eyes. It not only describes the myriad ways genre movies present a damaged female psyche, but it describes how those movies personally resonated with Janisse who, in her 40 years, has known her share of damage herself.
Indeed, the book does much to explain the enigma of Kier-La Janisse, best known in Winnipeg for her work programming film festivals such as Paper Plastic, an animation festival she started while an assistant programmer at Cinematheque. Before that, Janisse almost single-handedly programmed and ran the horror-exploitation festival CineMuerte in Vancouver, work that led to a prestige gig at the famed Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas.
Women tend to be rare among aficionados of horror/exploitation films. Janisse has frequently been asked about her propensity for programming psycho/rape-revenge/giallo films at CineMuerte, and in a way, her book is a response to that question.
"That's obviously not all the book is," Janisse says. "But I think I try to show that being female doesn't mean you inherently shy from horror.
"On the contrary, many women are compelled by dark curiosities, and maybe they cling to different things in the genre than men do sometimes, but I don't think it's really about gender as much as it is about personal experience," she says, citing the blood-soaked heroine of Brian de Palma's 1976 film Carrie as an example.
"A kid who is been bullied is going to relate to Carrie White whether that kid is male or female," she says.
"But the book isn't just trying to explain to the world why I like horror, but trying to explain it to myself, too."
Janisse's own experiences factor significantly. She was born in Winnipeg to a "redheaded teen" mother who put her up for adoption. Her adoptive mother split from her husband (whom Janisse refers to as "Oates," owing to his resemblance to the great character actor Warren Oates) and moved Kier-La (pronounced Kayla) at age two to Windsor, Ont., where she grew into a confrontational adolescent, warring violently with her stepfather, yet bonding with him when he would wake her up in the middle of the night to watch horror movies on TV, a habit that would prove to define her adulthood.
When she returned to Winnipeg to live with her father, Janisse was a dyed-in-the-wool teen hellion, with punk slogans spray-painted on her bedroom walls. She would spend her 16th birthday in lockdown at a facility for delinquents.
The book details all that and more through the prism of films. An early recollection of a sexual assault on her mother -- Janisse is not sure if the memory is real -- leads to a discussion of the supernatural thriller The Entity. A discussion of her own "delinquent" years invokes Ulli Edel's teen prostitute drama Christiane F. The book is rich with interpretations of films that resonated, either literally or metaphorically, in Janisse's life, from David Cronenberg's The Brood to Andrzej Zulawski's Possession (including an especially insightful take on Lars von Trier's divisive 2009 art-horror movie Antichrist).
Writing the book was, for Janisse, therapeutic "in some ways.
"It's not like I came out with some answer at the end that fixed everything," she says.
"As much as it would have been neat and tidy for me to say, 'Well, I was treated badly as a kid, so everyone needs to put up with my garbage because I come from a broken home.'
"That's not the story that came out when I started to tell it. I had to be honest about things," she says. "For me, a big part of it was looking at my own bad behaviour, and taking responsibility for it. I had to face the fact that I played a part in a lot of the bad things that happened to me.
"And I came out of it with a lot more love and respect for my parents, that's for sure."
The book has been painful for some of her family members, she acknowledges.
"Most are not happy about it, but have been surprisingly supportive regardless," she says. "My dad Oates took a while to come around but I think he is supportive of it now. I think it was painful for him to read a lot of that stuff from the past.
"Whereas with my stepdad, I could tell it made him sad, but he just wanted to make sure we were OK now, which we are."
Finally, the book is often an articulate defence of the horror genre.
"I can understand why some people might want to avoid horror if they don't like to think critically about some of the darker aspects of life," Janisse asserts.
"But ultimately if you can't have respect for the genre, then you just flat-out don't appreciate film history," she says. "Film cultures feed and stimulate each other, and horror is one of the most powerful instigators cinema has."
Kier-La Janisse will launch House of Psychotic Women and introduce a screening of The Brood at Cinematheque at 7 p.m. tonight.