Book review: House of Psychotic Women

houseofpsychoticwomenPer the enthusiastic recommendation by Fangoria‘s Sam Zimmerman, I recently purchased and immediately devoured House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films Book by Kier-La Janisse (FAB Press). 

Despite its obvious subtitle, I expected a somewhat standard anthology of horror films featuring women in horror films. And while that actually may have been enough, what this book is instead is so much more; an unexpectedly raw narrative of a woman’s journey as related, and influenced, by horror films. House of Psychotic Women is perfectly whip smart, with just the right combination of academic philosophical references, personal narratives, and film analysis. That Janisse has the ability and bravery to discuss her life in these terms is beyond engrossing, it’s admirable. 

As with most female horror fans, people love to ask me what it is I get out of horror. I give them the stock answers: catharsis, empowerment, escapism and so on. Less easy to explain is the fact that I gravitate towards films that devastate and unravel me completely – a good horror film will more often make me cray than make me shudder. I remember someone describing their first time seeing Paulus Manker’s The Moor’s Head as so devastating they had to lie on the sidewalk when they exited the theatre. Now, that’s what I look for in a film.

For those of us who have an obsession with horror films (and we do for numerous and various reasons) there is a common denominator the Janisse underlines throughout the book: the ultimate reason why we watch these movies that we can’t stop watching is because something about them reflects ourselves. Not that we’re all murderous psychos, but the psychological breakdowns displayed before us in cinema tend to resonate with those who, quite frankly, aren’t like everyone else. And while my personal research of horror tends to purposefully sidestep the affect/cathartic aspect of horror, Janisse managed to get me to consider how these aspects of horror cinema actually do affect me. She is so dead on (see quote above, only from page 7) because it’s the power of cinema, the lure of the ugliness in life, the punched-in-the-heart feeling that horror films produce that also keep me coming back for more. 

One of my favorite films discussed in the book…



Behind the knife: horror versus terror

Differentiation by Evan Calder Williams between horror and terror that reflects both a representational turn (in terms of genre) and in real-life manifestations. Horror is repetitive, recyclable, unending, instructive.

Terror is about the threat to life, the knife behind you. Horror, conversely, is about the threat to understanding, of living to see the after-effects of suddenly realizing you were behind the knife all along. In this way, horror is apocalyptic. It confronts us with the symptoms – and with our complicity in reproducing them – and demands that we find new sets of instructions. – Evan Calder Willams, Combined and Uneven Apocalypse, pg. 226.

Future of Film as a Subversive Act

When Amos Vogel (co-founder of the New York Film Festival and Cinema 16) passed away in April at the age of 91, I felt a great loss for culture. Perhaps though, with a re-emergence and re-interest in his legacy, we might now have the chance, with distance, to think about how his actions might inform the way we change and develop the future not just of film but of visual art as well. 

In small ways this is already happening. This essay by Douglas Fogle on the Frieze blog (a must-read remembrance of Mr. Vogel) is part of this start: 

Vogel’s philosophy was that in a democracy it was crucial to offer the public a range of films that would question, enlighten, and enervate with the goal of undermining previous ways of thinking and feeling. Disruption was the path to building new realities and new truths in his mind and his programming rigorously followed this critical methodology throughout his career.

Related: in 2009 LUX initiated a special project at the Zoo Art Fair where they presented artist films that respond to the idea of subversion and the moving image. 

Our world of zombies: Jim Shaw and Evan Calder Williams

I’ve been reading Evan Calder Williams’ book Combined and Uneven Apocalypse: Luciferian Marxism in which he relates capitalism’s most recent fall to the allegorical representation of the post-apocalypse in horror and science-fiction film. Williams proposes we search for new horizons in the face of the end of the world; one where the emergence of new possibilities faces off with humanity’s seemingly repetitive nature. Naturally, the zombie film encompasses a good portion of Williams’ exploration. And when considering his evaluation of the genre’s relationship to a capitalist society, I cannot help but think of The Hole (2007) by Los Angeles artist Jim Shaw.

Shaw’s first fictional feature, The Hole “…appears as an O-ist horror movie. In it, a new female convert to the religion, peering through a hole in her apartment wall, discovers a parallel world where zombies stroll in an ill-defined “somewhere”, beyond which space becomes abstracted.” Here, the space between the living “normal” world and the endless repetition of the continuous living in “zombie” world collapse, meeting through a hole in a wall in a domestic space. The zombies, all men, are dressed in suits aimlessly wandering, slightly bumping into each other. A close up into the zombie nerve center reveals the “brain” is a fuzzy television-like portal (Dani Tull’s soundrack is incredible), providing us an abstracted account of what goes on in the mind of the mindless. The film suggests a parallel world of zombies to our own, prompting the question of how do we look, evaluate, adapt, and change our own end of the world that’s so near by?

To consider this further, provided below is an excerpt of The Hole combined with excerpts from Williams’ book.

Combine and Uneven Apocalypse: Luciferian Marxism:

This is particularly of what the figure of the zombie does and its position in the mass culture of capitalism. It thinks how real abstractions work on real bodies, of the nastiest intersections of the law of value and the law of inevitable decay. (page 80)

In this way, zombie films are not about the living dead, at least not in any direct way. They are about the undying living. They are about surplus-life, the new logic of excessive existence: something has given us all too-much-life, an inability to properly die in a system that no longer knows how or when to quit. (page 92)

Following and moving out from Lacan, we could say that anxiety is never about the radically new but rather about the horrible possibility of the same persisting…Anxiety emerges with the creeping realization that there may be no lack, no space in which to move, leaving us crushed by the awful possible certainty of knowing how things are and knowing that they will remain that way. (page 101)

The anxiety proper to zombie films is the deep horror of something not being different, of everyone remaining as limited a category as we know it to be, of the same persisting, of the end of death and lack…People are not consumers because they are scared of change. They are scared of change because they are consumers. (page 103)

It’s about labor. It’s never been about consumerism gone bad, but the lost heritage of the zombie film, the horror from more Haitian origins: of being forced to work, of knowing that “choosing” to sell one’s labor has never been a choice, just a particularly nasty illusion of free will. (page 105)

…the innovation – and perhaps the underlying horror – is not just “how horrible to be killed and brought back to life as a slave” but: what if our past is never forgotten? Not remembered by historians or marked into the very landscape and bodies of the colonies, but smuggled back in, dark knowledge too powerful to be lost and too tempting for capitalism to ignore (page 111) 

Image: The Hole zombie stills (2007)

Vincentennial celebration: Vincent Price’s art insights (3)

Written over fifty years ago, the latest selected quotes from Vincent Price’s I Like What I Know still profoundly resonate with today:

The other misunderstanding [about art] is that it is beyond their means. Yet the people of the United States live beyond their means, gladly and disastrously. They have let themselves be sold the biggest bill of goods in history by a Frankenstein – industrial advertising – of their own making. We all are perfectly content to make down payments on any luxury we’re told we can’t live without, but we can’t quite bring ourselves to chance investing in ourselves through education, art, or any of those splendors we lyrically call “the best things in life”…

Many people are blinded by fear of seeing something different, or of seeing anything differently, or by the inability to differentiate between what they know how to see and what they could see if they knew how.

Read previous quotes/posts herehere, and here.

Vincentennial celebration: Vincent Price’s art insights

As many people know May 2011 marks the 100th birthday of art/food/horror/acting legend Vincent Price. Places all over the world are celebrating this “Vincentennial” with screenings, such as Cinema St. Louis, special websites, and other events. What many people don’t know much about is Price’s visual obsession with art. People are generally surprised to discover there is the Vincent Price Art Museum in Los Angeles, a gallery space to which his collection has been donated and that has given East Los Angeles College unprecedented access to a serious body of work. I even have the most incredible book on Impressionist paintings at the Louvre that includes, in addition to slides, a 45 record with Price narrating art commentary. Because somehow this aspect to his life has gotten lost in his popular historical persona, I am going to celebrate 100 years of Vincent Price by continuing to post his thoughts on art from his “visual autobiography” I Like What I Know.

The real meat of art appreciation and enjoyment is often the undiscovered, the unknown, the newly discovered, or those delectable tidbits we rediscover for ourselves…I will never fail to be impressed (or sometimes unimpressed) by the masterpieces, but it is those things I have made up my mind about, and am willing to make an effort for, that really belong to me. In our collection are objects I consider masterworks, and I don’t care who agrees with me…I have wanted to say only that art is so much a part of my life I would love to have it become a part of the lives of others who perhaps never thought of it as other than an outside experience; who have never let themselves become involved in and with the creative act of other men and women. (p. 143)

Read earlier quotes here.

Vincent Price on Art

I’m currently reading Vincent Price’s I Like What I Know, a Visual Autobiography (1969) and the horror legend has some incredibly quotable thoughts on art. Price, an avid art enthusiast, has been both a dealer and a collector. In this book he charmingly details his passion for art and it’s truly contagious:

“…it came to me that I was not going to be blessed with creative genius, and it may also have been at this moment that I made up my mind that, as long as this was true, I had darn well better compensate for it by becoming the most receptive human being I could become. I knew for sure that I liked art, and I’d better know everything I could about what I liked. I became an audience, then and there, for the drama of the eye. And once you accept that fact, it is almost impossible to be bored with life. You have a built-in recipe for the cure of that most dread disease: boredom…the living death. All you have to do is open your eyes.” (Page 65)

Book Review: The Philosophy of Horror

The Philosophy of Horror (2010) makes me wonder if it’s not horror criticism that’s in a bit of a crisis.

With the release of American Horror: the genre at the turn of the millennium and The Philosophy of Horror in late 2010, there was a sudden onslaught of essays that promised fresh perspectives on the horror genre. While American Horror certainly delivered in introducing some of the first texts on horror film produced in the last decade, The Philosophy of Horror (edited Thomas Fahy) regurgitates many of the old philosophies to a seemingly non-horror audience (i.e. it’s very basic). This sameness isn’t productive and it isn’t really re-productive, it’s actually non-productive. A good comparison is the analysis of Land of the Dead seen in both books; Craig Bernardini’s Cronenburg, Romero, Twilight of American Horror Auteur proposed new readings of the evolved zombie in a contemporary context while John Lutz’s Zombies of the World offered an extremely didactic examination.

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Book: ‘American Horror Film: The Genre at the Turn of the Millennium’

Horror’s not dead! Long musing on American Horror Film: The Genre at the Turn of the Millennium…

American Horror Film: The Genre at the Turn of the Millennium (edited by Stefen Hantke) is a provocation on the status of American horror cinema through discussing and analyzing films and trends from the last decade. I’d been anxious to read this anthology after reading Hantke’s essay Academic Film Criticism, the Rhetoric of Crisis, and the Current State of American Horror Cinema: Thoughts on Canonicity and Academic Anxiety. Split into three sections – 1) Bloody America: Critical Reassessments of the Trans/-national and of Graphic Violence; 2) The Usual Suspects: Trends and Transformations in the Subgenres of American Horror Film; 3) Look Back in Horror: Managing the Canon of American Horror Film – it’s a breath of much-needed fresh air, relocating academic focus from the 1960/70s into the present.

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Yinka Shonibare – Dorian Gray

Horror narratives are cyclical and often self-reflective – evolving from literature to theatre to film and, as I express here on the blog, onto artwork. Bouncing along and between these different mediums means horror continues to generate its relevance and influence. To show how this is true, take my recent Art of Fear discussion about how artwork functioned within the horror of The Picture of Dorian Gray. In 2001, British born Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare produced Dorian Gray, his first photographic series in which he assumes the lead role. Here, much as in the book and film, Shonibare uses this story as a commentary on Victorian (and contemporary) values of class.

Another stellar example of this is experimental filmmaker Ivan Zulueta’s Frank Stein (1972) which I hope to discuss more in length here soon.