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The 8 great ‘psychotic women’ movies

Giallo classics, new gems, and more

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A nun holds a gun in Ms. 45. She has bright red lipstick and bright red fingernails and is wearing her habit. Image: Navaron Films

When Kier-la Janisse’s exploitation deep-dive House of Psychotic Women was released in 2012, it almost immediately became a canonical text among horror film obsessives. This was particularly true of women who found solidarity through these provocative, damaged characters and the nature of their experiences. Janisse’s book was exhaustive in research and composition, mapping neurosis among female characters as a global pattern in horror and exploitation pictures. Her objective to tie the scenarios of these films together with memoir created a portrait of the horror film viewer that was distinct, personal, and female, through a lifelong interaction with the genre.

Her prioritization of films like Possession (1981), Ms. 45 (1981), and The Other Side of the Underneath (1972) brought into sharper focus entire avenues of great work waiting to be discovered. Today, we can see the effect her book has had on modern horror film criticism and production. There have been numerous films released in the wake of Psychotic Women that fit into the broader scope of the text on living with trauma and the effect it can have on the mind. In the newest edition of Psychotic Women, released alongside a box set of films from Severin, Janisse adds a hundred new features in her analysis, like Unsane (2018), Queen of Earth (2015), and Raw (2016), adding to her ongoing portrait of female neurosis in horror. The films covered in this book, and in Severin’s box set, reveal the monster not as something that can be defeated, but something that must be lived with. It is a storytelling technique as old as Eve communicating with the snake and letting the devil inside, and will remain relevant as long as there are women available to listen to the voices inside our heads.

Included in Severin’s newest box set are four films selected by Janisse, including Identikit, I Like Bats, Footprints, and The Other Side of the Underneath. These four features are now streaming on Shudder along with numerous other films that are covered in the book, such as Ms. 45, Il demonio, and Shock. The well runs deep on horror movies of this type, and those included in the box set are a great primer on what the topic of female neurosis in horror can entail.


Identikit

Elizabeth Taylor pulls down colorful sunglasses to the bridge of her nose with both hands in Identikit. Image: Rizzoli Film

“It was as though something came out of her. Some force that all women feel latent in themselves, stifled — a potential for catastrophe. In her it was terrible... terrifying.” Lise (Elizabeth Taylor) is described with these words by a passerby who saw her leaving a hotel on the day of a terrorist attack. She is off to Italy to form a dangerous liaison with someone, anyone, who is willing to give her the time of day. She is a woman who is desperately trying to formulate an identity that she can imprint upon the world, but has failed to do so for reasons not explained.

We are never told of Lise’s initial struggles or why she acts the way she does, and her backstory is better off left in the dark. We are instead dropped into her restless, chaotic subjectivity in medias res and are expected to keep up. She dresses in extravagant, garish colors and goes about life as though everything is too heightened and displeasurable to even take a breath. Liz Taylor was coming off of a divorce from Richard Burton and reportedly arrived on set the day it was finalized, and this certainly influenced her choices in portraying Lise. After starring in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) she seemed to gravitate to work with a camp element, and while her interest in taking on queer-adjacent roles extends back to her participation in numerous Tennessee Williams pictures like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), she never played a character as intentionally barbed as Lise.

It is as though Taylor’s work in Identikit is a culmination of the previous decade of her professional and personal life. She gorges herself on each and every line reading while also never losing the catastrophic body language of her character. It is a fine line to balance being completely ridiculous and tragic, but Taylor straddles it with efficiency and great skill. The neurotic female character is a great playground for actresses in the same way that anti-heroes are for men, and it allows unique talent to work across generations with their own interpretation of neurosis. Taylor’s Lise is unforgettable, imminently quotable and capable of breaking the heart of the viewer. When her intentions in coming to Italy are finally revealed, it throws the film into sharp contrast, and gives it an entirely new context that only enriches her performance and the film further.

Identikit is available to stream on Shudder, AMC Plus, and for free with ads on Tubi. It is also available for digital rental or purchase via Amazon.


I Like Bats

A woman with blonde hair opens her mouth wide to reveal sharp fangs in I Like Bats. Image: Zespol Filmowy

Films about neurotic women do not necessarily have to be a dirge, and the Polish vampire film I Like Bats is a great example of the dexterity possible in movies that cover such ground. Vampirism has largely been a catchall term throughout the history of horror, often standing in for important metaphors of the day. But historically, the vampire film has been conceived of in Western cultural terms and understanding due to the influence of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The further east that one treads, the more likely vampirism is to be tied into folklore, and I Like Bats understands this, and satirizes what the vampire film had become in the last 50 years.

The film follows Isabella (Katarzyna Walter), a young, sexual woman who has the strange hobby of building teacups out of taxidermied parts of deceased bats. She believes herself to be a vampire and has a habit of killing men during intercourse. She swirls around psychiatrist Dr. Rudolph Jung (Marek Barbasiewicz) with a lustful appetite, and concocts a plan to get close to him by disclosing her own neurotic feelings of being a living ghoul. Meanwhile, there’s a serial killer on the loose, and bodies keep piling up around Isabella’s feet, suggesting that death surrounds her and there are predators in every corner of this ramshackle Gothic homestead. Director Grzegorz Warchoł has the good sense to never lose track of the eccentric sensibilities, or the dueling tones of horror, comedy, and romance. This is a film that has a great deal of fun playing the neurosis of the character against type for the sake of comedy, and even finds a great deal of resonance in suggesting that marriage is its own condition, with an ending that complicates any notion of “healing” from something genetically passed down between women.

I Like Bats is available to stream on Shudder.


Footprints on the Moon

A woman with red-hair and wearing a yellow dress looks surprised in Footprints. Image: Cinemarte

Locking into the subjectivity and perspective of the central character is vital in making a film about the discovery of neurosis. In Luigi Bazzoni’s Footprints on the Moon, that key tenet of storytelling is intentionally obfuscated and manipulated to further cloud the reality of Alice (Florinda Bolkan). When she arrives at work, she is startled to learn that she has been absent from her job the past three days with no recollection whatsoever. She assumes it is due to an accidental overdose of tranquilizers that she uses to combat symptoms of her anxiety disorder, but when she finds strange objects in her home, such as a bloody dress and a postcard from a town called “Garma,” she begins to investigate. Along the way, she begins to learn more and more about herself from third-person accounts of others, and the effect is forcing an identity upon her that she has no input on. Bolkan acts as though her character is dissociating and her life is zooming past her at a remove. DP Vittorio Storaro shoots the film with a dreamy, hallucinatory effect and positions the town of Garma with the unreality of postcards made real. It is a perfect, beautiful place, yet everything feels off. Like many giallo films, the revelations are less important than the tone itself, and in Footprints, it is constructed with the strange quality of a missing reel with both the audience and characters trying to catch up.

Footprints is available to stream on Shudder and AMC Plus. It is also available for digital rental or purchase via Amazon.


The Other Side of the Underneath

A woman wearing a wedding veil with dirt on her face looks at the camera in The Other Side of the Underneath. Image: Bond

Of all the films featured in Severin’s newest boxed set, The Other Side of the Underneath is the most severe interpretation of mental illness. It is the equivalent of a noise album made into a feature, and director Jane Arden’s tendencies of form are rooted in replicating a realistic depiction of mental illness through very specific cinematic language. It is a shrill, unforgiving picture, and deeply informed by Arden’s own experimental “Holocaust” theater group, her time with radical feminist organizations, and her interest in the budding anti-psychiatry movement.

In the late 1960s, there was a growing trend among those who felt the medical techniques of psychiatry were undeveloped and proving to be more harmful than beneficial to those suffering. This comes up frequently as a topic of discussion in European horror films of the following 10 years. Arden takes on the role of the psychiatrist and tends to her patients in an asylum that has been visually characterized as something akin to hell, with long, snaking passages, dimly lit hallways, and eccentric nightmares waiting behind each door.

The film follows a schizophrenic young woman who was pulled out of a river after a supposed suicide attempt, and it forces the viewer to see the world through her eyes. Arden’s film is fixated on indicators of girlhood to suggest the introduction of crisis in the lead character at a young age, and in doing so renders all things fragile and vulnerable, as the innocent mindset of a child is curdled with age. The Other Side of the Underneath also posits women have ritualized behavior when placed with one another for long periods of time — evoking things like patterned menstrual cycles — and creates a chorus of great anguish among Arden’s players. There is little to no distance of artificiality in Arden’s film, and it is shot as though it was theater, which creates a strong discomfort and lack of space between what the characters are expressing and what the audience is taking in.

Underneath is a deeply complicated film due to its borderline propagandist leanings regarding psychiatry, but it’s altogether reflective of worries of the period that are worth interrogating and learning from. Arden’s form is also some of the most dangerously evocative in depicting mental illness for what it is and what it can do to people. This is a gem worth untangling on your own terms, and the wider availability of it through streaming and the Blu-ray release should restate Arden’s place in the greater canon of British experimental cinema.

The Other Side of the Underneath is available to stream on Shudder.


Il demonio

A woman holds a pair of scissors directly in front of her face in a black and white image from Il Demonio. Her eyes are visible on either side of the blades. Image: Titanus

Brunello Rondi’s Il demonio is an incredibly physical movie that personalizes the audience to the tactile sensations of Purif (the astounding Daliah Lavi). Embodiment of the subject is difficult to pull off in any movie, but it can be a vital tool for greater empathy in horror filmmaking that is focused on the persecution of women’s bodies. In Il demonio this is characterized through religious fear and notions of witchcraft, and in the opening section Purif is given a great amount of space for characterization. The gaze of the camera shifts the character from object to subject in one fell swoop as she cranes her neck violently back at the camera with a glare. After this initial setup, the audience sits with her as she goes through the intimate task of preparing a love potion by removing her hair and cutting her breast for the sake of blood. Because Rondi’s camera is so fixated on the actions of Purif in a private, personal matter, the eye of the film undergoes a realization of gender through Purif’s own subjectivity. We are meant to empathize with and experience everything she does in her tiny, repressed, religious village. For a topic like neurosis among women, this is an intellectually and emotionally satisfying manner for a film to conduct itself with. An exorcism and a witch-hunt lie in Purif’s future, but because of the generosity of Rondi’s opening passage, all of the following events land parallel to Purif’s emotional state and through Lavi’s exceptional abilities as an actress.

Il demonio is available to stream on Shudder, AMC Plus, and for free with ads on Tubi. It is also available for digital rental or purchase via Amazon and Vudu.


Ms. 45

A nun holds a gun in Ms. 45. She has bright red lipstick and bright red fingernails and is wearing her habit. Image: Navaron Films

The rape revenge film is not an easily agreed-upon endeavor. Some find it righteous or cathartic, and others find its structure of violence to be useless. For those that do find something of value in these films, there has likely never been a better one than Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45. Zoë Lund plays Thana, a mute seamstress working at an independent fashion organization in the underbelly of downtown New York. Upon returning home one evening, she is raped twice, by two different assailants. She kills the second, severing his limbs and leaving waste bags littered around the city with his remains. She begins to see male aggression everywhere and begins to kill at a frightening rate with a tire iron, and later a handgun filled with bullets that she has kissed with bright red lipstick.

At this point in Ferrara’s career, he was setting fire to everything in sight and dousing his films with violence, but he was very cognizant of the type of violence he wanted to depict and where it was aimed. All of it had meaning, and all of it was uncomfortable and impossible to dismiss as titillation. Lund plays her character as a woman who is so dissociated from her body that she is very nearly not human any longer, but has undergone a transformation into a weapon. She is aware of the world she lives in, and that is enough for her to set fires of her own and burn in a baptism of violence.

As Janisse stated in Psychotic Women, “Rape revenge is still a potent and oft-revisited subject for genre films. [...] The older films are still theoretically meaty. Many are not about a singular act. They are explorations of larger societal problems where women are limited by historical and often subconscious oppressive structures.”

For those who find communion in films of this type, it can be a refreshingly candid look at violence, and the difficulty to piece together something as horrifically fraying and destructive as rape. It can also be cathartic to touch the darkness of past experiences and address it through fiction, as a balancing of scales where justice can be trusted in its basest structures of an eye for an eye.

Ms. 45 is available to stream on Peacock, Shudder, AMC Plus, and Fandor. It is also available to watch for free with ads on Freevee and The Roku Channel, or for free with a library card on Hoopla or Kanopy. It is also available for digital rental or purchase via Amazon, Vudu, and Apple TV.


Kotoko

A woman, played by J-pop artist Cocco, contorts herself onto a couch crowded with pillows, reading a book, in Kotoko. Image: Makotoya

Kotoko is not a horror film in the traditional sense, but it is about the horrors of the mind. In the past 10 years or so, filmmakers have become preoccupied with analyzing “trauma.” While notions of trauma and what that means for horror films are mostly redundant, there are some rare examples where trauma and various mental illnesses can be elaborated on with emotional intelligence through cinematic form.

Kotoko is the story of a single mother (played by J-pop artist Cocco, whose real-life troubles with mental illness inspired the story) with double vision who is having difficulty taking care of her newborn. Struggling with hallucinations and urges to self-harm, she loses the rights to see her child, but comes upon a novelist (played by by director Shinya Tsukamoto) who tries to help the young woman in her worst moments by acting as a slab of meat for her violent impulses. The film begins with Cocco in voice-over explaining the ways she struggles, and she recalls her tendencies for self-harm: “I like doing this, because I’m amazed at how badly the human body wants to live.” This acts as all the exposition needed, and the resulting film is mostly wordless except when Kotoko sings, which is the only thing that relieves her symptoms of double vision. Tsukamoto pulls no punches, and his deep empathy for his subject creates a discomforting beauty in his agonizingly close, handheld digital photography. There are so many films in this grouping where lifelong interiority acts as its own psychosis, and how breaking free from that self-imposed burden manifests in self-destructive behavior, but few are as harrowing, or as understanding, as Kotoko.

Kotoko is available to stream on Arrow, or for digital rental or purchase via Amazon, Apple TV, and Google Play.


Shock

Daria Nicolodi, with blonde hair, holds her hand up to her face with a pained expression — her mouth grimaces and her eyes look distraught — in Shock. Image: Laser Film

Scream Queen Daria Nicolodi stars in Mario Bava’s final film, Shock, and her performance is the best there ever was in one of his films. She plays Dora, a woman returning to the site of an emotional tragedy hoping for closure and a chance to move on with her life. She is fresh out of a mental hospital, having been committed after she experienced a mental breakdown due to the death of her ex-husband, who perished under dubious, unclear circumstances. The cops say it was suicide, because he was a junkie, but she isn’t sure, and that questioning haunts her, purging her of all but the most fragile parts of herself until she is left once again in the midst of a breakdown.

In horror movies about people psychologically scarred by what they’ve seen or what they’ve done, a door can open for viewers to understand and sympathize with those who struggle at the hands of violence. In the case of Dora, she sees her ex-husband everywhere around the house after she has moved in, and worse yet, she begins to believe that he didn’t actually kill himself, but that she murdered him, and that he’s buried behind a brick wall in her basement. She begins to have nightmares where she’s beating and banging on the rocky surface, or held up against it by some ghostly apparition, while the image of a box-cutter becomes a repeated motif in her dreams, slashing away at herself. She can’t remember anything about what happened shortly before or during the time of her husband’s demise. It’s a completely blank space in her memory. Dora has unconsciously repressed these things in order to keep herself safe, but upon moving back into the house, some of these memories start filling in and she doesn’t like what she sees. Bava and Nicolodi plummet to an inevitable end of phantasmagoric horror of the mind, and it is truly one of the best films to come out of Italy in the 1970s.

Shock is available to stream on Shudder, AMC Plus, and for free with ads on Tubi and Pluto TV. It is also available for digital rental or purchase via Amazon, Apple, and Google Play.


“There was something terrible in that film, a desperation I recognized in myself, in my inability to communicate effectively, and the frustration that would lead to despair, anger and hysteria.”

Kier-la Janisse, on Possession, House of Psychotic Women

The beauty in House of Psychotic Women, and in films of this type, is self-recognition. Janisse’s book argues that personal context is necessary when studying why someone may react to films of a certain type, or why they may respond to certain stories or characters more strongly than others. In the case of films about women whose horrors are reflective of societal treatment, or genetics, upbringing, and past experiences, there is a vast quantity of pictures that question, and pull apart, female psychosis. So many of the great horror films are built upon the foundation of the mentally disturbed woman, and for viewers who find an accurate reflection in these films, it can be both fulfilling and destabilizing. I’ve often asked myself why I respond most strongly to pictures that make me feel hopeless, but over the years I’ve understood that hopelessness has acted like a home, and in all its familiar architecture I have found women who act and respond to life in the same way that I do. The ongoing popularity of this book, and movies of this type, has only proven that I — we — are not alone. We are legion.

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