Female madness is prevalent throughout the horror genre, and author/film critic Kier-La Janisse is responsible for the breathless dissection and reflection of such madness in her tome House of Psychotic Women. Upon the 10th anniversary of the book’s release, Severin Films and Janisse have assembled a collection of four rare films that acts as both an essential companion piece and standalone release. All four films have received decent-to-great new restorations from best available materials and terrific supplements produced by Janisse. House of Psychotic Women: Rarities Collection comes Highly Recommended!
For those of you who have already read House of Psychotic Women, the massive exploration of female neurosis in horror and exploitation films, then you may already be familiar with a couple of titles in this new box set. I’d be remiss not to mention that each film in this set offers its own unique representation of female madness, perfectly coupled to the book but also giving added weight to Janisse’s exacting analysis. And if you haven’t received the hint already, all four films contain the kind of confrontational imagery that the book excelled at depicting both visually and mentally.
Up first in the set is the Elizabeth Taylor-starring 1974 thriller Identikit – also known as The Driver’s Seat in the very short theatrical release the film received in the US – and immediately we’re thrown into female madness at its most bizarre and weirdly intoxicating. Boasting one of Taylor’s wildest performances and complete with the kind of nerve-shredding emotional pain that the beloved actress was so talented at depicting, the film follows a clearly mentally disturbed woman arriving in Rome during a time of great violence fueled by the autocratic government. Her mission is unclear and the jagged cutting between the past, present and possible future further complicates matters. And when the climax arrives, it’s like a fragmented brain having a moment of clarity before turning inward fatally.
Okay, yeah, I get that the above may read like hooey, but Identikit sincerely belongs in the crazed Taylor canon with Joseph Losey’s Secret Ceremony and Boom!. Where those other two films were a bit more lurid in their execution, Identikit gains power from having a mix of Italian house style from that era and sturdy, handsome widescreen compositions by legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. The Italian filmmaking figurehead makes an appearance elsewhere in the set, but more on that later. Simply put, Identikit is worth the purchase price of the set alone.
Next up is 1985 vampire horror comedy I Like Bats, directed and co-written by Grzegorz Warchol. The film presents itself a gothic horror film with the free visual style popularized during the Polish New Wave. Or rather, it’s presented in a style that apes the conventional trappings of American horror and comedy productions, but done with such aesthetic transgression towards those productions that it becomes its own thing. Simply, just see it. It follows the life of a single young female vampire Izabela (Katarzyna Walter), who loves to feed on the various suitors and sleazebags that enter her orbit. But soon she meets the man that has her feeling a different thirst, a romantic one! This is perhaps the best discovery in this set and is indicative of the kind of essential curation that is offered throughout the set. I truly cannot recommend watching it enough.
Third in the set is Luigi Bazzoni’s 1975 giallo Footprints – also known as Footprints on the Moon – and while this may present itself as a vessel for thrills and kills, but it’s truly anything but. As with many giallos, the film follows a woman trying to piece together her recurring dreams and nightmares, many of them seated in a reality she feels closely connected with but cannot make heads or tails as to why. Florinda Bolkan stars as Alice Cespi, a freelance translator who awakens one morning to find her memories from the past few days have vanished. After being abruptly fired with little-to-no reason, Alice finds a string of clues that lead her to a seaside town that looks awfully familiar. As the film progresses, the memories become clearer and the fatal truth is finally revealed. Vittorio Storaro lends the film a degree of stateliness that gives the whacked-out proceedings the kind of visual weight they need to land at all. While it may be my least-favorite title in the set, it’s no less essential for its stunning visuals and lasting implications.
Last but certainly not least, the final title in the set is screenwriter/feminist/radical theater icon Jane Arden’s haunting documentary-style narrative debut from 1972, The Other Side of the Underneath. Arden was a key figure in the anti-psychiatry and feminism movements in the UK, and she reflected those beliefs back into her work in confrontational ways you won’t soon forget. The 111-minute film is less a direct narrative and more surreal dive into inexplicable, bone-shattering madness. In itself an adaptation of a play that Arden wrote, titled A New Communion of Freaks, Prophets and Witches, the film follows multiple episodes of young women going through deep psychological breakdowns only to reveal sexual guilt created by the structures and treatments used to harness and control such psychosis. When I say that the film contains violent and disturbing imagery, that doesn’t really touch upon just how deep and primal the proceedings become. It’s like a mortified scream changing its pitch and location, creating different experiences in each new setting. Inexplicable and deeply unsettling; the kind of filmmaking that feels projected from the deepest-seated taboos.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Female neurosis in horror and exploitation is given the right technical platform in Severin Films’ 5-disc Blu-ray box set House of Psychotic Women Rarities Collection. Identikit and The Other Side of the Underneath are both given BD-50 discs, which makes sense given the robust nature of their special features. Footprints is given two BD-50 discs, one for the Italian Cut and the other for the U.S. Cut, while I Like Bats is offered on a single BD-25 disc. Each film gets its own black Elite case with newly produced artwork, and the four cases are housed in a rigid box with a removable top.
Before I get into the respective presentations, it’s worth noting here that the mention of “Rarities” in this release’s title should not go unheard. Some of these films are somehow not completely lost to obscurity, and of course the remaining film elements are in tough shape because of various reasons. That being said, I was very pleased overall to see sturdy encodes and accurate, filmic representations of the films throughout. Even where damage crept its way in, it’s clear that it was inherent to the source materials and would probably look worse cleaned up with some restoration tools.
Identikit is presented in 1080p from a new 4K restoration by Cinematheque of Bologna and Severin Films. While the source material used isn’t noted, whatever was used is in great condition, save for some very clear and prevalent damage in the first reel. Storaro’s cinematography really imbues the film with the bold colors needed to reflect Taylor’s degrading mental state, and it’s my pleasure to report that colors do look rather impressive here. Film grain is a bit thick but not too noisy.
I Like Bats is presented in 1080p from a 2K scan of the only 35mm print known to exist. And well, that might give you a hint as to how good of shape the print was in. There’s some pretty noticeable damage that shows up infrequently, but the encode handles it all capably without detracting from how just how beautiful the film does look in high definition. Shadow definition is a bit limited because of the damage, yet that’s not due to any digital tinkering. This still looks good for what could have essentially been a lost film without this print being scanned.
Both cuts of Footprints (Italian and U.S.) are presented in 1080p with handsome presentations sourced from 4K scans of the original camera negatives. Flipping between both cuts didn’t reveal any big visual differences between the two. Both look terrific and may be the best-looking transfers of the bunch, although that can probably be attributed to the shape of the source materials. Grain looks remarkable, not surprising given the use of the OCN for the scan, and not much damage can be found throughout. Those sun-blanched colors so native to Italy are shown beautifully here, especially in the seaside sequences.
The Other Side of the Underneath’s 1080p presentation is sourced from a recent 2K restoration performed by BFI and looks rather great as well, especially given the production’s humble nature. Arden was a very talented filmmaker in her own right, but this is a film thick with grain, shadow play, fraught close-ups, jarring pans and pretty much anything that could throw a bad encode. Despite some infrequent damage, I’m eager to report that detail levels remain strong throughout and softness looks inherent to the source. An altogether pleasing presentation.
Similar to the video notes, each film’s sound has been sourced from whatever elements were available. Both of Identikit’s English and Italian language tracks sound good, but of course the edge is given to the English track for using Taylor’s natural voice and offering a bit more depth than its Italian counterpart. I Like Bats is offered with a 24-bit DTS-HD mono track that may even be in better shape than the print used for the film scan, with a healthy balance and even some fun depth in the musical sequences.
Both cuts of Footprints are presented with 24-bit DTS-HD mono tracks and quality is again solid despite the limited range. In particular, the exteriors near the seaside sound washed out and tinny, but I imagine that’s again due to the materials being used. The Other Side of the Underneath gets a 24-bit DTS-HD mono track that handles the absolutely wild and terrifying soundscape with ease. You can’t always hear dialogue clearly, which I actually chalk up to original production limitations, but overall, it’s a good representation of the experimental qualities of the film.
In a very unsurprising move, Severin Films and Kier-La Janisse have bestowed this release with a long list of newly produced and archival features to not only add context to the films being presented but further the conversation about these rarities to keep them alive. Of the many interviews, commentaries and other supplements included, I do want to call out a newly produced 68-minute interview with Vittorio Storaro that’s included with the Italian Cut of Footprints. This interview is truly exhaustive, showcasing just how much of a talented workman Storaro started his career as and just continued to grow from there. His agility in the Italian film industry made him a huge asset to many American filmmakers, yet the man knows how to tell a good story with the best of them.
The other feature I want to call direct attention to is the 135-minute interview with artist/actress Penny Slinger at the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies. It’s similarly exhaustive and involves a conversation with Slinger, charting her work with Jane Arden and her own interests in sexual surrealism. This feature makes the set valuable alone.
Each film is also given a short video introduction by Kier-La Janisse herself. They’re a bit lower in resolution due to the laptop camera being used. That doesn’t really harm the terrific introductory commentary given by Janisse, though. Oh, and for fans of animal surprises during interviews, there’s a really good cat that pops up during those intros.
Disc 1: Identikit
Disc 2: I Like Bats
Discs 3 & 4: Footprints
Disc 5: The Other Side of the Underneath
Kier-La Janisse’s autobiographical love letter to the deepest, darkest and most beautiful of female neurosis in horror and exploitation cinema is given the proper visual companion with House of Psychotic Women: Rarities Collection. Even when the presentations suffer a bit of damage, you’ll feel no less importance from what has been presented here – a collection of female-led and influenced features that offer some of the most shocking depictions of onscreen delirium and hysteria. This release comes Highly Recommended!