Severin Films 5-disc set.
I’ve sung Kier-la Janisse’s praises earlier here about the “All the Haunts Be Ours” folk-horror boxset that she curated for Severin Films. I assume a good many of the people reading this are familiar with Janisse already from her book “House of Psychotic Women,” published in 2012. 2022, the book’s 10-year anniversary, saw the publication of an updated edition (new films appear in the book’s appendix) and this boxset of four movies. Though much smaller, this release is equal in quality to “Haunts,” if perhaps more niche-focused: all of the films featured could fall under the heading of “Eurocult.” This is the first American Blu-ray release of each.
Identikit (1974), directed by Giuseppe Patroni Griffi and based on Muriel Spark’s novel “The Driver’s Seat,” stars Elizabeth Taylor as Lise, a somewhat prickly woman on a trip from London to Rome on her way to meet up with a man. The film jumps around in time as Lise is apparently being pursued by the police, and we see the reactions of people who have encountered her and their interrogations. With incidents of terrorist activity in the background, it seems that Lise is on a mission that will end up in dire consequences—which indeed it does, but not all how one might expect.
Identikit comes at the end of what has been referred to as Taylor’s career decline, a period that included offbeat projects like Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), Boom! (1968), Secret Ceremony (1968), and Night Watch (1973), all of which were thoroughly roasted by critics at the time and no more successful with audiences. Those films are being reevaluated and are now considered to be among some of Taylor’s best work. Identikit stands proudly amongst that body of work. Lise is abrasive and disagreeable to most she encounters: service people; airport security (note that the movie was shot one year after airport security measures were put into place, which look quaint and lax compared to current times); and toxic men like Bill (Ian Bannen), a buffoon who thinks he’s just her type, and Carlo (Guido Mannari), a mechanic who gives her a ride to a hotel and attempts to rape her. But Lise shows some wistful vulnerability with an older woman (Mona Washbourne) with whom she goes shopping, a man she thinks might be the person she’s looking for (Andy Warhol in a cameo), and the man who is the one she’s searching for. As the movie skips around in time, Lise proves to be a totally enigmatic character, even as she achieves her goal.
The audio commentary by Millie De Chirico (late of TCM Underground) is insightful, if a bit sparse. A Janisse intro and a featurette with Canadian author/poet Chandra Mayor about Muriel Spark are the other special features on this disc.
I Like Bats is probably the most obscure film in the set. It’s a mid-80s Polsih film directed by Grzegorz Warchol and written by Warchol and Krystyna Kofta, about a young woman, Izabela (Katarzyna Walter) who works in her aunt’s antique shop designing bat-themed teacups. She’s also a vampire. She’s indifferent to the men who lust after her and feeds on various creeps in the area, including the occasional sex murderer. That is, until she takes an interest in Professor Jung (Marek Barbasiwicz), a noted psychiatrist at a nearby sanitarium. She checks herself in for treatment to be cured of her vampirism, but Jung doesn’t believe her, and is playing hard-to-get!
Despite the title, Bats is not a ribald comedy, and anyone expecting a vampire tale adhering to established lore is going to be disappointed. Despite some deliberate ambiguity at first, Izabela is indeed a vampire, but vampirism here isn’t infectious. Iazbela moves around easily in daylight and exhibits very little of what’s expected as a member of the undead, except for feeding on blood and a love of bats. I Like Bats is an Eastern European dark comedy where vampirism is a metaphor. Izabela starts out as a cold figure who only sees men as prey; she disguises herself as a club-girl while trolling in a local nightclub, and her wardrobe in her first session with Jung is reminiscent of what Basic Instinct‘s Catherine Tramell would wear a few years later. Her infatuation with Jung makes her want to change to be a “normal” woman, an impulse which may not sit well in today’s climate.
Bats is accompanied by a commentary from actor/scholar Kamila Wielebska, and has already become as infamous as the commentaries by Kenneth Loring on Blood Simple or Abel Ferrara‘s reminiscences about Driller Killer. Some reviewers, and Janisse in her introduction, call it “commentary performance art.” While there might be some aspect of “tongue (or fang)-in-cheek” (which I think may just come down to getting used to the accent), Wielebska imparts a lot of information, providing useful context for the film. Most of the criticism about it being a bad commentary has a “girls-playing-in-our-sandbox” tone to it. It’s unorthodox, and not the measured scene-by-scene approach that some accept as the Mark of Professionalism Standard®, but that does not make it a bad listen.
Footprints (1975) (AKA Le Orme, Footprints on the Moon, Primal Impulse), the last feature film by Luigi Bazzoni (The Fifth Cord, The Possessed) concerns a translator, Alice (Florinda Bolkan) who discovers that she has lost three days of her life, and the only clue is a torn-up photo from a resort town. She goes there to find an answer to those missing days; among the people she meets is a young girl (Nicoletta Elmi) who seems to know Alice from before—only under the name “Nicole.” She also meets Harry (Peter McEnry) and Mrs. Heim (Lila Kedrova), who may know things about Alice. Added to that, she has recurring visions of an astronaut stranded on the moon as part of a nefarious experiment conducted by an evil scientist (Klaus Kinski in a cameo). By film’s end, everything—including the astronauts—is explained, although a strong hint may be gleaned already from the protagonist’s name.
Like Brazzoni’s previous thrillers, Footprints can be best categorized as “giallo adjacent”; it includes elements that are fundamental to the genre, but the director doesn’t follow expectations and, in some ways, subverts them, aided by his Fifth Cord DP, cousin, and future Oscar winner Vittorio Storaro (who also lensed Identikit). Severin presents the film in two cuts, the U.S. version and the Italian one, on two separate discs; both have English & Italian language tracks. The U.S. edit disc is three minutes shorter than the Italian, based on some minor trimming that doesn’t highly impact the story. Bonus features are Janisse’s introduction; an interview with Evelyn Stewart (AKA Ida Galli), who had a small role in the film; and a video essay on Nicoletta Elmi by Alexandra Heller-Nicolas and Craig Martin. The Italian disc features include a commentary by Kat Ellinger and a lengthy (78 minute) interview with Storaro, “Light of the Moon,” where he talks about the start of his career and working with Brazzoni (Identikit also gets a brief mention).
The fourth film—and fifth disc—is another obscure discovery. The Other Side of the Underneath was directed by Jane Arden, a nearly-forgotten figure in British art. Arden was an actress, poet, and playwright as well as a director; some of her film works have been restored by the BFI for those who want to take a deeper dive. Underneath, adapted from her play “A New Communion for Freaks, Prophets and Witches,” is her most notorious project. Of the four films in this set that depict psychosis and neurosis, Underneath is the one that isn’t playing around; “witchy” would be a good adjective for the energy on display. It’s as volatile as warm nitroglycerine.
There’s no central character. We enter the film via the aftermath of an unsuccessful drowning. A woman is admitted to a facility of schizophrenic women who are receiving therapy. And that’s as close to a narrative structure as it gets. Underneath is comprised of set pieces (a jester figure dispensing wisdom who does a memorable strip-tease/burlesque; a woman attacking another with a rubber axe amidst a jam session by the band Continuum; a female crucifixion), interspersed with scenes of raw therapeutic sessions that lend the film a hybrid-documentary quality.
Most of the cast came from Arden’s theatrical troupe, The Holocaust Theatre Company, and the film embraces its experimental theatrical origins with its visual stylings and performances. The therapy sessions are even more harrowing after one discovers that everyone was on LSD (drug use was prevalent amongst the crew). It’s a smorgasbord of emotion—it ain’t pretty, and it ain’t intended to be—and it’s not surprising that at the end of filming, the company disbanded. Arden and her creative associate, Jack Bond, continued to work together until Arden’s suicide in 1982. And yet, through all of the rough and tumble emotional darkness on display, the movie ends on a hopeful note of catharsis.
The only feature film in Britain made by a female director in the 70s, Underneath got a restoration and release on physical media by the BFI in 2009. Its first U.S. release is ported over pretty much in full from that disc: there are two interviews with actors Shelia Allen and Natasha Morgan, along with an extended (two hour) workprint of the film, and thirty minutes of extended sequences. Severin’s disc adds a two-hour-plus interview with Penny Slinger, visual consultant and actress (she’s the one on stilts in the ritual sequence at the end) at a Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies event, and a trailer for a 2017 documentary Penny Slinger: Out of the Shadows.
All four films are preceded by introductions by Janisse. Severin has drastically improved their subtitling, which was the only bad thing one could say about the “Haunts” box. Until Volume 2 of “Haunts” is (hopefully?) unveiled, “Psychotic Women” is a nice stopgap, especially paired with the book that inspired its release. Even though this may be more niche than “Haunts,” it’s just as important.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…immediately we’re thrown into female madness at its most bizarre and weirdly intoxicating [commenting on Identikit]… a collection of female-led and influenced features that offer some of the most shocking depictions of onscreen delirium and hysteria.”–Sam Cohen, High-Def Digest (box set review)
One thought on “HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN: RARITIES COLLECTION”
This was a very expensive post…thanks… 🙂
I’d just finished watching Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched on Kanopy, discovering this boxed set and the All Our Haunts boxed set was a real treat.