House of Psychotic Women

by Glenn Erickson Oct 11, 2022

Severin’s October offerings include this investigation of Euro-weirdness curated with academic purpose and clarity by Kier-La Janisse, evoking the name of her book from 2012. The thesis is the representation of women in filmic horror — except that in these strange experiences, hysteria transforms into a liberating form of empowerment: Identikit, I Like Bats, Footsteps and The Other Side of the Underneath. Elizabeth Tayor and Florinda Bolkan are the top stars in the collection, two of which bear the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro. The final film is a totally different, experimental experience. Ms. Janisse’s introductions connect the dots for these filmworks that envigorate and disturb.

House of Psychotic Women
Severin Films
1972 – 1986 / Color / 1:85 + 1:66 + 1:85 + 1:33 / 102 + 81 + 96 + 111 min. / Street Date October 25, 2022 / Available from Severin Films / 104.95
Starring: Elizabeth Taylor; Katarzyna Walter; Florinda Bolkan; Sheila Allen, Ann Lynn, Penny Slinger, Jane Arden .
Directed by
Giuseppe Patroni Griffi; Grzegorz Warchol; Luigi Bazzoni; Jane Arden

This is one horror box set with a well-defined reason to be. We don’t know if Severin got the notion to have author Kier-La Janisse organize and produce the extras or if she brought the idea to the company. Either way it was a smart move.

For we the dimly unenlightened, the feminist tilt of the House of Psychotic Women selection is a refreshing change from frantic females in typical male-oriented horror — someone to to scream, to give some guy a woman to rescue, and often just someone to die horribly. The four films skew in different directions: each has at least one heroine ‘unstuck in time and/or space.’  They’re not exactly insane, but misaligned with reality. They’re trying to achieve some measure of control over their lives: their environment, their bodies, their own actions. The women in the first three narrative pictures show forceful personalities as they carefully navigate surreal circumstances.

But that’s barely a preparation for the fourth feature, an avant-garde experience that takes fictional ideas into a confessional, personal film space.



1974 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 102 min. /The Driver’s Seat
Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Ian Bannen, Mona Washbourne, Andy Warhol, Guido Mannari.
Cinematography by Vittorio Storaro
Written by Raffaele La Capria, Giuseppe Patroni Griffi from the novella by Muriel Spark
Directed by
Giuseppe Patroni Griffi

At first glance Identikit is just another of Elizabeth Taylor’s odd ’70s movies. She played leading and supporting roles in several features, mostly foreign-made, that no agent would have recommended for her. Even after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? six years before, Taylor was embracing odd and weird vehicles with John Huston and especially Joseph Losey. Identikit waited a year to be given a fast release in America, using the original title of Murial Spark’s book, The Driver’s Seat. Taylor’s previous film Ash Wednesday also showed just briefly in 1973. It is yet another film about a distraught woman’s state of mind, with the famous actress looking stunning but fretting about her aging appearance. Not helping Ash Wednesday’s mainstream chances were frequent disturbing cutaways to macro- close-ups of plastic surgery.

The bizarre Identikit is about a woman who may be mad — or simply one who knows her own mind. The intense Lise (Taylor) orders shopkeepers and hotel personnel about for a solid hour. In what may seem a madwoman’s odyssey, she flies to Italy without a defined purpose, and then indulges in behaviors that make us think she’s trying to regain contact with herself — she’s obsessed with images and textures, particularly of her own body. She mostly deals with functionaries that know how to follow instructions, and she’s not so disruptive as to raise alarms.

All of this takes place amid what seems a heightened summer of terror attacks in Italy. Is Lise unhinged because of the state of the world in general?  She barely escapes a terror bombing in the street, and almost immediately thereafter is sexually attacked in a car. The other element interrupting Lise’s actions are a series of flash-forwards to the future: dogged police detectives interrogating men Lise has been seen with, as if trying to connect them to the terror crimes — or to find out what ‘happened’ to Lise.

Lise’s two main contacts are other tourists. The elderly Mrs. Fiedke accompanies her to museums and restaurants. She’s played by Mona Washbourne, dressed and looking her best in her entire career. Lise is also pursued by Bill (Ian Bannen), a nervy Englishman who seems to think she’ll have sex with him at a moment’s notice. Bill harangues Lise about his macrobiotic diet and his daily need for sex.

But Lise has a different agenda. She waits in public spaces holding up a certain book, as if for a pre-arranged rendezvous. When she finally finds her ‘Mr. Right,’ he’s not some ideal lover but a polite and passive man who allows her to direct his every move. What Lise has in mind makes little logical sense — in terms of direct explanations.

The title Identikit infers that Lise is looking for her identity. She’s intent on fulfilling a chosen destiny . . . maybe. It’s a mystery with no answers, but Elizabeth Taylor’s presence holds our attention. This isn’t a voyeuristic giallo, but Taylor does wear a revealing outfit or two. The most arresting aspect is Vittorio Storaro’s camera lighting and lens choices. The Italy we see is all modern and designer slick — fancy hotels, museums, attractive streets and slick surfaces. The cops do their work in near-abstract spaces, with soft lighting through designer glass walls. Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s direction is fluid in the daytime scenes and very mysterious when Lises takes her ‘cooperative’ male contact into a spooky park to fulfill her personal mission. The narrative frustrates, but it’s very easy viewing.

The quality cast and top-notch tech talent seen in Identikit create a mental image of an Italian producer overjoyed to land Elizabeth Taylor for his film. At one point Lise makes brief contact with an English Lord who acts stiffly but looks very familiar. It’s none other than Andy Warhol. We’d believe his presence was impromptu, but photos exist of Warhol, Taylor and Ms. Washbourne at a premiere together.

The transfer of Identikit is a stunner. Vittorio Storaro’s color images hold our attention even when the storyline leaves us without answers. The show is said to be restored in 4K by the Cinematheque of Bologna and Severin Films.



I Like Bats
1986 / Color / 1:66 widescreen / 81 min. / Lubie nietoperze
Starring: Katarzyna Walter, Jonasz Kofta, Marek Barbasiewicz, Malgorzata Lorentowicz.
Cinematography by
Written by Krystyna Kofta, Grzegorz Warchol
Directed by
Grzegorz Warchol

The lightest picture in the set, I Like Bats is a fairly serious vampire drama with vague comic overtones. The sense of humor appears to be peculiarly Polish — audio commentator Kamila Wielebska talks about the film as if it’s a laugh riot. The moody but engaging tale follows Izabela (Katarzyna Walter), a blonde vampire unhappy with her creed. She works in her Aunt’s shop, and makes odd tea sets with bat motifs. One set is purchased by a handsome man (Marek Barbasiewicz) who turns out to be Professor Rudolf Jung, the proprietor of a progressive clinic for people recovering from odd ailments.

Izabela exanguinates two or three males she finds in nightclubs, including one venue that caters to an LBGT clientele. She wears a dark wig for these prowls and has more success picking up victims than a straight blonde who strips when she dances. Vampirism appears to be a habit that Izabella wants to kick, even though it proves useful when she’s jumped by a would-be rapist. The killing action is not dynamic — once Izzy makes with the fangs it’s all over. We see her extended teeth only once or twice, actually.

Our fetching vampiress is therefore no fiend. She doesn’t behave like a drug addict. She’s not open to discussing her state, as is Kim Novak’s witch in Bell, Book and Candle. The aunt is pleased when Izabela sets out to romantically seduce Professor Jung by checking in for a cure at his clinic, located in a storybook-like castle. Izabella proves resistant to hypnosis, and Jung’s radiologists are shocked when her chest x-rays yield only blank screens. Worse, Prof. Jung seems impervious to Izabela’s open, non-vampiric efforts to initiate a relationship. He might even be gay.

Although the image on view looks very good I Like Bats is the collection’s one ‘rescued’ film. It is a 2K scan from what is billed as the sole surviving print. It looks in excellent shape, with good color. The 1:66 image is always clear, even in dark scenes.

Izabela is a different kind of female horror protagonist. Secure in her desires, she’s not overy flustered even when her attempts to be ‘normal’ are obstructed. She never acts rashly or throws ‘hysterical’ fits. The impression given is that Poland in ’86’ is not a place to break from the norm — one might end up an involuntary guest at some kind of clinic.

Commentator Ms. Wielebska does express misgivings at the film’s conventional, patriarchal finale. Izabela’s problem is resolved identically as that of ‘Altaira’ in Forbidden Planet. The final scenes are match for the ending of the classic René Clair comedy I Married a Witch — but played in a subdued, muted chord that can barely be called comic.



1975 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 93 + 96 min. / Le orme, Footprints on the Moon
Starring: Florinda Bolkan, Nicoletta Elmi, Peter McEnery, Evelyn Stewart, Lila Kedrova, Klaus Kinski, Caterina Boratto, John Carlsen.
Cinematography by Vittorio Storaro
Written by Luifi Bazzoni, Mario Fanelli from his novel
Directed by
Luigi Bazzoni

A bright surprise in the set is Footprints, aka Le orme, another female odyssey. A woman calmly and carefully tries to account for three lost days — lost to an unexplainable amnesia. The most arresting element is the gorgeous cinematography by Vittorio Storaro, filmed before his epic work on 1900 and Apocalypse Now. The leading lady is another can’t-take-one’s-eyes-off-her star, and the film presents her mysterious experience in subjective terms, as if we were living it with her.

The independent, self-possessed Alice (Florinda Bolkan) has moved to Rome to work as an interpreter for an aeronautics corporation. She somehow ‘loses three days,’ and when she returns to the head office is told that she’s also lost her job. A single clue in her apartment — a torn photo of a far-off hotel — motivates Alice to fly to a Turkish vacation island in the off-season. More clues reveal a completely unexplainable mystery. Several people including a young girl (Nicoletta Elmi) claim that Alice has been on the island just days before, with different hair and a different personality. Another guest (Lila Kedrova) seems to be holding back information. A friendly man (Peter McEnery) gives her a ride to the mysterious hotel. Its visual treatment bears some similarities to the creepy hotel in Daughters of Darkness).

Alice eventually finds physical proof that she’s not hallucinating — although she is being ‘haunted’ by recurring dreams and daydreams, all related to an old science fiction movie she only half-remembers, about an astronaut intentionally abandoned on the Moon.

It eventually becomes clear that Alice’s state of mind IS the central subject. Imagine a version of So Long at the Fair in which young Jean Simmons is never released from her absurd nightmare. Footsteps’ adept direction and flawless cinematography give us a vivid subjective experience in a beguilingly beautiful location. We at all times share Alice’s hallucinatory (?) experience.

It’s so well done that by the finish we want to resist what partial explanations the film does offer. The film’s moods are fascinating intoxicating. Alice’s arrival on a forbidding early morning dock is mostly in shades of blue (Signor Storaro’s ‘psychological’ approach to film color?). The island locations — a grand hotel, eerily ‘perfect’ wooded beaches, a mystery house in a forest — ‘feel’ like flawless dream images.

The versatile Florinda Bolkan plays a specific no-nonsense woman determined to solve a personal mystery. Alice approaches strangers on a friendly but mature level not typical of formulaic giallo. The frequent cutaways to those B&W ‘space movie scenes’ are a strange interruption — do they comment on Alice’s mental state?  We keep expecting some hoary amnesia cliché to kick in. But Alice’s backstory is as tangled as the blurred memories of Last Year at Marienbad.

We know we’re watching a ‘bad’ space movie when guest star Klaus Kinski shows up for fewer then two minutes’ worth of mission control speeches. Alice works for an aeronautics corporation. We presume that she’s being compared to the astronaut abandoned on the Moon, but the lack of answers is not a drawback. Alice’s odyssey is pleasurable in itself.

Kat Ellinger’s commentary states the film’s various pleasures, which include a cast even more stellar than the Liz Taylor picture. We’re informed that Ms. Bolkan was in a relationship with producer Marina Cicogna on some of her best films, including Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and A Brief Vacation. That second film, directed by Vittorio de Sica, is almost the exact opposite of Footprints: Bolkan plays a poor woman imprisoned in a stifling marriage, who experiences ‘una breve vacanza’ when she’s sent to a sanatorium to recuperate from T.B.. Unlike Alice, she’s not in control of anything.

Footprints looks sensationally good in what is described as a new 4K scan from the original camera negative. It’s an excellent example of a remastering job that brings a show to life: this movie might have little or no impact if seen in some old, flat VHS transfer.



The Other Side of the Underneath
1972 / Color / 1:33 flat full frame / 111, 133 min.
Starring: Sheila Allen, Ann Lynn, Penny Slinger, Jane Arden, Jack Bond, Liz Danciger, Elaine Donovan.
Cinematography by Jack Bond, Aubrey Dewar.
Written by Jane Arden from her play Holocaust
Directed by
Jane Arden

In terms of radical filmmaking The Other Side of the Underneath puts the teeth in this collection. Director Jane Arden had been acting since 1947 but in the ’60s moved into experimental theater and films with her artistic collaborator Jack Bond. Derived from her radical feminist theater group Holocaust and a play called A New Communion for Freaks, Prophets and Witches, the movie adds a striking cinematic dimension to shock theater material developed by Arden and a small group of devoted actors and contributors.

Unlike the other films in the collection, Underneath is unconventiona and uncommercial. Its narrative is an experimental blend of theater, psychodrama and avant-garde techniques. It is also something of a psycho-documentary, as what we see are not conventional performances. Having already created the context from their stage performances, the cast members ‘live’ some of their scenes. We’re told that for much of the film some are high or drunk, and channeling their familiar anxieties. When we see a face red and flushed from crying or drugs, we believe what we’re seeing is real.

The ‘madness’ in Underneath is the fragmented, ‘contained’ and oppressed state of women, addressed with alarming directness. Although often compared to Jodorowsky and Arrabal, Jane Arden is constantly hitting us with fresh, startling images, not just ‘surrealism’s greatest hits.’ The film goes beyond a mere recording of Sense Experience encounters. Arden, Bond and artistic contributor Penny Slinger give Underneath a phantasmagoric visual texture, and an intensity seldom achieved in commercial attempts at surreal or psychedelic imagery. Beneath the visual motifs and the posing of experimental shock theater, the feminist angst and terror on view hardly feels like acting.

Filmed largely in Wales, the (very rough) story of the unhinged state of ‘Meg the Peg’ (Sheila Allen of Children of the Damned) plays out in emotionally charged therapy sessions and disconnected surreal tableaux. Luis Buñuel would heartily approve. Director Arden is apparently the therapist. The patients’ white nightgowns cue strange images of them walking the green hills of Wales, around disused industrial plants. These patients are all cruelly warped by society. Strange costumes, clown-like masks and profane exhibitions blend squeamish details (soiled nightclothes, etc.) with weird visuals. Things are so strange that we don’t bother to ask why Meg sleeps next to a sheep in one scene. Few literary allusions are employed, but we do get a quote or two from Alice Through the Looking Glass.

Conventional psychiatry enters for one or two scenes but never takes hold — the madness is universal. Extended scenes isolate individual women or group them in therapy sessions. The feminist context doesn’t reference hatred of men; the women instead see themselves as horribly flawed and seeking release from psychological torture. Elaborate use is made of a performing gypsy camp with animals and sexual extroverts. One sexual episode is quite graphic but not associated with male or female scenarios — it’s just ‘an encounter.’

Familiar religious imagery crops up along the way; toward the end we get the familiar theme of a crucifixion, with a nude female on a cross. In this context it’s neither trite nor exploitative. The final scene brings in a torchlit nighttime ceremony, with imagery that implies something akin to witchcraft.

Among the extras listed below is a longer rough-cut version of the show, and a separate gallery of extended scenes. The BFI resurrected Jane Arden’s films around 2008, after having been out of reach for 30 years or so. Severin gives Underneath no commentary but accompanies it with several interviews with Arden’s collaborators. Special attention is directed toward a two-hour-plus interview with Penny Slinger, who relates hidden facts about the strange, life-changing experience of working on The Other Side of the Underneath.



Severin Films’ Blu-ray of House of Psychotic Women is the latest in a series of intelligent boxed sets organized around cult horror directors, or lately, collections on literary-cultural themes: All The Haunts Be Ours is a collection of 19 ‘folk horror’ films from around the world. It begins with the separately-available Keir-La Janisse documentary Woodlands Dark & Days Bewitched.

The House of Psychotic Women’s in-depth extras feature a gallery of spokespeople attuned to feminist concerns and genre exotica: Millie De Chirico, Kamila Wielebska, Kat Ellinger. The introductions by Kier-La Janisse, abetted by her cat(s), keep our focus in the right groove. Ms. Janisse wisely doesn’t try to jam the core of her 2012 book into the disc format. Severin is also bundling the Psychotic Women Box with a hardcover copy of Kier-La Janisse’s book, with a bonus CD: The House Key Bundle.

Severin has consistently brought us unexpected restorations, going to the trouble to track down original elements and the input of key personnel. Therefore on Footprints we find not only two versions of different lengths, but alternate soundtracks, one that mixes English and Italian, and one in fully-dubbed Italian. The Vittorio Storaro films really jump out both in image quality and in composition — Signor Storaro would seem to have been a big influence on his directors, if not as much in control as they.

Of the random extras we enjoyed learning about author Muriel Spark and actress Nicoletta Elmi, and hearing Vittorio Storaro’s thoughts. The interview material connected to The Other Side of the Underneath is intriguing as well.

The attractive, easy-to-understand disc and menu system is given good artwork by David Levine.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

House of Psychotic Women
Blu-ray rates:
Movies: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent

All: Kier-La Janisse introductions

Audio Commentary with Millie De Chirico
A Lack Of Absence — Chandra Mayor on Muriel Spark and The Driver’s Seat

I Like Bats
Audio commentary With Kamila Wielebska, actor & book editor
TV Spot

Footprints U.S. Cut and Italian Cut
To The Moon — interview with actress Ida Galli
Video Essay Nicoletta Elmi: Italian Cinema’s Imp Ascendent by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas And Craig Martin
Audio Commentary with Kat Ellinger (on the Italian Cut)
Light Of The Moon — Interview with Vittorio Storaro

The Other Side of the Underneath
Extended Workprint Version
Sheila Allen interview
Natasha Morgan interview
Extended Sequences
Penny Slinger Live At The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies
Penny Slinger: Out of the Shadows Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Five Blu-rays in five keep cases in heavy card box
Reviewed: July 10, 2022

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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