Kier-La Janisse had a plan. A Medieval Studies PhD student living in Vancouver, she hoped to spend her life translating Latin texts. Then an acquaintance decided to create a neighbourhood zine and invited the members of her close-knit community to participate. “I really didn’t want to get involved,” Kier-La explains. “But by the next Thursday when we were supposed to hand in our work, I was the only person that actually came with something. After two issues I thought, ‘If I’m going to be the only one who cares about this, then I’m going to just make it about what I like. Forget all this neighbourhood poetry. Let’s make it about horror movies.’”
In the sixteen years that have passed since she changed the zine’s name to Cannibal Culture (later CineMuerte), Kier-La has become a leading author on the genre and a prolific film programmer, curating film festivals across North America. Horror films were her gateway to a broader interest in cinema, but she has retained her love for ‘trash‘ films, an inclusive genre encompassing countercultural cinema, exploitation films, and the kind of cult movies can only be seen on old, pink prints. “Their damage is part of the charm,” she notes.
Like her initial foray into publishing, many of the steps on Kier-La’s journey were unintended: a one-off horror movie workshop grew into a non-profit, community-based film curriculum that continues to this day, while her first festival arose out of a booking misunderstanding with a local cinema. “They thought I was running a horror film festival, so I decided, why not create one?”
Meeting Kier-La, it’s easy to see how festivals, magazines and organisations keep forming around her. Aside from her steely resolve, her zeal for films that most people dismiss is infectious. She doesn’t just talk about movies, she evangelises about them. You come away from her presence with a burning desire to find the nearest film retailer, and a shopping list to get you started.
Alongside championing the orphans of cult cinema, Kier-La’s work allows her to study the genre from a different critical perspective.
Often ghettoised for their violent content and dark excesses, Kier-La argues that horror and exploitation films are self-reflexive in a way that’s ignored by the wider critical community. “Academics don’t give horror fans the credit for knowing as much as they do or being as critical as they are,” she says. “You see these books of academic criticism come out, and we’ve already been putting these ideas together for years. I think it’s funny when academics say, ‘Oh, I’ve discovered this self-reflexivity in horror!’ It’s always been there, but whatever.”
Her most recent book, House of Psychotic Women, is a good example of her approach. Examining cinema’s persistent fascination with women driven to madness by obsession, paranoia and hysteria, Kier-La discusses respectable films like Black Swan and Antichrist alongside more left-field examples, from barely-released exploitation curios to gory rape revenge films.
Exploring the surprisingly pervasive trope of cinematic female neurosis through anecdotal and personal writing, Kier-La contrasts the experiences of the films’ characters with herself and the other women in her life. Intimately and often painfully, she details how her own complicated upbringing led to a strange sort of affinity with the tortured female protagonists of her favourite films.
In Kier-La’s estimation, writing about film in an autobiographical way allows her to explain horror’s appeal to those outside the community, especially considering its delicate relationship with gender issues. “I think the fact that I’m able to explain why I respond to these movies helps answer a lot of questions for people who might not understand what a woman would get out of horror films. Lots of people think of horror films as these single-faceted, misogynistic genre exercises. But even the ones that are that way—the one that are totally shallow and misogynistic—I tend to enjoy them too, just on another level. When I watch a film, I almost always look for discomfort.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Seventeen. Photograph by Tess Roby.