I Was a Teenage Serial Killer (1993) and the Collected Short Films of Sarah Jacobson

We don’t often review short films here, outside occasional film fest coverage on the podcast. That’s not a bias against the format per se, but rather a result of shorts being remarkably difficult to market. I personally love catching a well-curated slate of shorts at a film festival or being surprised by one as a programmed appetizer before a theatrically-screened feature, but outside those contexts it’s not something I actively seek out. After festival circulation, most short films are hung out to dry on their directors’ YouTube or Vimeo pages, largely unwatched by the general public (who somehow have time to binge-watch an entire Netflix dating competition show in three days, but no ten-minute blocks of free time to spare for bite-size cinema). I imagine the fate of most shorts were even worse before the days of the D.I.Y. internet distribution too; without platforms like Vimeo they’d effectively just disappear.

It makes sense, then, that someone who would declare themselves to be “Queen of the Underground Film” in the 1990s would deal mostly in shorts, perhaps the most underground film medium of all. Bay Area D.I.Y. filmmaker Sarah Jacobson did manage to pull together resources for one feature in her (tragically short) lifetime: Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore, a no-budget teen melodrama that subversively aimed to provide healthy sex education to unsuspecting 90s punx. The recent AGFA Blu-ray restoration of Mary Jane includes a small collection of shorts from Jacobson’s forgotten catalog in its bonus features, though, loosely sketching out a portrait of a truly independent filmmaker who was never afforded the resources needed to break out of the underground even if she wanted to. As a collection, these assembled works register as lost, no-budget cinema artifacts of the riot grrrl era. Individually, they serve as the diary entries of an underground filmmaker doing her best to create personal art within a system stacked against her.

The most significant short included on the AGFA disc is Jacobson’s landmark, calling-card work I Was a Teenage Serial Killer. An iconic riot grrrl time capsule from the dingiest days of 90s punk’s feminist uprising, I Was a Teenage Serial Killer is not nearly as accomplished nor as polished as Mary Jane, but it persists as Jacobson’s most recognizable work to this day. Its premise is unapologetically, confrontationally simple. A 19-year-old West Coast punk is sick of men’s rampant sexism, so she murders as many of them as she can. One man drunkenly inundates her with a misogynist rant, so she poisons his beer. Another catcalls her on the street, so she pushes him into oncoming traffic. Another removes his condom during sex without her consent, so she chokes him to death while continuing to ride his body to achieve her own orgasm. As the title suggests by calling back to 1950s B-pictures like I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, there’s a playful sense of humor to this misandrist bloodbath. For instance, there’s a sickly-sweet dating montage our protagonist shares with a fellow serial killer while they cutely bond over cannibalism & genital mutilation. There’s also a seething, long-simmering sense of anger behind that playful façade, however, which mostly spills out in a final monologue where the teenage serial killer explains her motives to her last would-be victim. It’s the same anger that fueled most of the zines & records of the riot grrrl movement, a communal feminist frustration that rarely made it to the screen in any genuine form.

I Was a Teenage Serial Killer might very well be the only movie that feels fully, authentically submerged in riot grrrl aesthetics & ideology. Its black & white chocolate syrup gore and its cut & paste block text collages directly echo the visual patina of the Xeroxed zines that sparked the movement and gave it a name. Its misandrist serial killer premise that lashes back at the misogyny of its own punk community plays like a faithful adaptation of the Bikini Kill track “White Boy.” It even has bonafide riot grrrl cred on its soundtrack, which includes contributions from the seminal band Heavens to Betsy (which featured Corin Tucker, later of Sleater-Kinney). It’s not a perfect film, but it is a perfect time capsule of the exact frustrations & aesthetics that fueled the feminist punk movements of its era.

Unfortunately, none of the other shorts included on the AGFA disc are as essential nor as substantial as either Teenage Serial Killer or Mary Jane. The only one that comes close is an early-2000s documentary short about the bungled release of Ladies and Gentlemen … The Fabulous Stains (a movie that was highly influential on 90s feminist punks, thanks to a few scattered cable TV broadcasts). The rest of the shorts are a smattering of scraps: a student film about a road trip, a comedy sketch about disco fever, a home movie about Jacobson bra shopping with her mom, and music videos for 90s bands Man or Astro-Man? & Fluffy. Jacobson’s D.I.Y. filmmaking brand Station Wagon Productions could only do so much on its own volition without major financial support pulling the cart. I’m not sure if the films collected on this AGFA release comprise the entirety of what she managed to complete while alive (her IMDb page only lists Mary Jane, Serial Killer, and the Fabulous Stains doc), but their collective nature as discarded scraps indicate that there can’t be much left out there waiting to be recovered.

It’s undeniably sad that Jacobson wasn’t afforded more opportunities to break through with completed, long-form projects while she was alive & working (you can hear her frustration with being broke in the bra-shopping short, where she relies on her mother’s pity to get by), but that doesn’t mean her career wasn’t an overall success. Managing to fire off two subculture-defining works within one lifetime is more than most filmmakers on any financial level can hope for. I Was a Teenage Serial Killer managed to fully, authentically encapsulate the moods & aesthetics of riot grrrl punk within the span of a short, which is no small feat for a cinematic medium no audience seems to want. Her claim for the crown as the Queen of the Underground Film is questionable, but her impact of her short reign remains undeniable.

-Brandon Ledet

Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (1997)

The self-anointed “Queen of the Underground Film,” Sarah Jacobson almost exclusively worked in the most underground film medium of all: the short. Most significantly, her landmark short film I Was a Teenage Serial Killer proved to be an iconic riot grrrl time capsule from the dingiest days of 90s punk’s feminist uprising, persisting as her most recognizable work. Jacobson did manage to pull together resources for one feature film in her (tragically short) lifetime, though: a sex-positive teen punk melodrama titled Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore. Her one feature-length film is a no-budget coming-of-age cautionary tale that subverts the Conservative 1950s road-to-ruin teen pic by transforming it into genuinely healthy sex education for 90s punx. On its surface, it doesn’t commit as wholeheartedly to the cut-and-paste feminist zine culture aesthetic of I Was a Teenage Serial Killer, but thematically it really digs into the unchecked misogyny of teen counterculture movements in a way that few movies do. Beyond that accomplishment, Mary Jane works wonderfully just as an adorably low-rent hangout film; it’s one of the very best slice-of-life dispatches from the go-nowhere Slacker era.

Jacobson wastes no time explaining why teen punks need a proper sex education in the first place. The movie opens with a parody of the old-fashioned romantic Hollywood depiction of what Losing It is supposed to look like, then cuts harshly to our teen protagonist, Jane (Lisa Gerstein), suffering a much more realistic and horrific version of the act in a harshly lit cemetery. From his terminally cheesy pick-up line “Let me show you how special sex can be” to his laughably boneheaded question “Did you cum yet?” while they’re having the most uncomfortable looking sex imaginable, it’s immediately clear that Jane’s idiotic date isn’t just an insensitive brute; he also has no clue what he’s doing and is too arrogant to pretend otherwise. After this atrocious initiation to the world of casual sex, Jane has to learn on her own that sex actually can be pleasurable & fun with the right partner (especially herself), a trial & error education she navigates mostly for the audience’s benefit. Jacobson walks us through this distinctly teenage ritual by aping & parodying the road-to-ruin teen pictures of the 1950s that tackled this same topic from a moralistic, sex-shaming POV (mostly as an excuse to indulge in the exact prurient imagery they were supposedly condemning). It’s a fun storytelling device, but also a purposeful one.

Given the wide range of social topics that Jacobson tackles here—masturbation, bisexuality, teenage pregnancy, drunk driving, divorce, etc.—it would be easy for Mary Jane to slip into a didactic After School Special tone, but it sidesteps that pitfall entirely. Some of that avoidance is a result of its direct acknowledgement of the moralistic road-to-ruin teen genre it’s subverting, but mostly the movie is just enjoyable as a snapshot of a specific time in youth counterculture aesthetics. Jane is a suburban girl with a job at an inner-city movie theater, where she works alongside obnoxious-drunk punks specifically archetypal of their era. 90s teenage regalia like unironic fedoras, white-kid dreadlocks, camo cargo shorts, and studded leather jackets are just as much a fabric of the setting as the era’s punk ideologies like straight-edge, riot grrrl, and zine culture. As the teenage delinquents party in the dingy cinema lobby, occasionally taking tickets & scooping popcorn for impatient customers, films like Hardcore & Last Tango in Paris spew unhealthy sex lessons from the other room, poisoning their minds in real time. Jacobson is visibly proactive in undoing the awful sexual misconceptions that have permeated these kids’ misogynist punk community, but she also clearly loves the little dolts as recognizable personalities from an evergreen social scene – the teenage dirtbags that they are.

It probably does require a certain fondness & familiarity with punk culture to fully appreciate this film’s D.I.Y. charms, where a boom mic shadow or broad pantomime performance of teenage drunkenness are always threatening to creep in from the edge of the frame. That’s a totally acceptable price of admission, though, since Jacobson was directly appealing to that specific subculture (which she appears to have been a member of herself) in order to mend the harm their grotesque sexual misbehavior was causing. It’s frustrating how often the politics of youth counterculture movements like hippies, punks, and—most recently—”The Dirtbag Left” don’t interrogate the active harm of the sex & gender politics they perpetuate from the Patriarchal institutions they’re supposedly rebelling against. It sucks that Sarah Jacobson wasn’t able to pull together enough resources to deliver more feature films in her lifetime, but it’s rad af that the one time she was able to do so, she used the opportunity to sexually re-educate the punks of her era. They clearly needed that course-correction, even if they could be charming in other ways.

-Brandon Ledet

Her Smell (2019)

There are few narrative templates as a familiar to American audiences as the rockstar addiction story, in which booze & illicit chemicals tear down celebrity gods from powerful highs to pitiful rock-bottoms. Hell, in the last year alone we’ve already seen this exact story play out in Vox Lux, Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Dirt, and yet another A Star is Born remake in a longstanding, haggard tradition. On a plot outline level, Her Smell makes no attempt to jazz up the melody of this narrative template. It’s well aware that this is a story we’ve seen too many times before, both in the tabloids and on the big screen. If anything, everyone in the film seems well past exasperated & fed up with watching the tired rock star addiction cliché play out spectacularly around them; they’re just helpless to stop it. As faithful to & disdainful of that cliché as the film appears to be, though, it still manages to feel like a fresh, unholy terror through the virtues of its execution, which does its best to rattle the audience to the point where we’re numb, drained, and begging for release.

A large part of what distinguishes Her Smell in this crowded field is the specificity of its setting. These tortured artist addiction narratives are typically reserved for machismo-driven cock rockers like Jim Morrison, Led Zeppelin, and whatever Americana archetype Bradley Coopers was aiming for in last year’s Oscar run. By contrast, this film is a pastiche of the rock ’n roll excess stories that seeped out of the femme 90s punk bands of the riot grrrl & grunge era. The most obvious 1:1 comparison for its fictional rock ‘n roller Becky Something would be Courtney Love on her worst behavior, but the film pulls from plenty other bands’ onstage personae & backstage drama for inspiration: The Breeders, Throwing Muses, L7 , Babes in Toyland, etc., etc., etc. We see the fictional band Something She at the height of their 90s heyday only in brief interstitials of backstage videocorder footage between much lengthier, more contemporary scenes of their post-fame bickering. It’s a hyper-specific yet undeniably iconic music scene that we rarely get to see depicted in feature films, which usually do little to challenge rock ‘n roll’s outdated reputation as a boys’ club. If we’re going to watch a familiar story of drugs wrecking a rock star’s life & career play out yet again, we might as well use it as an opportunity to see something that’s a much rarer treat in filmmaking of any era: women behaving badly.

Besides the specificity of the setting, Her Smell is also elevated above its potential genre tedium by the provocateur sensibilities of its director, Alex Ross Perry. Perry brings his usual thirst for pitch-black despair & total sensory overload to this Queen of Earth follow-up, content to violently shake his audience by the shoulders for as long as anyone could possible stand it. The major evolution to his usual mode here is a newfound sense of patience. Her Smell is well over two hours long. It’s structured like a stage play, with act-length scenes stretching on for torturous eternities as its addict antagonist torments everyone unfortunate enough to be lured into her orbit. Perry at least has the decency to release some steam from the pressure cooker for a rare moment of calm halfway through the runtime that effectively serves as an intermission, but for the most part he offers very little relief from the anxiety & hurt addiction wreaks on this once vibrant, now decaying music scene. His camera offers a dizzying, unflinching tour through the backstage labyrinth hellscapes behind the concerts that justify this vile behavior, with muffled far-off crowds screaming for more like the demons of Hell. That thunderous applause mixes with subtly unnerving synth flourishes to continually disorient viewers as we’re forced to endure nightmare drug parties long after the good vibes have soured. It’s exhausting, but impressively effective.

All this preamble is really just burying the lede of what truly makes Her Smell a must-see spectacle: Elizabeth Moss. Recalling the maddening whirlwind performances of legendary actors before her like Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence or Faye Dunaway in Puzzle of a Downfall Child, Moss plays the tragic rock ‘n roller Betty Something more as a rabid animal or a natural disaster than a human woman. Usually these madwoman breakdown dramas are sympathetic portraits of someone who’s cracked under the pressures of mental illness & impossible Patriarchal ideals. Here, Moss is simply allowed to be total, unforgivable nightmare – bursting into rooms backstage like a flood that wipes out all her friends, family, and colleagues along with her. She curses professional rivals with mysterious black-magic hexes, plays with her small child like a dog temporarily excited by a new chew toy, and feeds off the adoration of her audience as an enabling signifier that she can do no wrong. We never see Moss ingest drugs onscreen, but you can read each speck of the junk on her dazed, ghoulish face. It’s an intensely physical performance that expresses all the subtlety & nuance necessary to make this somewhat generic story specific to her character, so that all Perry has to do (besides write the damn thing) is stay out of her of way and allow it to play out in its full, rabid spectacle. It’s a mesmerizing feat of a performance from one of our greatest living actors.

The final achievement that makes Her Smell an exceptional specimen of its ilk is in the quiet release of its final moments, something I wouldn’t dare spell out here even if I thought it was possible. After two full hours of being terrorized by Elizabeth Moss’s feral showboating, everyone involved is exhausted on a molecular level, allowing for a rare moment of quiet grace I can’t recall ever seeing before in this Tragic Rock ‘n Roll Addict genre. I was genuinely, emotionally moved by the final lines of Her Smell, which was something I hadn’t expected given the familiarity of this thematic material. It shames me to admit that I had much stronger feelings overall for the superficially similar swing-for-the-fences mess of Vox Lux last year. Still, it’s undeniable that Moss & Perry broke through to something truly resonant & powerful by the time this film reaches it’s closing moments of denouement – whether through the specificity of character & setting, the willingness to dwell in intense discomfort, or the perversely cathartic pleasure of watching Women Behaving Badly.

-Brandon Ledet

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982)

One of my all-time favorite movies is the Roger Corman production Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, which is a delightful watch for all kinds of gleefully unhinged, Looney Tunes-type touches. Its cartoon energy isn’t entirely what makes it memorable, though. There’s a misshapen, decidedly unprofessional quality to the few scenes in the film where The Ramones, playing themselves, are asked to deliver a few lines of seemingly manageable dialogue, but can’t appear to be human while the cameras are pointed at them. I find that non-compliance with traditional screen presence to be something beyond punk, a strange ramshackle de-evolution that’s part exploitation pic fascination and part real world inebriation. Produced & directed by music industry weirdo Lou Adler (who also had a hand in Rocky Horror and some Cheech & Chong projects), Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains somehow sustains the slovenly rock n’ roller energy from those Ramones scenes for the length of an entire feature. Better yet, the movie marries that misshapen, Ramones-style presence to a decidedly feminist diatribe against the way mediocre men who are gatekeepers to both punk & pop culture at large, deliberately keeping young women from having a voice in the counterculture landscape. It’s a fascinating film in that way and I’m baffled it doesn’t have a larger cultural footprint because of it.

Unemployed, broke, and mourning the recent loss of a key family member, three teenage girls do the only thing young, working class nobodies can do in a small industrial town: channel their angst into a punk band. Going through the punk ritual of drastically changing their physical appearances and the names they go by, the three-piece musical act, The Stains of the film’s title, luck themselves into an opening slot on a touring gig with two bands packed with macho assholes: a has-been glam rock nostalgia act and an up-and-coming crew of British punks. Like a rough-around-the-edges version of The Runaways, The Stains find themselves to be incredibly popular almost immediately with young women across the country who are desperate for a voice of their own in the punk angst subculture. The problem is that this fame & notoriety hits them before they’re ready as a band and as people. Mocked & exploited by record industry execs, TV news anchors, and the men they initially supported on tour, The Stains watch as the genuine anger they funneled into their songs (especially “I’m a Waste of Time”) & personal sense of style (a sex-positive spin on new wave fashion) is commodified and destroyed as a flash-in-the-pan novelty before they are even afforded enough time to find themselves as a band. It’s a somewhat tragic story where the enemy to the group isn’t fame itself, but the opportunistic, misogynist assholes who keep their grip locked tight on the keys to the pop culture kingdom.

What’s most immediately striking about The Fabulous Stains is its punk authenticity, which is not an easy spirit to capture on film. The Stains, who only had a few practices before they risked taking their show on the road, sound genuinely unpracticed, like The Raincoats by way of The Shaggs. Their punk rock rivals are a lousy lot of Brits mostly composed of ex-members of The Sex Pistols (Steve Jones, Paul Cook) and The Clash (Paul Simonon), who wrote their own songs for the film. That kind of credibility extends into the shit hole dive bars the movie’s central tour crashes through like a slow-moving trainwreck, as it mirrors the exact small town-trolling American tour that broke up The Sex Pistols a few years before the film was made. What’s important about that authenticity​ is that it sets up a grounded, believable scenario where The Stains, mediocre talents at best, would be able to resonate with so many young women across the country​. A strong D.I.Y. punk ethos means that everyone is afforded a voice & equal opportunity. A lack of traditional musical talent can be easily overcome by a sneering, passionate attitude, as long as you can knock over the gatekeeping cretins who try to block your path.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains suffered just as much misogynist motherfuckery in the real world as the titular band did in its fictional one. The film’s writer, Nancy Dowd, reported sexist mistreatment during the production at the hands of Adler, the crew, and others. That clash of feminist ideology being filtered through a machismo-driven film industry lead to an extended period of post-production & editing room studio notes tinkering where Paramount Pictures struggled to figure out what to do with a movie they fundamentally did not understood. That stasis at least afforded the movie an insane filmed-after-the-fact epilogue that attempts to capitalize on the in-the-mean-time invention of Music Video Television and somehow both enhances the film’s themes & rapidly ages the babyfaced Stains (including Diane Lane & Lauren Dern) into fully formed adults in the blink of an eye. It didn’t help the film’s financial chances, though, since it was ultimately a strike-while-the-iron’s-hot proposition.

No matter how poorly The Fabulous Stains‘s production & distribution was handled, it did eventually make it into the right hands when it found a second life airing on television (just like Citizen Kane!). Riot Grrrl bands like Bikini Kill cite the film as a major inspiration for their formation, which makes total sense, given the way the film is reverent of female punks inspiring other women to join the scene (which was essentially Bikini Kill’s entire ethos) and the way feminist dialogue made its way though the bullshit sex politics of the film industry to include lines like, “These girls made themselves,” “It was an old man in a young girls’ world,” and “I’m perfect, but nobody in this shit hole gets me, because I don’t put out.” The Fabulous Stains is far from a perfect, pristinely intact work (for that version of the same story I highly recommend We Are the Best!), but a large part of its power & charm is in its imperfection. It’s an authentically punk, fiercely feminist work that’s compromised production oddly mirrors the fictional band it profiles in its ramshackle story of a subculture scene & media landscape that wanted nothing to do with them or their entire gender in the first place.

-Brandon Ledet