I Was a Teenage Serial Killer (1993)

Directed by Sarah Jacobson
Stationwagon Productions VHS

Here is something that happens everyday:

A woman walks down the street. A guy walks up next to her. He smiles. He makes a comment. Maybe it’s about how nice she looks or maybe it’s about how she needs to smile—You’re beautiful, you should smile more!—or maybe it’s about the tightness of her ass or the niceness of her tits. The woman keeps walking, ignoring, eyes straight ahead. There is nothing to see or hear in this moment. She is going from Point A to Point B, and that is all. The guy continues to follow her. She quickens her pace. He keeps up. What’s wrong, baby, he asks, why are you ignoring me? I know you can hear me. I said, you’re beautiful, is that so wrong? Hey, you should look at people when they talk to you. I know you can hear me. Why are you being such a bitch? Maybe the woman grits her teeth or maybe she sighs—after all, this is not the first time this has happened. Maybe, if the streets are filled with people and it’s daytime, she snaps and causes a scene. Go fuck yourself, she fires back, leave me the fuck alone. But if it’s at night and there’s no one else around, she will continue ignoring him. She might reach for her keys in case she needs them for makeshift brass knuckles. She might reach for her phone and start dialing someone, anyone, just so she has someone to talk to. Hi, how are you, what are you up to, how was dinner, etc. Idle chitchat to fill the air, to defuse, to take power from the situation, though she still won’t be in control of it. She might look around and plan an escape, a route to a busy street or a packed bar or an all-night grocery store. When she gets to Point B—her car or her apartment—she will look around to make sure she wasn’t followed. Only when the doors are locked will she feel relief.

If you’re a woman, you’ve certainly been here before, many times. On most days, you brush it off. You move on because if you got angry every single time some lowlife shitbag made you feel vulnerable, you’d get nothing done. You’re a busy woman and you’ve got shit to do. On other days, you rage. You understand that some mouth-breathing dildo is trying to overpower you and intimidate you with his so-called sexual prowess. His entitlement is brazen. He believes he should be rewarded with a response, and he feels empowered enough to force it from you. Of course, you don’t have to accept compliments from anyone, ever. You certainly don’t have to smile.

But what if you became angry, and then stayed angry? What if you fought back? What if you took back the power that was stolen from you through savage murder? I Was a Teenage Serial Killer explores and unleashes the piercing anger and frustration that bubble inside women every day. It exposes the countless ways women are victimized—on the streets, between the sheets, and in relationships—and lashes out against it all.

Mary is not your typical teenager. She smears blood all over her dying victim. Then she joyfully puts on lipstick and wanders around a dump. She meets up with her friend, who cracks open a beer and launches into a lecture. He explains that she needs to get her shit together. She needs to find herself a good man. She needs someone with a lot of money, someone who drives a Mercedes. Otherwise she is destined to get pregnant out of wedlock, or maybe she’ll get an abortion. Somewhere, at this very moment, a woman is suffering through a lecture exactly like this.

Suddenly the man coughs and sputters. He keels over. Mary smirks. She reveals rat poison.

Mary ends up hot and heavy with a guy. She grabs a condom. Minutes later she notices it unused on the bed. “How dare you take off the condom while we’re having sex!” He just doesn’t like it, he explains matter-of-factly. He is both an unbelievable asshole and a total penis. She chokes him and shoves a banana down his throat. It’s a fitting death, though I would’ve done more.

Eventually Mary does find love. She meets a guy who shares the same values. He’s a straight white male, but he explains, “Straight white males is the epitome of what’s wrong with this society.” He is what I would call a woke-ass bro. “I think I could kill them all.”

So they do. Together.

But their plans sour when his sense of entitlement gets in the way. Leave it to a straight white male to ruin a perfectly good serial killing. In the end, Mary just wants one simple thing from the world around her: to be heard. It feels like a very decent, very easy request, and yet here we are. Women still don’t have full reproductive rights, get paid less than men for the same jobs, and, according to the Centers for Disease Control, one in five women are a victim of rape or attempted rape. It is obvious that no one is listening to women.

I Was a Teenage Serial Killer asserts an unapologetic point-of-view and a clear message of anger and outrage. Directed, written, edited, and shot by Sarah Jacobson, it’s one part cinéma vérité and one part slasher, with a kick ass soundtrack that includes riot grrrl screechers Heavens to Betsy as well as Charles Manson’s twisted recitations. Jacobson was a student of underground filmmaker George Kuchar and the influence shows. I Was a Teenage Serial Killer is beautifully shot on black and white film, with handheld camera techniques and quick edits that lend the story a sense of claustrophobia, grittiness, and urgency. The film meanders and jumps, but never stalls; it is completely magnetic in its 30-minute runtime. But I Was a Teenage Serial Killer is less about the film itself and more about the theme and message. Underneath the killings and broken bottles and bloody knives, there’s intelligence, careful symbolism, and a clear warning that when women get angry, you best run. All the sexism women are subjected to daily are exposed: cat-calling on the street, sexual dominance and entitlement, men who just want one thing, men who think they know what’s best, and more. This is a movie that screams exactly what it wants to scream, and you should listen and watch and realize that the message is still relevant over 20 years later.

Jacobson was heralded by Roger Ebert and Kim Gordon and praised by major media outlets for her subversive work and DIY ethos. I Was a Teenage Serial Killer is what 1988’s Blood Orgy of the Leather Girls aspired to be, but didn’t quite reach because of issues of authenticity (Blood Orgy of the Leather Girls was a nascent riot grrrl film directed by a man posing as a woman). Jacobson went on to direct Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore, which explores women and sex, but her career was cut short when she died of cancer at 32. She was and is a pivotal voice in underground cinema. If film is a reflection of our society—of our hopes, dreams, fears, and concerns—then I Was a Teenage Serial Killer shows us how far we still have to go to achieve Mary’s seemingly simple wish of just being heard.