Sarah Jacobson: The Queen of Underground Cinema

Joseph Fusco
3 min readJan 30, 2021

A tragically short life and the career that could have been.

Trailer for The Films of Sarah Jacobson via YouTube

Sarah Jacobson was a filmmaker who left us way too soon. Her creative output was small, but what she made left a huge impact on the underground film community. It is no wonder that Roger Ebert dubbed her, “The Queen of Underground Cinema.”

When she died of cancer in 2004 at the age of 32, she left behind a body of work of one feature film, Mary Jane’s Not A Virgin Anymore; one long-form short, I Was A Teenage Serial Killer; and a handful of short films. But it is the ask-no-permission attitude and take-no-prisoners spirit that fueled her work ethic and artistic aesthetic.

“I’ve killed 19 men — one for every year I’m alive”

I Was A Teenage Serial Killer is a black and white, 30-minute film made in 16mm on a minuscule budget. It centers around a young woman who every time she gets harassed by leering older men, ends up killing them brutally and violently. Featuring music by the criminally underrated 1990s Seattle-area all-girl grunge band Heavens to Betsy, I Was A Teenage Serial Killer is a low-fi, DIY experiment in punk filmmaking.

Mary Jane’s Not A Virgin Anymore is Jacobson’s one and only feature film. It was a Riot Grrl take on cheesy 80s teen comedies but with the focus on female empowerment, sex positivity, and a punk rock attitude. Shot in 16mm color in the Twin Cities, Mary Jane’s Not A Virgin Anymore premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and became a cult hit on the home video market in the 1990s.

I Was A Teenage Serial Killer and Mary Jane’s Not A Virgin Anymore have now been preserved and are presented by AGFA - the American Genre Film Archive - and are available on DVD. I encourage everyone to check them out.

DVD cover of The Films of Sarah Jacobson
DVD Cover of The Films of Sarah Jacobson

Sarah Jacobson’s true influence is the pro-Grrrl-power theme that runs through all of her work. The Sarah Jacobson Film Grant was established in her honor to support female independent filmmakers. Had she lived, she might be working on the same budgetary and distribution level as Greta Gerwig, Miranda July, or Ry Russo-Young.

The history of movies is paved with artists who died too soon, leaving us with the notion of what could have been. James Dean made three films before dying at the age of 24 in a car crash that sent him into pop culture immortality. Brandon Lee, son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, was killed in an accident on the set of his breakout role in The Crow at the age of 30. Jean Vigo managed to direct two classic films, L’Atalante and Zero Pour Conduit, before dying of tuberculosis in 1934 at the age of 29.

Sarah Jacobson was an artist whose output was only limited due to her tragically short life. Her movies were very cool, and they were made on film. Sadly, she left us before digital cinema, and so we’ll never know how her style might have evolved. It’s painful to think about what Sarah Jacobson could have…and would have accomplished.

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Joseph Fusco

Joseph Fusco is a writer, director, actor, and drummer from New York City.