At one of the various Tribeca press screenings, I was sitting around and talking with a few other NY critics. We were talking about what was coming up the rest of the year, and discussion inevitably turned to the New York Film Festival. Someone else brought up John Wildman, senior publicist for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, whose movie, The Ladies of the House, was finally getting a release. Several of us were planning on reviewing it. Someone said it would be funny to see if people who got rejected for press credentials later in the year were the same people who gave Wildman’s film a bad score.
Obviously it was a joke, but the conversation was still on my mind when the positive reviews started coming in. I saw them on Facebook, because John Wildman and I are Facebook friends, though we aren’t real friends. I say this in the interest both of disclosure and because I find it kind of interesting. If you think that makes me biased or an untrustworthy source, that’s fine. But I’m better than that, and I’ve sent some very nasty reviews to some people I have much better relationships with, because when it all comes down to it, honesty is really all I’ve got. If I compromise my moral obligation to be the most critical critic I can, then what am I doing writing this?
So I am being completely honest when I say that you should see The Ladies of the House. You really, really should.
The Ladies of the House
Director: John Wildman
Release Date: May 1, 2015 (iTunes)
At the end of Rugerro Deodato’s infamous Cannibal Holocaust (spoilers for a movie that’s older than I am), one of the characters opines to no one in particular, “Who are the real cannibals?” Up until that point, we’d been subjected to the brutality of the cannibals, sure, but so too were we shown the horrors of the Americans who set upon their tribe. They were documenting their own atrocities. “Who are the real cannibals?” it asks. “US!” It’s always stuck with me. I was surprised that Cannibal Freaking Holocaust was trying to say something about anything. I’d expected less of it. But silly as it is (and it is silly), I find myself quoting it with probably alarming regularity.
“Who are the real cannibals?”
Minutes into The Ladies of the House, I nearly shouted at the screen, “THE REAL CANNIBALS ARE MEN!” Instead, I said, “Oh! I get it!” followed immediately by, “Ugh. I don’t want to see this…”
To be clear: I wasn’t saying I didn’t want to watch the rest of the movie (I did), but I could already tell that these soon-to-be victims wouldn’t be so, um, victim-y. They would deserve what was coming to them, because they’re pigs. They would incite the violence, and when things went badly (as the flash-forwards heavily implied they would), you wouldn’t feel bad. Because fuck those guys.
In the past year or so, I’ve realized that I have an active aversion to masculine manly men who treat women like shit. Some films that I’ve been told were great I just refused to watch because I don’t need to see more abuse. The world’s depressing enough. And even though I knew there would be vengeance, and it would be sweet (cause they’re cannibals, get it?!), I wasn’t super excited by the idea of subjecting to myself to more misogyny.
Ladies of the House was written by John Wildman and his wife, Justina Walford. I heard about it years ago from some other critics, but last November I attended a Genre movie discussion and Wildman and Walford were on the panel. It was an interesting one, and afterwards I talked with them a little bit. The movie was pitched to me as “Lesbian cannibals in a house.” I said, “Cool. When do I get to see it?” (Which is the first thing I say any time anybody tells me they’ve made anything.) He said, “Next year.” And I said, “That sucks.” It’s one heck of a pitch, though, right? And if you hadn’t seen the movie, you might think it sounds like a male fantasy of sorts. I can imagine a bunch of dude bros scrolling by this movie on VOD and stopping. “Sexy lesbian cannibals? Woo! PARTY!”
If I had to guess, those people will be disappointed. They’ll like the opening, which takes place in a strip club. They’ll like the parts with the lesbians doing their thing. But they probably won’t like the rest of it, because it sure as heck doesn’t like them.
It’s important that The Ladies of the House was co-written by a woman, much in the same way it’s important that Gone Girl was written by a woman. Misogynistic dialogue is different when it’s written by a woman. The words might be the same, but they definitely don’t have the same meaning. No one in their right mind could accuse this film of misogyny. It is very obvious what the film is going for and trying to say with its use of over-the-top derogatory language, but at first it isn’t so over-the-top. In the strip club, it’s disgusting but it’s also entirely plausible. There are people who talk and think like that. If you’re not paying attention, you might miss the point. At least at first. When it gets into it, you’ll know damn well that this is a feminist slasher flick through and through. And you’ll say, “A feminist slasher flick? Whoa! Party?”
It’s definitely a party. A gruesome one, too. Very much so. It takes a while for blood to spill, but once it does, it just goes. It’s probably why the film flashes forward early on. In the middle of an uncomfortable moment, suddenly you see this man you’re watching being tortured. It’s dark and it’s quick, but you know what it means. You know his fate. Soon after, you know the second guy’s fate. And when you don’t see the third, well, you sort of know his as well. But for people who happen on the film and don’t know what it is or what it’s about, it’s important that they see that. They need to know what they’re getting themselves into. Not because they should mentally prepare themselves for the horror (though maybe that too), but because there’s a whole lot of non-violence that has to happen before it gets to that point. And they need to know there’s going to be some payoff. Otherwise, why would they stick around? (Aside from the fact that it’s really just a fundamentally compelling narrative, of course.)
It’s a stylish movie. Sometimes a bit too stylish, perhaps, but I have to give it credit for choosing a look and committing to it. I’ve never loved the heavy wide-angle/fish-eye effect, but I understand why it’s used and how it can be used effectively. It’s used here. A lot. A lot a lot. And it works, for the most part, as do all the other little flourishes, but every so often I was paying more attention to the shot composition than what was being composed.
But it doesn’t detract (or even really distract) from the narrative that’s presented here. In fact, the only thing that really affected my investment in the events was the not-awesome performance by the one guy who could be considered good. He’s the voice of reason when his friend and brother are being piggish. He wants his brother to leave the strip club. He doesn’t want to go into the lady’s house. He doesn’t want things to go out of control. But he’s soft-spoken and not particularly convincing. It’s actually kind of fascinating in context, though, and works in the greater scheme of the narrative. This character “fights” it but doesn’t actually put up a fight. He can’t put his foot down, and then terrible things happen to him and those around him. Maybe his subpar performance is commenting on weakness of men who don’t have the balls to say, “Hey, leave her the fuck alone.” Intentional or not, that reading does make his emotionless delivery a bit more bearable. Interestingly enough, the best male performance comes from the worst of the characters. That one who you just can’t wait to see die.
And you will see it. And keep seeing it. Pretty soon, you’ll be uncomfortable with how excited you were to see him punished in the first place. But you’ll keep seeing it. Because The Ladies of the House doesn’t let you off the hook. Because that “sexy lesbian cannibals” fantasy is just the pitch. It’s the thing that gets you in the door. But once you’re inside, you realize you’re getting a whole lot more than you bargained for.
And I mean that in the best way possible.