Fans of late-night grindhouse fare will likely get a kick from The Ladies of the House, a by-turns sleazy and playful horror movie love-in that splits the difference between pseudo-feminist yuks and traditionally icky exploitation. The debut feature from the filmmaking team of director John Stuart Wildman and writer Justina Walford won’t be to everyone’s taste, but at the very least casual viewers should find themselves hungry for a well-cooked steak.
While plenty of genre filmmakers have taken a stab at flipping horror’s traditional penchant for females as victims, few have made their intent this amusing from the outset. The Ladies of the House opens on an apron-clad woman dicing and kneading meat in a suburban kitchen straight out of 1950s melodrama; she may as well be Jeanne Die-man, even as the bright, poppy visual palette and gentle exotica score suggests a rather generous grain of salt on the side. Cut to a dive-y suburban strip club, where three bros—ostensible nice guy Jacob (Gabriel Horn), his simpleton brother Kai (Rj Hanson) and their douchebag friend Derek (Samrat Chakrabarti)—decide to take a birthday celebration too far and follow one of the dancers, Ginger (Belladonna), home for an uncomfortably forced nightcap. There’s a sexually charged altercation, but before they can flee, the men find themselves trapped in the house after Ginger’s roommates and strip-club colleagues—den mother Getty (Melodie Sisk), her lover Lin (Farah White), and straight pal Crystal (Brina Palencia)—arrive home and set a grisly game of cat and mouse in motion.
Sisk’s Getty is the driving character for much of the action, decked out in a tough-gal “We Can Do It!” ensemble and gleefully hunting her prey around the house while reeling off comedic, man-hating diatribes. Wildman extracts plenty of mileage from the single-set location, and serves up sequences to satisfy gore-hounds and girl-power aficionados alike. He takes a certain delight in emasculating his men and watching them squirm; one of the movie’s funniest moments, involving a house pet the ladies have named “piglet,” attains an almost John Waters-like level of derangement. Lest we’re tempted to take any of it too seriously, Wildman will cut from a torture-chamber gutting to a shot of a girl browsing a website called “Meet Market.” And once it’s revealed just what the ladies are cooking for dinner, the movie makes well and good on the socio-culinary promise of its opening scene.
Yet for all the cheerful gender flipping, Ladies is also troubled by something of the split personality that inevitably creeps into this kind of genre work. Wildman wants to have it both ways, selling female empowerment while offering ample girl-on-girl action and stock characters (the angry lesbian; the weak, compromised straight girl), and it’s uncertain whether we’re meant to empathize with the men as their actions become increasingly more “reasonable” next to the cartoon antics of their captors. Should we feel bad about some jerk being cannibalized when he all but advocated the rape that led him into the scenario?
One suspects that this kind of ambiguity is part of the film’s strategy. Wildman and Walford remain admirably committed to their conceit, staging a schizoid finale that hedges its bets and smears a blood-red question mark across horror movies’ wobbly gender politics. There are kinks, to be sure, but this is the mark of cult filmmakers in the making.