“This party would be a lot more fun if it was over.”
In Ladyworld, eight women in their early-twenties are trapped in a house indefinitely after what seems to be a society-collapsing earthquake. As the consecutive days without electricity, water, or food supplies pile up, this event triggers the group’s collective descent into madness. I didn’t love this movie as much as I expected to, given the promise of that premise, but it’s still a solid entry in a genre I personally never tire of: the horrible party that never ends. Even if Ladyworld didn’t achieve the full atmospheric menace attempted in its disjointed imagery, stage play dialogue, and aggressive sound design, that story template of a miserable party gone out of bounds still guarantees a deeply unnerving effect the movie fosters admirably.
Often, these microcosmic descents into communal madness are deployed as allegories of larger societal ills. The Exterminating Angel’s never-ending party satirized wealth disparity in a grotesquely unfair class system; mother! hinged its own chaotic symbolism on an Environmentalist bent; Demon was haunted by a buried past of antiemetic genocide; etc. For its part, Ladyworld mostly seems concerned with hierarchal distributions of power. Within mere hours of the earthquake trapping these young women at a never-ending birthday party, the group splits into two camps behind self-elected leaders. This divide ignites a power struggle that results only in escalating violence and seemingly no positive motions toward survival. It’s a kind of femme variation on Lord of the Flies in that way, with the women exchanging that novel’s conch for a decorative crystal. It’s tough to say if there’s any clear messaging or themes intended behind this power struggle, beyond mocking the pointlessness of the impulse. If the movie has anything direct to say about hierarchal power, it’s that “No one needs to be in charge when everyone has a knife.” And the knives are only necessary because we’re naturally prone to violence & chaos.
It’s almost pointless to pick apart what the movie’s doing on a plot level, though, since its main focus appears to be atmospheric menace. Ominous drones & rhythmic breathing overpower the soundtrack as characters indulge in impov warmup exercises and cake on inch-thick layers of makeup. A paranoid myth that a man is lurking in the house, waiting to attack them, spreads throughout the group like a hushed religious belief. The menace of unending boredom & unstructured idle time escalates to a feverish panic, with the two warring factions starting shit with each other just so there’s something to do. The strongest case the movie makes for its value as a consistently unnerving, abrasive work of outsider art is when one character praises a painting in the house for being ugly. She contends that the necessity for everything to be pleasant & beautiful is a kind of artistic oppression, one that Ladyworld actively fights against in its tonal & atmospheric aggression. This is an ugly film about the ugliness of basic human nature, something that comes across much stronger in its visual & aural experiments than in its dialogue or plot.
As I’m writing about Ladyworld’s emphasis on cinematic language over traditional storytelling and its use of the party-out-of-bounds narrative template to terrorize its audience with atmospheric menace, I’m again left wondering why this isn’t my new favorite movie. Maybe if I had been fully immersed in a theatrical setting instead of watching it on my couch, I might have felt its psychological impact a lot stronger. Maybe I seek out these kinds of movies too often, so watching adult women devolving at a never-ending-slumber-party-from-Hell feels like something I’ve already seen approximated in recent films like Queen of Earth, #horror, and – most recently—Braid. Disregarding my sky-high expectations and over-saturation in this genre territory, though, this film is still an impressive work of D.I.Y. alchemy – turning a single location & a small crew of fresh-faced collaborators into something deeply, unrelentingly upsetting. It’s not the greatest specimen of its ilk, but it’s still a commendable one.