All it took was a drive around Los Angeles for director John Wildman and his wife, Justina Walford, to come up with the idea for their debut film “The Ladies of the House,” featured at the Sarasota Film Festival.
“We were driving around and she said, ‘cannibal strippers,’ and I said, if you write, I’ll find a way to make it. I thought it would be hilarious or scary or awesome.”
Wildman, who grew up in Englewood and graduated from Booker High School’s Visual and Performing Arts Center, believed in the project. It took almost five years, off and on, to secure the financing, and he put all his savings into the film, which marks his debut as a director.
“We are both big genre and thriller and horror fans,” he said in a telephone interview from New York, where he works as senior publicist for the Film Society of Lincoln Center. “The reason we both like those films as fans and as filmmakers ourselves is that they allow us to really deal with some issues or play with some ideas, not in an obvious way.”
In the case of “Ladies of the House,” they wanted to tap into the kinds of elements that horror film fans seek, while throwing in a message about female empowerment.
“People watch a horror film looking to be scared, looking to be grossed out, looking for a roller coaster ride,” he said. “But then you can tweak in these high-minded ideas. Hopefully you got their hearts racing a little bit, but they can also have a discussion afterward. Hopefully we inspire someone to have a debate.”
The film deals with three men, two brothers and a friend, whose visit to a strip club goes horribly awry. They go home with one of the dancers, not realizing her roommates are cannibals.
The film has its requisite scenes of blood and guts, shadowed images and frightening scenes, mixed with more sobering discussions about the women’s lives.
“We wanted to do a flipping of gender politics,” he said. “We wanted to create a world where women dominated and men are at their service in almost every way.”
Wildman is looking forward to meeting up with old friends and family members during his visit, which includes two film screenings at 9 p.m. today and 8:30 p.m. Tuesday.
“Ladies’ had its world premiere Friday night at the Dallas International Film Festival. The film was shot in Dallas, where Wildman and his wife have a home.
They originally intended to film the movie at their own house, but by the time filming got started, it was summer and they had no air conditioning, he said. They rented a studio where they “literally built a set that was identical to the interior of my house and then we took all the furnishings from the house and put them in the studio.”
Wildman was an acting and dance student at Booker and got a degree in theater from Florida State University. He played roles in a variety of film and TV projects, before shifting his focus.
He has wanted to direct for a while and to work with his wife. Their first film project was something of a calculated risk, he said, and they picked the horror genre as a business and investment decision.
“What kind of movie did we think will make that investment back?” he said. “We made a film that we think people will want to see. And when I say what the film is about, you know pretty quickly if you want to see it. It’s not a romantic comedy, not a drama, not a documentary. It’s a horror film, but with a real twist.”
“The Ladies of the House” will be screened at 9 p.m. April 7 and 8:30 p.m. April 8 at the Sarasota Film Festival in the Hollywood 20 Cinemas, 1993 Main St., Sarasota. For ticket information: 366-6200; sarasotafilmfestival.com