Like it or not, for many men their self-worth is tied to their sexual prowess. It’s an inherently misogynistic way of life that views women as nothing more than objects to be conquered and discarded. That viewpoint is the target of the independent dark comedy from writer-director Phil Leirness, The Lady Killers (not to be confused with the Ealing Studios classic or the Coen Brothers remake). While The Lady Killers certainly has a number of issues that befall many microbudget features, but once it finds its twisted voice there’s enough going on within the film that’s easy to forgive some of its more noticeable flaws.
Pete (Jamie Kaler) is a police officer of questionable moral fortitude. When we first see him, he’s in a massage parlor attempting to get a happy ending before the place is raided by his colleagues. He crawls out the window and circles around to reenter the building as an officer of the law. Pete is rounding up a group of friends to participate in a high-stake game. Stephen (Burt Bulos), a personal trainer; Brian (Peter Shinkoda), a high school teacher; Michael (Shaun Parker), a periodontist; Paul (Dean Haglund), a document shedder; Dan (Arye Gross), a wealthy businessman; and John (Leirness), a psychiatrist, join Pete to play a game of sexual conquest. The participants judge each other on various aspects of their sexual exploits – the attractiveness of the woman as well as audacity and brazenness of the sexual acts. The winner will receive $5,000 from each participant, with second place paying nothing and last place paying double.
The setup for the game that is the central concept of The Lady Killers takes a bit too long as Leirness attempts to establish a smorgasbord of character dynamics before the repellant contest can begin. It’d be much more effective if these dynamics were established after we’re presented with some understanding of what the game is, but the characters speak in the abstract about “the game” as we’re left in the dark for a little while.
Once the rules of the game are laid out the men start to seek out their conquests, The Lady Killers takes a dark, depraved turn. Each one of the men make horrific decisions all in the name of their macho pride and a chunk of cash on the line. Friendships are betrayed to gain an upper-hand. Most disgustingly, these men betray the confidence of their positions in the world in order to win a fleeting contest. Brian makes the ultimate sleazy move in seducing a student; John manipulates and sleeps with a patient of his; Michael, worst of all, drugs a patient and proceeds to sleep with her. Meanwhile, Stephen has sex with a married woman and pimps out an actress friend to Dan with the promise that if she does so the wealthy businessman will fund her next project.
Thankfully, Phil Leirness sees just how abhorrent the behavior of his characters is and doesn’t even attempt to provide them with a path to redemption, something that is increasingly common in comedies that focus on bad behavior. The Lady Killers isn’t a movie that asks you to revel in the bad behavior of its characters, instead it asks you sit back and view in shock as these men make horrible decisions that will have grave consequences for them.
When the contest is completed and a winner has been crowned, The Lady Killers takes another dark turn. Soon the bodies begin to pile up as a mysterious stranger is knocking off the participants in the contest one by one in increasingly gruesome fashion. Of course, here you can really see the budgetary limitations of the film as most of the gore effects aren’t particularly convincing. It does create a sense of mystery as the story punishes the characters for their bad behavior, raising the stakes of the story until its big final reveal (which will not be divulged here) that had me chuckling.
Leirness’ ability as a writer exceeds his ability as a director and editor. Granted, budgetary limitations play a part in some of the oddly framed shots and edits that are just a little bit off and sometimes jarring. The Lady Killers could be edited together tighter, ramping up the pacing would’ve greatly helped the story. At the center of the dark, twisted heart of The Lady Killers lies a brutally honest portrait of toxic masculinity. These men are so insecure that must put on a veneer of a lothario to elevate themselves in the eyes of their peers no matter the human cost. The Lady Killers doesn’t play it safe or easy with its tricky subject matter and is all the better for it, highlighting the worst behavior in men while gleefully lampooning it with a dark edge.
The Lady Killers has its world premiere Sunday, March 26th at the North Hollywood CineFest. Get tickets here.