Long considered a classic among grindhouse enthusiasts and video store dirtbags, Abel Ferrara’s Ms .45 has enjoyed a popular reappraisal in recent years. Its 2013 restoration and re-release coincided with both a rise in Ferrara’s stature as well as a surge in critically-acclaimed rape/revenge genre films (a trend which has gone surprisingly mainstream, recently culminating in a surprise Best Picture nomination for Promising Young Woman). Ferrara’s career rehabilitation — from the lows of his straight-to-VHS purgatory at the turn of the century to a brief European exile to his current status as elder statesman of arthouse respectability — nicely mirrors Ms .45’s own path from banned video nasty to pre-Giuliani era Times Square nostalgia piece to bona fide feminist touchstone. It remains a bracing work, the ensuing 40 years since its original release doing nothing to dull the film’s razor-sharp edges.
It’s a deceptively simple narrative, easy to summarize into punchy, sleazy sound bites. Thana (the incomparable Zoë Lund in her film debut, billed here as Zoë Tamerlis) is a mute seamstress who is raped not once but twice on her way home from work. While fending off her second attacker, she kills him, acquiring his .45 caliber pistol in the process. Driven mad by the experience, Thana gradually dismembers the rapist’s corpse and periodically disposes of pieces throughout the city. She then proceeds to seek out and kill as many men as she can, culminating in a massacre at a Halloween party, which gives Ferrara the opportunity to put Tamerlis in a nun’s habit while blasting away with her hand cannon, an instantly iconic image that frequently accompanies any mention of the film.
Ferrara was mixing low-brow genres with grand artistic ambitions from the very start of his career. Setting aside his earliest known feature credit, a one-off porno flick called 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy, his first real films were the one-two punch of The Driller Killer and Ms .45. They form a fascinating diptych, opposites in some ways while mirroring each other in others. Both are hyper-violent fantasies, one featuring a male assailant and the other a female victim, with both killers wielding a symbolic phallus as a weapon. There’s an emphasis on the city as psychotic playground, with institutional forces — capitalism in the former, patriarchal misogyny in the latter — aligned against our main characters. Both films end with the tragic death of a woman — obliquely in The Driller Killer, and quite dramatically in Ms .45, with Thana finally being brought down by a female coworker. The first scene of The Driller Killer even presages the final scene of Ms .45, both awash in Catholic symbolism perverted into something aggressively unholy. These are quick, cheap films, designed in part to keep butts in seats and keep people from demanding refunds (as Ferrara himself has put it). But working in disreputable genres allows Ferrara to scribble all sorts of interesting things in the margins, creating a worldview with these two films that will reverberate throughout his entire career.
A large part of Ms .45’s power comes from Tamerlis’s performance. A tragic figure, who would die of an overdose in 1999 after years of substance use, Tamerlis would leave behind a number of unfinished projects as well as legions of adoring fans. She’s an instant star here, her soft features and wide eyes conveying an intoxicating innocence. Ferrara, of course, recognized this quality, frequently mentioning in interviews that he cast her the instant he saw her. Maybe it was lust, but whatever the case, Ferrara’s film has the uncanny ability to empathize with Thana even as he complicates the audience’s relationship with her character. The film begins with several scenes set in Thana’s toxic work environment, with an overbearing boss and an imperious client who’s dismissive of the female workers modeling gowns for her. As she leaves work, Thana walks a gauntlet of catcalls and aggressive male attention, setting up men en masse as a volatile threat even before she’s attacked. The first rape happens suddenly, without warning, only a few minutes into the film. Unlike something along the lines of I Spit on Your Grave, another genre touchstone, Ferrara doesn’t fetishize the female body before brutalizing it. The rape scenes are graphic and hard to watch, as they should be, but feature no explicit nudity. Even a brief scene later on of Thana opening her blouse, an easy opportunity for some gratuitous nudity, instead instantly triggers a traumatic flashback. Ferrara’s career proves he is no prude, which suggests that Ms. 45’s lack of nudity was a conscious, and conscientious, choice (though perhaps also predicated in part by the fact that Tamerlis was 17 years old at the time of filming).
While Thana starts off killing violent, sexually aggressive men, she eventually begins seeking out any man at all. The film ultimately positions Thana not as a simple “avenging angel” (an oft-used alternate title for Ms .45), seeking retribution for her own assault, but a cosmic force raging against the world. For instance, when a seemingly innocent man manages to escape Thana’s pursuit, Ferrara shows her rage as the young man finally steps safely behind a locked door. It’s a daring provocation, turning Thana’s righteous quest into outright compulsion and challenging the viewers’ own sympathy for Thana’s plight. Ferrara even goes so far as to make the audience believe that Thana has shot her landlady’s dog, one of the lines films don’t typically cross (the other being the murder of a child). Nicole Brenez writes that “the figure of Thana brings to light the phenomenon of ordinary sexual violence — first as a private phobia, but ultimately as an ultrapowerful force in the daily world economy, the possibility of exploiting any body of any age in any way.” She then quotes an interview with Zoë Lund from 1993, in which she states “notice that her [Thana’s] climactic victim is not a rapist in the clinical sense. He is her boss. The real rapist. Our real rapist.” Brenez posits then that “Thana’s violence responds to this institutionalized horror.” The film, then, moves from the micro — Thana being raped — to the macro — a society that allows, even encourages, such violence to persist. Critic Walter Chaw describes Ms .45 as “somewhere between Marnie and Repulsion,” and states that the film’s brilliance “is that it suggests we’re doomed, that there’s no real hope for understanding between the sexes.” Like so many of Ferrara’s characters, Thana must die at the end; she’s too powerful for this broken world, too righteous, too dangerous to the powers that be. Perhaps Ms .45 lingers on while so many other cheap quickies get consigned to the dust bin of history because Ferrara cuts to the tragedy at the heart of our modern condition. We’re all broken.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.