Ms. 45 (1981)

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*. If you’ve read my notes on The Driller Killer then you know that I didn’t think very much of Abel Ferrara’s debut feature. And yet next up he directed this film, which transcends the exploitation genre and has gone on to achieve a well-deserved cult status. What happened?
*. The obvious first answer would be nineteen-year-old Zoë Tamerlis (later Lund). Not that this is a great performance. It doesn’t have to be.
*. The mute Thana isn’t a character, she’s a presence. All she has to do is project the part: vulnerable, erotic, poisonous, otherworldly. Those lips seem foreboding enough even before she paints them up to a lurid pitch. As the ad line from The Rocky Horror Picture Show put it, these are a different set of jaws.
*. I said that Thana is an iconic presence, and in this regard she’s very much a figure in the same vein as Madeleine/Frigga, the mute rape-avenger from Thriller: A Cruel Picture. Both have remarkable faces and are fashion plates: Madeleine with her eyepatch and trench coat, Thana with her beret, leather pants, hooded cape, or slutty nun costume that is all lingerie and heavy make-up.
*. But there’s more to Ms. 45 than Thana, and only two years on from The Driller Killer Ferrara had grown immensely. That movie was just a dirty mess. Ms. 45 has style.
*. If you say the word “style” today what it usually means is an ability to make a movie look slick and expensive, flashy and/or pretty. It means high production values and art direction that ravishes the eye.
*. But for a while, at least among a certain cadre of filmmakers in a certain place (New York), style meant grungy and guerilla. It’s a different aesthetic, but it’s still a style. You don’t see as much of it any more. I miss it.
*. Ms. 45 is also a very stylized film. Though the setting is realistic, it plays like a fantasy. Thana gets a gun that never runs out of ammo, and she’s a crack shot too. When her gun fires it makes a sound like rolling thunder. When she goes out on the prowl she dresses to impress. When the lecherous photographer invites Thana up to his studio she makes him into a work of art, splattering his backdrop screens with blood. In the final orgy of violence we’re tripping into a slow-motion bedlam of freaky costumes and a distorted soundtrack, culminating in Laurie standing behind Thana, holding the knife at her crotch with her dress slit up to her underwear. That’s one good phallic symbol getting ready to trump another.
*. These are all quite obvious, in-your-face touches. As is, for example, the gruesome homage to Repulsion, with Thana turning her bathroom into an abattoir (a scene that Darling would try to one-up). But there are some great subtle touches as well. For example look at how, in the second rape scene, we see the rapist’s fist with the pistol looking like it’s pounding into Thana’s head. That’s not an accident.

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*. I’ve mentioned the obvious debts to Thriller and Repulsion, which ground the movie in the rape-revenge genre. Does it present a new wrinkle on this old tale (which, in film at least, goes back to the very old tale resurrected by Bergman in The Virgin Spring)?
*. It’s an American film, for one thing, which means it draws on the poison pool of America’s equation of sex and violence (or love and death, to borrow Fiedler’s genteel terms from his study of the nineteenth-century American novel). In some respects Thana (whose name suggests death) is a serial killer in the usual slasher mold, which has it that even a hint of promiscuity is grounds for capital punishment. In this respect it may be worth nothing how the American slasher film and the American rape-revenge film arguably have their birth in the same picture, Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left.
*. The movie begins with Thana being raped by Abel Ferrara himself. What makes this interesting is not the role the director casts himself in (after all, he did play the Driller Killer), but the fact that Thana’s rape is never avenged against her specific perpetrator. Within the rape-revenge genre this is rare. I guess in Death Wish Bronson never gets revenge on the gang that attacked his family. At the end (or beginning) of Irresistible the rapist gets away, but that is intentionally ironic. But those are a couple of exceptions to the rule and they are among the only ones I can think of.
*. In this movie payback doesn’t seem to be the point. Thana’s vengeance paints Manhattan blood red with a very broad brush. She is out to exterminate all men, regardless of what they’ve done. It’s the fact that the “bride” at the Halloween party is cross-dressed that confuses her so much, leading to a fatal hesitation. It’s also significant that she can only be stopped by a masculinized female with a penis-knife. I don’t agree with Joe Bob Briggs’s assertion in his commentary on I Spit on Your Grave that all the men in rape-revenge films are evil, but in that movie and this one his point stands.
*. The sexual politics of such films is a tricky game. In slasher films we see scantily-clad women hunted down from the point of view of the male gaze. So are they misogynistic? When the rape-revenge films turn the tables, is this empowering? Meir Zarchi tried to make that case for I Spit On Your Grave (which he insisted on calling Day of the Woman), though some people remain unconvinced of his sincerity. Is Ms. 45 just a stylish exploitation film or is it really making a statement about empowerment?
*. I lean toward the former opinion, and the only thing that would make me think otherwise is Zoë Tamerlis. I can’t see her as Ferrara’s victim, but rather his partner in crime.

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