by Matt Levine
In 1981, the X-rated "grindhouse" theatrical circuit—which had been holding steady for more than a decade in New York City, where the sex shops and pornographic theaters of Times Square served as a dreary reminder of the city’s mounting seediness—received an electrifying shot to the head from Ms. 45. The predominantly male moviegoers who frequented such theaters at the time must have expected a tawdry rape-revenge fantasy, in which a beautiful, mute seamstress is raped twice in one day, sparking her to go on a bloody and sadistic shooting spree in Manhattan. In the most simplistic way possible, this synopsis describes Ms. 45—but it doesn’t suggest the film’s surprising intelligence and humanity, which (ironically) might be Ms. 45’s most shocking and unexpected elements.
March 31 & April 1
Director: Abel Ferrara
Producer: Rochelle Weisberg
Writer: N.G. St. John
Cinematographer: James Momel
Editor: Christopher Andrews
Music: Joe Delia
Cast: Zoë Tamerlis, Albert Sinkys, Darlene Stuto, Helen McGara, Nike Zachmanoglou, Jimmy Laine, Peter Yellen, Editta Sherman, Vincent Gruppi, S. Edward Singer
US Theatrical Release: April 24, 1981
US Distributors: Rochelle Films, Drafthouse Films (rerelease)
Ms. 45 was Abel Ferrara’s third feature, after a little-seen pornographic film entitled 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy and his self-starring 1979 film The Driller Killer. While the latter movie presaged many of the stylistic and thematic elements that would reappear in Ferrara’s later work (including Catholic iconography, gritty urban settings, and social pressures instigating murderous retaliation), Ms. 45 is an evolution in practically every way. Ferrara’s stylistic wits are on display immediately, as a brief expository long-shot of New York’s Garment District smashes unexpectedly into a handheld sequence in a fashion designer’s office, where a female model attired in the latest style is being appraised by her employers (only one of whom is male). Instantaneously, the movie reminds us that the fetishization of female beauty is not only a carnal pastime in America—it’s a profitable business.
Thana (Zoë Tamerlis) is a mute seamstress at this clothier, where she tags along with her gorgeous female colleagues without really seeming to connect with them (though there are touching moments of solidarity, as when Thana writes a note to one of her co-workers reading “I wish they’d just leave me alone”). Walking home from work one day, Thana is pulled into an alleyway in broad daylight and raped by a masked assailant (played, perversely, by Ferrara himself). Though the film is too kinetic to linger on Thana’s ensuing trauma for very long, it does include a lengthy extreme high-angle shot to emphasize her vulnerability and isolation, and it’s a sign of Tamerlis’ quietly affecting performance that Thana’s rage, fear, and bitterness truly register.
Finally returning home from work, she discovers that the world is even more cruel and relentless than she had imagined: she interrupts a burglar in her apartment, who proceeds to rape her a second time. But she’s no longer willing to play the victim: after bludgeoning him with a bizarre paperweight, Thana beats him to death with an iron and wields his .45 pistol appreciatively. Unsure of how to dispose of a corpse in Manhattan, she dismembers it in her bathtub and proceeds to hide the body parts throughout the city, leading to a few gruesomely funny sequences (such as a clogged drain spitting out the revolting detritus from her morbid endeavor). Indeed, Ferrara’s twisted and often absurd sense of humor—epitomized, perhaps, by a prattling landlady character and her meddling dog, sublimely named Phil—prevents the film from becoming too repetitive or mean-spirited.
An extreme close-up of the dead man’s open eye superimposed over bloody water circling down a drain is a direct reference to Psycho, though Ferrara raises comparisons to Hitchcock in other ways: a series of cuts following Thana’s first murder—first to a close-up of eggs frying, then to a graphic match of a pug’s protruding eyes—serves as an amusingly grisly transition reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972), among others. This montage also suggests the perilously close proximity of Manhattan’s numerous residents, wherein a rape and murder can take place next door to an unwitting neighbor—another one of Ms. 45’s recurrent themes.
We may expect Thana to immediately embark on her murderous quest, but the movie is surprisingly sensitive to her emotional tumult. A nightmarish vision takes place as Thana stands before her bathroom mirror, slowly unbuttoning her blouse: given Ms. 45’s grindhouse reputation, we may expect some gratuitous nudity at this moment. Instead, however, just as her blouse comes undone, a gloved male hand suddenly shoots into the frame, violently clutching Thana’s wrist. It’s an incredible moment, frightening and complex: a literal visualization of an aggressive male gaze, extending into the shot at its very peak of sexual titillation (in conspicuously phallic manner), the scene respects Thana’s mounting anxiety while caustically turning the audience's lustful voyeurism back onto itself.
Though she now carries her assailant’s .45 with her wherever she goes, Thana still resists the retributive urge building within her: the next murder only occurs when she is chased, once again, down an alleyway by a male pursuer (who has found one of her discarded bags containing a severed arm). A lecherous fashion photographer and her obscenely hands-on boss topple her further into the realm of vicious (and all-too-rational) misandry—if Thana becomes a vision of rampaging female fury, she is pushed there entirely by the exploitation and sexual entitlement of the men around her. Before the film's bloodstained climax, she has slathered on lipstick and donned a sexy nun’s outfit in preparation for a Halloween party—all the better to entice the sex-hungry men who eagerly fall into her trap. Witnessing Thana’s climactic murder spree in this get-up is an iconic and perverse image, intentionally provocative—an indication of Ferrara’s wicked deployment of Catholic imagery, his contorted blurring of the line between redemption and damnation, and his flair for concocting larger-than-life visions.
Through it all, though, Ms. 45 remains anchored in humanistic territory: unlike the simplistic revenge fantasies Tarantino enjoys rehashing, Ferrara’s film finds nothing gratifying about Thana’s rampage. As the movie progresses, our sympathies are subtly (and temporarily) detoured from Thana to the men she intends to kill: a teenager who amorously makes out with his sweetheart (which Thana mistakes for another sexual violation), or a lonely man whose wife has cheated on him (a scene which culminates in an unexpectedly poignant reversal). Though we always empathize with Thana and the brutality that she’s faced, Ms. 45 still recognizes that there’s nothing glorious about a rapacious killing spree—her lust for retribution has made her stop seeing people and start seeing monsters. It’s an incredibly agile balancing act, crafting a thrilling revenge fantasy that never comes close to condoning vengeance, and Ferrara is able to pull it off dynamically.
Character development and backstory are among the least of Ferrara’s concerns—we hardly get to know Thana, or any other supporting character for that matter—though Ms. 45 achieves such an iconic, larger-than-life style that this surface-level identification seems entirely appropriate. As suggested by one witty composition in which Thana stands in front of a restroom door that simply reads “Men”—the word hovers over her as though it manifests male violence itself—the characters are partially intended as metonymic symbols for manhood and womanhood more broadly. This is even suggested by Thana’s name—it’s short for Thanatos, the Greek (male) god who personified death. It may seem contradictory for the film to evoke characters that are both human and broadly symbolic, but Ms. 45 somehow manages this duality: the likeable (if outsized) performances by the mostly amateur cast and Ferrara’s skill with unforgettable, grandiose compositions mesh perfectly. One scene, for example, in which Thana encounters a gang of lustful roughnecks in a geometrically-patterned courtyard—only to gun them all down with the ruthless efficiency of Dirty Harry—takes on a visual scope and symmetry that lends the imagery a mythical extravagance, as though Thana's bloodshed were indeed taking place in an ancient Greek agora.
It all culminates in a sad and gruesome climax that is, at the same time, jam-packed with intriguing symbolism and visual metaphors: the death of a man dressed as a woman in a virginal wedding dress, whose wig falls off at the very moment he meets his demise from Thana’s bullet; or a female character blatantly holding a butcher’s knife at crotch-level, manifesting the phallic imagery so often associated with penetrative blades (at least as far as psychonanalytic readings of horror movies go). The fact that this knife soon becomes Thana’s destruction—and the look of betrayal on her face when she realizes that it’s a woman, not a man, who has killed her—is unexpectedly powerful, and it indicates an admirable refusal to abide by the simple male-versus-female antagonism that the film might have harbored. It’s possible Ferrara is trying to make a metaphorical statement about the nature of both men and women, but the film actually seems to avoid such simplistic hypotheses, instead positing the logical notion that men and women are both members of a human race that should stop debasing and killing each other so pervasively.
A sensitive, complex exploitation flick—imagine the surprise of some of the moviegoers who might have originally checked out Ms. 45 in Times Square theaters in 1981. As crime rates and economic inequality continued to intensify in New York—at least for the next decade, until political initiatives began rehabilitating (and gentrifying) the city in the 1990s--Ms. 45 partially represents a dismayed shriek in response to a city’s overt demonstrations of vice and violence. In its sordid evocation of a bygone New York and its rueful story of a murderous rampage ending cataclysmically, Ms. 45 shares something in common with Taxi Driver (1976)—though, for my money, Ferrara’s film is more complex, fascinating, exciting, and visually engaging than Scorsese’s. It’s been called many things—perverse, exploitative, crude, ridiculous—but hopefully Ms. 45's rerelease by Drafthouse Films will allow it to be seen for what it really is: a rough-around-the-edges masterpiece.