"No, Ms. 45 is not about women's liberation, any more than it is about mutes' liberation, or garment workers' liberation (the character was a presser), or your liberation, or my own. Notice that her climactic victim is not a rapist in the clinical sense. He is her boss. The real rapist. Our real rapist." - Zoe Lund
"If you make one sound, I'll stick this thing in your mouth and then I'll shoot it off." - Rapist, MS. 45
In a narrow, trash-strewn alley somewhere in the crime-ridden confines of early 1980s Manhattan, a woman with no companion, no friends and no voice is being assaulted by a masked, gun-wielding piece of shit. It's a typically horrific exploitation film tableau with a sickening twist: the woman, Thana (Zoe Lund), is a mute, and cannot call for help or beg her assailant to stop; she is powerless in every conceivable way. Moments later, a thoroughly degraded Thana enters her apartment and gets raped again by a completely different gun-wielding piece of shit. But this time, Thana fights back. She whacks the intruder with a flatiron, and proceeds to beat him to death with it. Traumatized beyond belief, Thana does not call the police; instead, she drags the man's body into the bathtub, cuts him into pieces like a butcher and bags his remains for discreet, piecemeal disposal around the city.
Welcome to the first fifteen minutes of Abel Ferrara's MS. 45, a brutally baffling blend of the rape-revenge and vigilante formulas that were wildly popular with transgression-seeking grindhouse-goers throughout the '70s and '80s. Whereas most filmmakers were content to follow the ground rules laid down by Wes Craven's LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and Michael Winner's DEATH WISH (saving whatever invention they could rouse for the staging of the obligatory violence), Ferrara and screenwriter Nicholas St. John seemed turned on by the idea of punishing the audience for their leering escapism. By casting then eighteen-year-old Zoe Tamerlis (she would take the name of her husband Robert Lund when she co-wrote 1992's BAD LIEUTENANT), Ferrara was armed with an exotic, barely legal beauty who, judging from the opening acts of sexual assault, appeared to be down for doing just about anything in front of the camera. But Tamerlin, already a fiercely intelligent political activist, was in on the game; the film is, in part, designed to make the lascivious male viewer feel exactly like those gun-wielding piece of shits that drive Thana to become an avenging angel stalking the streets of New York City. Get your kicks elsewhere, asshole.
Danny Peary, author of the essential CULT MOVIES books, experienced this tonal sucker-punch firsthand when MS. 45 was placed on a double bill with the crazily excessive AMIN: THE RISE AND FALL. As Peary explains it in CULT MOVIES 2, the effect was akin to the Ludovico technique from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE: whenever Thana entered a sexually-charged situation, the sickos in the theater recoiled, as being aroused was almost certainly prelude to .45 caliber retribution.
Ferrara and St. John might've been having fun with a small segment of their guaranteed audience, but MS. 45 is much more than a bait-and-switch job. That Thana, a fashion-district presser beholden to her patronizing boss, begins her journey of vengeance by bludgeoning her second attacker with the implement of her enslavement practically insists that there is some kind of feminist empowerment message at play here. But even a casual reading of the film throws this off. Consider Thana's second victim: a stupid kid who tries to return a bag he believes she's dropped in error (it actually contains one of the dead rapist's limbs). Though his intentions are hardly pure (he fancies himself a silver-toungued pick-up artist), his actions don't exactly warrant a point-blank bullet to the brain. But Thana's operating on a heightened threat level: as a loner, she trusts no one, and expects the worst out of every man she comes across. That's paranoia.
Thana's next targets are more carefully selected. There's a lewd photographer who takes Thana up to his private studio, where he objectifies her as a Renoir masterpiece before confessing "When I see beauty, I've gotta go after it" - at which point Thana blasts a masterpiece of her own with the would-be Don Juan's blood. Then she hits the streets posing as a prostitute, gunning down a quartet of stock street toughs, a horny sheik and his chauffeur*. Another night, she sits on a park bench in front of the Brooklyn Bridge (a shot clearly echoing Woody Allen's MANHATTAN) with a sad sack who killed his unfaithful girlfriend's cat. Thana attempts to shoot him, but the gun misfires, allowing the man to wrest the pistol away from Thana. This shift in the power dynamic is short-lived, however, as the man turns the gun on himself and commits suicide.
For the first time in her life, Thana is making noise. She is howling back at a cruel, cacophonous world that has ignored and abused her, placing her tormentors in the crosshairs and asserting herself with each squeeze of the trigger (sparing her nosy landlady, but not, evidently, her incessantly yapping pooch). And who is the ultimate object of her fury? In a conventional exploitation film, it would be her initial attacker; in Ferrara and St. John's variation, it's the boss who's taken advantage of her disability and treated her like a child. He wants her to "be like the other girls" - and while she makes an effort to fit in, they're just as patronizing and pitying as he is. Though Thana's true feelings are too involved to write down in the moment on a piece of paper, they're right there in her anguished, heartbreakingly expressive face at any given moment. But no one's listening.
They all hear her loud and clear when she shows up at office's Halloween party, where she unleashes her final, slow-motion shriek of gunfire (Ferrara's voice is so original and distinct by this point that you brush off the obvious stylistic comparisons to Brian De Palma**). This is Thana's moment, and as she begins to indiscriminately target random men, we understand that it will also be her last. It's a disquieting finale: after taking out a number of male partygoers, Thana's rampage is halted by her coworker Laurie, who symbolically stabs her in the back. In the throes of death, Thana emits an ear-piercing scream - the first and only utterance we'll ever hear from her. Is this betrayal or mercy? As the audience is scrambling to make sense of the bloodshed, Ferrara cheekily cuts back to Thana's apartment building, where the landlady's dog - which we assumed Thana executed - returns home. It's a disorienting denouement to one of the finest grindhouse movies ever made - as breathtakingly inscrutable as Thana herself.
The DCP restoration of MS. 45 is currently playing in New York City and Austin. It screens December 20th - 22nd at The Cinefamily in Los Angeles.
*These scenes were inexplicably included in Universal's 1984 horror clip-show TERROR IN THE AISLES. This was my introduction to MS. 45.
**In terms of craft, MS. 45 was a massive leap forward for Ferrara. Michael Mann took notice, hiring Ferrara to direct a couple of MIAMI VICE episodes, as well as the pilot for his underrated CRIME STORY. There probably was a slick genre stylist akin to Tony Scott lurking somewhere in Ferrara's DNA, but his creative temperament was all wrong for Hollywood. No studio now or then would've allowed the invigoratingly unhinged KING OF NEW YORK to go forward without some heavy tinkering. Ferrara did make one overtly commercial film, the terrific BODY SNATCHERS, but Warner Bros couldn't figure out what to do with it (Warner Archives will hopefully get a decent looking transfer out on Blu-ray soon). By the late '90s, Ferrara was so far outside of the mainstream that some of his films struggled to get any kind of domestic distribution. He's still out there plugging away, and his films continue to be must-sees, even when they're total disasters.