The artistry of Abel Ferrara emerged from the primordial ooze of Times Square grindhouses, first with 1979’s The Driller Killer—hailed by Variety as “hastily shot and technically inept in every department”—and then with 1981’s Ms. 45, both nasty little exploitation pictures that didn’t quite play by the rules. Ferrara supplied the requisite sex and violence, but the authentic grime and punk sensibility of The Driller Killer emerged through the slaughter, and by the time he made his cult classic Ms. 45, he was in complete control of his effects. The genius of Ms. 45 is how cleverly Ferrara and his then-regular screenwriter, Nicholas St. John, thread a thin needle: The film could be called a feminist exploitation movie—a contradiction in terms if there ever was one—and it systematically defies the rape-revenge thriller by fulfilling all of its requirements while holding them up for examination. It’s thoughtful and provocative, but it also makes for one hell of sexy poster.
Reissued by Drafthouse Films for a limited theatrical run, with DVD and Blu-ray to follow, Ms. 45 belongs to the late model/actress/writer/artist Zoë Lund—appearing here under the name Zoë Tamerlis—as a mute seamstress trying to leverage some power in a world of men. It’s a silent performance that Ferrara shoots in Maria Falconetti close-ups, registering the terror, insanity, and chilling resolve that surfaces on Lund’s face at the film goes on. Lund’s Thana works for an unctuous fashion designer (Albert Sinkys) in the Garment District, and when she’s not fending him off at the office, she strolls through a gauntlet of catcalling knuckleheads on the street below. Her co-workers can say “Get bent!” to bat them away, but Thana has to keep on walking, absorbing their sexual taunts and hoping they don’t manifest in something more dangerous.
On the way home from work one day, she’s raped not once but twice: the first time by a mugger (played by Ferrara!) in an alleyway, then again when she catches a burglar in her apartment who assaults her at gunpoint. She manages to clock the second assailant in the head—with a glass apple, in a less-than-subtle Adam and Eve reference—and bludgeon him with an iron, but the events transform her from victim to angel of vengeance. (The film’s alternate title, as it happens.) With .45-caliber pistol in hand, Thana kills a second man in self-defense, but her subsequent victims don’t really qualify as justifiable homicides. Some are killed for being aggressive to other women, others for simply being men. As an angel of vengeance, Thana is half-righteous, half-insane, and always on target.
Ms. 45 climaxes with an extraordinarily stylized setpiece at a Halloween party, but its primary virtue is investing grimy New York City locations with hyper-real menace. Having Thana get raped twice on the same day may sound absurd, but Ferrara blows up the everyday threat of harassment and violence against women into a magnified force. (A shot that has Thana and a future victim sitting on the same bench near the Queensboro Bridge that Woody Allen and Diane Keaton sit on in Manhattan seems like Ferrara asserting that his New York is much less romantic than Allen’s.) The mute Thana “speaks” through a gun, which is the language of exploitation movies. But what she says—and what the movie says in kind—is more complex and sophisticated than its grindhouse roots would suggest.