Ms. 45 August 1, 2015
The girls-with-guns fetish is a major element in the exploitation genre, so much so that it’s hard to imagine a one-sheet movie poster for a low-budgeted action flick without one. The most notable, including (but not limited to) They Call Her One Eye, Foxy Brown, and Hannie Caulder, were bonkers revenge beasts that pushed the boundaries of already boundary-pushing territories — and 1981’s Ms. 45 is arguably the sensational peak of the juxtaposing subgenre.
The third film of exploitation-to-slightly-mainstream sensation Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant, Body Snatchers), Ms. 45 is an explosive portrait of a serial killer, disguised as a luscious ode to the earlier, more substantial revenge flicks of the 1970s.
But while it has Ferrara’s greasy fingerprints smeared all over it, Ms. 45 is leading lady Zoë Lund’s show. A full-lipped beauty with looks just as comparable to Lauren Bacall as they are to an alien woman slinking about a distant planet, Lund plays Thana, a mute seamstress who lives alone in a dumpy apartment on the bad side of town. Day after day, she and her female co-workers are harassed by street punks who catcall with underlying threat. While her peers have the ability to flip the bird at a potential predator or throw out an insult to make the message clear, Thana is forced to remain quiet, giving most the idea that she likes the constant coos. Her life seems depressing and monotonous, a hell of living paycheck-to-paycheck while doing something incredibly unfulfilling without friends or family around to make it all seem at least a little bit better.
Ms. 45 introduces her just as her existence is about to get even worse: after a particularly rough day at work, she is raped at gunpoint in an alleyway by a masked goon, who gets away before she can contact the authorities. Beaten up and understandably traumatized, she barely makes it up to her apartment.
But only seconds into gathering her thoughts and grappling with the reality of the situation does she find herself in the presence of yet another attacker, who coincidentally hid in the flat during her horrifying walk home. He, too, proceeds to sexually assault her, but he doesn’t get away with it: while under duress, Thana grabs a nearby glass fixture and slams it against his head, killing him instantly.
This wakes her up inside. A few paranoid encounters later (though none of them nearly as serious as her prior two damaging experiences), Thana goes from silent victim to femme fatale, and almost instinctually embarks on a vengeful journey with eyes set only on the male sex. Only she doesn’t murder in self-defense — she targets men violent toward women, men showing affection for women, and men just walking around and, you know, being men.
Like Catherine Deneuve in 1965’s Repulsion, she is little more than a maniac on the loose. But her bloody journey is one of extreme piquancy, not totally justifiable yet nonetheless magnificently cathartic. Thana’s quest alludes to the crushing societal norm of male dominance, playing out like a potential scenario if women stopped taking unwanted come-ons and didn’t let rape become an undiscussed taboo, thus avenging the wrongs done to them by a culture that accepts such inequality and inherent misogyny.
But this is only a passing analyzation, considering Ms. 45 was made as a violent exercise in cinema, laced in sadomasochism, gritty street danger, and visual eroticism. N.G. St. John’s screenplay is extremely simplistic, setting up an abundance of climactic scenarios and allowing Lund to do most of the heavy lifting.
Aside from a myriad of visual exultations (the rainy noir texture of Thana’s first moonlit mass killing, the shot reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, the harrowing finale, which is a slow-motion account of a massacre at a Halloween party during which Thana masquerades as a killer nun), Ferrara mostly does the same as St. John. Lund’s expressive face, lit with, as Janet Maslin put it, the “exoticism of the fashion-magazine kind,” tells a story on its own, beginning with meek innocence and morphing into something savage akin to Jean Gillie in Decoy. It’s impossible to take one’s eyes off of her otherworldly presence. Simultaneously virginal and deadly, her actions become all the more terrifying because she's so unpredictable and so lacking in a sense of self.
The film was ridiculed upon release, and so it's a blessing that Ms. 45 finally received the notoriety it deserved after Drafthouse Films put a spotlight on its low-budget shocks once again in 2013. Though it's hardly a masterpiece, the movie is an exploitation piece of the highest quality, unforgettable and thoughtfully made. B