Ms. 45 (Review)
aka Angel of Vengeance
Written by Nicholas St. John (as N.G. St. John)
Directed by Abel Ferrara
Ms. 45 is a genre classic, a required viewing exploitation film, and among the best rape and revenge movies ever made. Zoë Lund (then Zoë Tamerlis) is haunting as the mute Thana, whose life as a seamstress at a fashion house is shattered when she’s attacked by rapists twice on the same day. The second attack ends with Thana striking a blow atop the assailant’s head, killing him. At first horrified at what she’s done, Thana attempts to cover up his death, and takes the gun he leaves behind. Soon, her paranoia as she disposes of pieces of his dismembered corpse causes her to kill again.
Thana transforms from silent victim to silent avatar of death, walking the streets at night to become a target of attackers so she can eliminate them. As no one likes scummy rapists, Thana’s actions cause the audience to cheer for her, the excitement of seeing bad people punished mixes with the thrill of someone fighting back against her oppressors.
It soon becomes apparent that Thana’s search for vengeance has moved beyond rapists. She starts stalking a guy who is just making out with his girlfriend in the street. The target have moved from bad men to men in general, and by the end of the film she’s shooting every man she sees, indiscriminate of whether he is an awful person or not. The targets even go beyond human males, her landlady’s dog Phil (played by a dog named Bogey, which is too cool of a name not to mention) is aware that some sort of delicious rotting meat is in her apartment, and Thana attempts to eliminate him by taking him for a walk in heavy traffic. The audience sympathy begins to drain away like a leaky balloon. But Zoë Lund is just too charming, you can’t turn against her entirely even if she’s aiming a gun at your face. Thana’s rise and fall becomes another tale of power corrupting, her power of life and death corrupting her into a force that lashes out indiscriminately and becomes as bad as the people who turned her onto that path.
As fun as gunning down the guilty in the streets goes, who really should be the judge, jury, and executioner? Many of the men Thana shoots are not the nicest of guys, but haven’t committed capital crimes. They may treat their wives/girlfriends like crap, complain, and talk rowdy stuff, but is that worth death? Thana sees the worst in men, and many of the depictions of men in the movie are men who are only seen at their worst. How much of the view of how the male characters act is clouded by her perspective? It’s an extra layer of haze that may be present over the entire film, or may not exist at all. After all, as a man, I know how sick and twisted many men are.
Thana’s name is derived from the Greek personification of death, Thanatos (the same as Marvel villain Thanos.) While Thanos is in love with mistress Death, Thana becomes an aspect of Death, dealing out her own version of justice in increasingly broad strokes. Death is often portrayed as silent, mirrored by Thana’s inability to speak. Death is often armed with a large scythe, while Thana uses a modern method to cut people down, the gun. The gun can be seen as its own phallic symbol, but the more blatant symbolism is Laurie holding her knife over her crotch during the final scene.
Thana’s silence is interpreted differently by everyone around her. Thana’s landlady sees her as a precious child who needs to be taken care of, constantly involving herself in her life and barging in on her. Her coworkers see her as a dependable and nice worker who they invite to all their get-togethers even though she rarely accepts. Her boss is a bit more paternal, but he has lecherous designs buried deep below that manifest themselves in the end. The random guys she encounters all seem tho think she’s a very good listener, rambling on and believing she’s agreeing with all they say and do. And Thana is, when it suits her purpose. They talk, open themselves up, and become easier targets.
Aspects of Ms. 45 still resonate today, decades after New York City was “cleaned up” and the violent crime rates are down. The topic is the street calling/cat calling of the many men who the female characters pass on the street. The harassment becomes sort of a gauntlet of abuse that women must deal with daily. Street harassment has become more of a visible topic in recent years as women are fighting back with the power of social media. Numerous videos of street harassers are showing up online, all complete with lots of guys saying they never knew this was a problem or that it’s obviously just a few random people. But this film is from 1981, and was written and directed by men! People absolutely did know about street harassment then, and are people arguing that we somehow forgot that women are constantly getting rude things said to them by creeps? More likely many people feel that it is no big deal, that women like and want the attention, and that it is harmless. I’m not saying that maybe a few ladies should go all Ms. 45 on some dudes, but….
Abel Ferrara’s early features Driller Killer and Ms. 45 became grindhouse classics, while Bad Lieutenant (co-written by Zoë Lund) and King of New York brought the same gritty New York into the early 90s. Nicholas St. John is a longtime collaborator with Ferrara, writing a good number of his films. Ferrara has talked about how he didn’t make the film with feminist themes, even describing being at a screening where people where cheering her gunning down people and finding it odd. But he also admits that Zoë Lund was well aware of feminism, talked about it all the time, and her performance imbued the film with her own personality. So Ms. 45 becomes more than the sum of its parts. Ms. 45 still holds up 34 years later, providing fodder for multiple analyses and themes, and gaining new fans. Ms. 45 is a great example of some of the fantastic work that was produced for the grindhouses, and becomes one of the gems of underground cinema.
Rated 9/10 (logo, striking back, disposing, making headlines, disposing, Did a The Warriors cosplay break out?, sleazy sheik, clowning around, a great ape)
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