Abel Ferrara’s Ms.45 (1981) is a superlative psychotronic film—a tangle of contradictions. It’s an exploitation movie, a feminist revenge fantasy, a sleazy thriller, a stylishly gritty independent film, a thoughtful exploration of female victimization the likes of which would never pass in a mainstream Hollywood feature. I was much too young to appreciate it when I saw it for the first time sixteen years ago; I hadn’t yet become attuned to the way that such films could mix intelligence, shock value, and a kind of low-budget aesthetic flair.
It’s even possible to read Ms.45 as a movie about the importance of taking independent, low-budget, or exploitation film seriously—a film that essentially puts itself in the position of its heroine, Thana (played by the spellbinding Zoe Lund, in a cult-icon-making performance). A vulnerable, attractive, mute woman who works in the garment district in New York, Thana is—along with virtually every other woman in the film—subject to constant, unwelcome attention from men, which runs the spectrum from wolf-whistling and pick-up attempts to workplace come-ons and rape at gunpoint. Women, the film argues, are assumed to be endlessly available to men, who have no qualms about heckling them, following them, touching them, making jokes about them, pushing them around, and finally assaulting them. After being raped, however, Thana begins to fight back: she murders her attacker, then goes on a killing spree that recalls Travis Bickle’s fantasies in Taxi Driver (1976) of using his gun to “wash all the scum off the streets,” shooting pimps, pick-up artists, and any other men who look at her in the wrong way. (A scene in which Thana points her gun at her own reflection in a mirror also recalls Taxi Driver; other scenes call to mind Repulsion and Carrie. It’s in a rich tradition of films about victimization, revenge, and psychosis.)
Thana, in other words, is no longer someone to fuck with. Dressed provocatively in leather, her lips flaming red, she turns men on, then turns her gun on them. Like Thana, Ms.45 is angry, aggressive, and shockingly deceptive. It looks like a movie that’s going to get us off—yet another exploitation movie in which a woman is fucked at the expense of men’s spectatorial pleasure—but then it turns its gun on us. It is, like Thana, in disguise, a vitriolic feminist movie dressed up as exploitative fare. Or perhaps it’s something even more complicated: an exploitation film as a feminist film, in which Ferrara proves that the two are not mutually exclusive. To assume that a low-budget film is simply cheap entertainment to be used and discarded by an audience looking for titillation is to be guilty of the same crimes as Thana’s male victims, and thus to make oneself vulnerable to the same rude awakening. If exploitation movies are so often treated like the women in Ms.45, as disposable entertainment, then Ms.45 is the Thana of exploitation movies: something not to be fucked with. Original rating: *** New rating: ****