It’s No Longer a Man’s World in ‘Ms. 45’

[10 June 2014]

By Imran Khan

Contributing Editor

As far as revenge flicks go, 1981’s Ms. 45 delivers the goods in spades. For exploitation aficionados, this really isn’t news. The film’s story of a young, violated woman pushed too far has held a long-standing position as one of the most visceral displays of feminist fury ever committed to celluloid. That the film is also a sensitive character study of a human being slowly deteriorating from a mental illness speaks volumes about the expertly layered psychological textures of the story.

Director Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 marked a turning point in his career, when he was previously known for making gritty, splatter grindhouse flicks (Driller Killer) that did little more than spotlight New York’s then especially seedy underbelly of the Lower East side.

Why Ms. 45 continues to be a fascinating portrait of a young betrayed woman more than 30 years after its debut can be boiled down to the mesmeric, startling and courageous performance by lead Zoe Tamerlis, playing Thana, a mute seamstress who is raped twice in one evening. After a brutal attack in a New York alleyway, Thana returns home to find a burglar in her apartment, who then proceeds to assault her at gunpoint.

Managing to turn the tables on her assailant, Thana kills him, hacks his body into pieces in her bathtub, and then pockets the .45 he was carrying. Thus begins Thana’s sadistic retribution as she stalks the streets of New York City, luring unsuspecting men into target’s range of her weapon.

A razor-sharp mix of action-thriller, feminist theory, punk-rock and Greek tragedy, Ms. 45 offers the kind of suspense-drama that in recent times has often come across as cloying and forced. In true guerrilla-style filmmaking, many of the scenes were shot without any staging or permits. Because of this, everyday life in the city is caught in moments of genuine discord.

The panicked rush of New York City serves as a grim, unsympathetic backdrop to the lone, mute Thana who struggles to maintain equilibrium while the city swallows her up. All around her, the tall New York City buildings are constant phallic reminders of her brutal sexual encounters. Punks and poets merge together with businessmen and dealers like a stream of poisonous acrylics, bleeding on the canvas of New York. You couldn’t stage this stuff today; Ferrara’s concise manner of capturing a single human caught in the noisy traffic of a disaffected community requires finely-tuned skills of discernment and observation.

It also requires the unpredictability and happenstance that comes with guerrilla-filmmaking.   
Ferrara handles exposition well; moving at a pace fast enough to keep the action going but making sure not to skimp on all the necessary details to flesh his characters out, we stay with Thana. The increasingly tense sequences are structured effortlessly as Thana becomes bolder, more ruthless and a crack shot, all the while evincing a humanity that, although skewed, is still one of compassion. From her lowly base as a meek and clueless victim to her triumphant turnaround as a femme fatale, Thana justly earns our sympathies. Up until a point, that is.

Thana’s deconstruction of the self at the hands of her male victimizers is undoubtedly the motive that induces her murderous sprees. But when the deaths follow no cause, her objectives soon hit a grey area where viewers begin to repel. Thana begins a rapid decline from righteous avenger to complete lunatic; her victims are no longer just rapists, pimps or gang members but innocent pedestrians walking the streets.

It’s this uncomfortable and subtle shading in the character’s development that starts out as mere exploitation and pushes toward something much deeper. We are with Thana for part of the way, in her corner during her deepest torments, and then must watch her painful degradation from a detached observational distance when she makes a sudden and irrevocable wrong turn.

In the film’s horrific denouement, the sex and aggression finally merge to become the deadly semiotic that has Thana donning a nun’s habit at an office Halloween party. With her gleaming lips painted a lurid red and the feminist-rage now phallically embodied in the gun in her hand, Thana wipes out every man in her workplace who ever touched her, chatted her up or gave her a funny look. Her showdown with a female co-worker goes down as one of the most heartbreaking womanly betrayals in cinema history.

Drafthouse Films gives Ms. 45 the treatment it deserves. A fully-restored picture perfectly rendered by a gorgeous colour palette, the film has never looked this good. Drafthouse Films’s restoration captures the fresh new wave colours of the early ‘80s (pastel reds and electric blues) along with the drab greys and browns of New York’s gritty streets. The picture is sharp and clear and scenes that were once muddy on DVD (and before that, VHS) are now perfectly contrasted so that we may make out the finer details.

Where the transfer falters slightly is the audio track; at times the audio seems as though it were mixed too low. With a little fiddling of the volume controls, however, dialogue and background sounds come across clearly.

Included in the supplements is a revealing interview with director Ferrara who spends a lot of time reminiscing about his working experience with Zoe Tamerlis which, as he discusses, wasn’t always pleasant. Ferrara has great admiration for Tamerlis, who passed away in 1999 from eventual complications of drug use, but goes into detail about her unpleasant struggles with addictions and her increasingly erratic behaviour in her personal life which caused a ten year rift between them.

Also in the extras are a couple more interview features with the film-score composer and creative consultant, both very interesting, as well as two short films on the life of Tamerlis. These two short films focus on the actress’ mother and husband, who reveal certain aspects of their loved one’s personal life. Drafthouse rounds out the supplements with an essay booklet jam-packed with great information.

Best of all is an essay written by Tamerlis herself on what the film meant to her. The essay reveals a highly insightful and articulate woman who was not only an incredible actress but a gifted writer and serious thinker, too. Lastly, the Blu-ray also features a double-sided artwork cover; one side features the new art design created especially for Drafthouse’s release. On the flipside is the movie’s original artwork, typical of early ‘80s film poster art.

All in all, Ms. 45 holds up extremely well. Its story of an enraged mute woman, whose only voice is a gun, still resonates with a mixture of fear and empathy today. Many imitations have been created in the film’s wake, but those knock-offs, as the saying goes, are never as good as the real thing. Indeed, Ms. 45 is the real deal, capturing New York City at the height of its trashy, dangerous glory.

In fact, the city is very much a star in its own right in the film, at once lovingly and dismissively articulated in the scope of Ferrara’s camera. But nothing else in the film holds a candle to Tamerlis, whose brazen, tour-de-force performance is unmatched.

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