Thirty-five years after its release, Abel Ferrara's 1981 feminist classic, Ms. 45, also known as Angel of Vengeance, resonates as much today as it did then. Ferrara's early career has been shrouded in mystery for decades now, but by most accounts this was his third film and the first of several classic films from the director, including King of New York, Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction, and The Funeral. Ferrara's string of phenomenal films in the 1990s stands toe to toe with the best work of any director during that decade. But back in 1981, when Ms. 45 opened in theaters, Ferrera was still relatively unknown. His previous film, Driller Killer (1978), is itself a cult classic but still hadn't prepared audiences for the huge leap forward with Ms. 45. The film helped put him on the map.
Written by Ferrera's frequent collaborator in those days, Nicholas St. John, Ms. 45 had all the trappings of a genre film, like other popular vigilante-revenge films of that era, such as Death Wish and I Spit On Your Grave. The movie's poster is pure exploitation film - it features an evocative image of a woman, but with only her torso and long legs in the frame, holding a .45 caliber pistol at her hip and wearing a garter belt, thigh highs, and high heels, while in the distance between her legs we see a violent-looking man lurking. The film's tagline further enforces the genre feel: "It will never happen again!"
Typical of most genre and low budget films of the day, Ms. 45 used sex in its advertising to entice audiences. While all of the elements on the poster are essentially accurate to the film, they are presented in a more provocative style that belies the film's true tone, substance, and message. Still, it's an arresting poster, as were others used to advertise the film. Audiences who wandered into theaters in 1981 or later picked it up at the video store based on the eye-catching image were in for a surprise. While Ms. 45 is presented as a revenge film, it actually presents a far more complex commentary on society than most films of the genre ever have, before or since.
In the opening I called the film a feminist classic. That's my reading of it and it seems others have agreed over the years. Those who only know the film through its title, poster, or even the basic plot, might be leery of such claims. Certainly, a revenge film with a title like Ms. 45 and with a protagonist who goes on a killing spree after she is brutally raped twice early in the film has to be misogynist trash, right? Not quite. At the heart of Ms. 45 is the story of how women in our society are regularly subjected to male predatory behavior, in the form of cat calls, whistles, innuendo, blatant sexual harassment, and even sexual assault. This is not subtextual in the movie either; it's all textual. It explores the daily abuse from men directed at a mute young ingenue named Thana - think Thanatos, the Greek god of death. In her debut role as Thana, Zoe Tamerlis was revelation at just 17 years of age. Tamerlis's youth plays a part in how we, as an audience, react to her character's story. When we meet Thana we learn that she cannot speak, yet must interact with her coworkers at a New York City garment district job where she is treated like a subhuman at times, and our hearts immediately side with her plight. This is only exacerbated by the horrific behavior of nearly ever male that she encounters, from her insufferable boss to strangers on the street to jerks in diners hitting on her and her friends. In quick succession, early in the film, Thana is raped, first at gunpoint by a masked stranger who pulls her into an alleyway, and then only moments later, still traumatized, when she enters her apartment to discover a man robbing her. In the second rape, Thana eventually gets the upper hand, bludgeoning the attacker to death with a sculpture and then an iron—a traditional tool of domesticity associated with a "woman's work" by sexists is used to murder a misogynist rapist.
Ms. 45 is an overtly feminist film for a number of reasons. The rapes are filmed as purely brutal and horrific acts with no hint of titillation involved in Ferrara's direction. After Thana's traumatic day, she is forever altered. She was already an introvert, wanting nothing more than to be left alone by men, by coworkers, in fact by nearly everyone she knew (a theme returned to often in the film). Now, experiencing immense post-traumatic stress, something inside her simply breaks. But with that break comes a new purpose for her life: she will use her second assailant's .45 caliber pistol to wage a nightly war against vile and unrepentant males who mistreat women. That's where the revenge film tropes come into play, but Ms. 45 tweaks them in ways that hadn't been done yet - our hero is a woman this time. Most revenge films used the death of a woman as motivation for the male protagonist to become a vigilante. Here, Thana acts on her own behalf as her own avenging angel. It can't be underestimated how defiantly outre this was at the dawn of the 1980s. A previous revenge film starring a woman, 1978's I Spit On Your Grave, was anything but feminist. Yes, it had a female protagonist avenging herself against her attackers but it was simply vile in its treatment of her, lacking all of Ms. 45's subtlety or insightful social commentary. Ferrara's film not only shined a light on men's historically awful treatment of women, but posited that there is no one more equipped to defend the honor and rights of women than a woman.
Not only does the film perfectly capture a time and a place that's long gone - late 1970s/early 1980s New York City in all of its legendary, pre-Giuliani, crime-infested, and grimy glory, with danger lurking seemingly behind every street corner - but it also captures the utterly distinctive talents of its star, the late Zoe Tamerlis. Her performance in Ms. 45 is one of cinema's most underrated - she appears in every scene and carries the entire movie. In a role devoid of dialogue, she acts instead with her eyes, her body, and her physical reactions to the other actors and the world Thana inhabits. It's an absolutely riveting and unforgettably brave performance, one that deserves wider recognition beyond the cinephile and genre enthusiast crowds, which thankfully it has started to accrue in recent years.
Thana is relentlessly preyed upon by nearly every man in the film. Working off of Ferrera's direction and Nicholas St. Johns' script, Tamerlis brings all of their ideas and emotions to life through her performance. She's the key to audiences relating to Thana. At first we root for her as she sets out on her revenge mission, but towards the end of the film, when she starts to be more indiscriminate about who she's shooting, we begin to have reservations. That's all because of Tamerlis. She sucks you into Thana's world immediately, making you feel what it must be like to live with harassment on a regular basis. She simply wants her own space, to be left alone, yet it's constantly invaded by one horrible man after another - at work, in a diner, on the street, at home. Tamerlis gives one of the most honest portrayals of both extreme introversion and horrifying post-traumatic stress disorder. Ms. 45 was her first role, and what a way to enter the business. It's left an indelible mark on audiences for three and a half decades now. Only 17 during filming, Tamerlis was still raw, pure, with a seemingly endless road of possibilities ahead of her. In an interview a few years ago with Rotten Tomatoes, Ferrera said of the late Tamerlis:
Certain films are reflections of their lead actor, and in the case of Ms. 45 it remains the most essential, and perfect, encapsulation of what made Tamerlis special. As Ferrara said, she still had the world in front of her. It's that possibility being snatched away only two decades after her debut that is ultimately so affecting when we consider the career of Zoe Tamerlis. You watch her in Ms. 45 and can imagine her becoming a star beyond the downtown art house scene. She seemed primed for an amazing career. She was a tremendous acting talent at a young age, still unsullied by expectation or outside influence. Physically she was striking, with large, pouty lips and enormous, wide-set and doe-shaped eyes that seemed to evoke equal parts insouciance and sadness. All of these acting talents and unique physical attributes are factors in why her performance in Ms. 45 is so eye-opening - she's ethereal and you want to protect her, to give her a hug, even, and just tell her things will eventually be all right. In many ways, those feelings can be applied to Tamerlis in her life as well. You think, if only she could have been protected, somehow, from the drugs and alcohol that led to the dissolution of a promising career and then ultimately her death. But it doesn't work that way. Addicts are nearly impossible to reason with and from all accounts Tamerlis was an iconoclast who did her own thing in nearly every aspect of her life. She was only 37 when she died. We're left with only images and a scant few films to remember her by, including Ms. 45 which stands as a testament to not only her unique talent but also her unlimited potential. We can only speculate about what might have been had her short, difficult life been more forgiving.
One of the film's great strengths, and a reason for its enduring and even elevated status as a film all these years later, is in the way it immediately puts the audience on guard and then never relents. From the first scene it's obvious something is a bit off about Thana. Besides the constant harassment and mistreatment she's subjected to, she's quite possibly suffering from depression, at least. She writes a note that simply says, "I just want everyone to leave me alone." How much of Thana's isolation is forced upon her and how much is of her own choosing? Clearly she has little to no power over most aspects of her life.
Once she's undergone unspeakable trauma, she slides into a fantasy world that finally provides her with strength and power - in the form of a .45 caliber and a loss of fear. You can see her actually gaining enjoyment from the killings. She goes out at night actively looking for trouble in order to dispense her own brand of justice. Scenes of her kissing the bullets before loading her gun effectively serve as both symbols of and insights into her descent into madness. She's quite possibly enjoying her new role and the power that comes with it. After what's happened to her, she finds a reason to live in her mission to make every single bad man pay. The film shows her going classically mad, further enhancing its already intensely taut atmosphere. As her murder spree continues, however, the lines start to blur in Thana's mind, further disorienting the audience. Thana begins by killing only men who are clearly threatening to harm her or other women, then slides down a slippery moral slope by killing men who may be self-centered cads but haven't done anything remotely deserving of death. It's at this point that we begin to consider that she's taking things too far. The film doesn't provide any easy answers to the question, "Is Thana justified in her actions?" It leaves it up to the audience to struggle with complex emotions, another indicator of why the film continues to resonate.
Ferrara packs Ms. 45 with symbolism and it's surprisingly effective. Thana buys meat at the grorcery store early on; the men in the film treat her like meat; and then after killing her second rapist she dismembers his body in the bathtub, cutting him up like so much raw meat. And the film has an undercurrent of black humor as Thana begins her transformation into an angel of vengeance. We see her separating the body parts into several garbage bags, then surreptitiously disposing of them across the city. It's ludicrous and hilarious, but also sick and disturbing. Ferrera also provides us with scenes of Thana preparing for her nightly rounds, kissing the bullets as mentioned earlier and also play-acting shooting someone in front of her mirror. Before the climactic costume party, where she will have a large number of sexist pigs to slaughter, she puts on a costume loaded with symbolism: a nun's robe and habit. By dressing as the ideal of everything good and pure, she symbolically reclaims her soul and her purity. But underneath the robe she tucks her gun into thigh high stockings, reminding us of her dark descent and how its likely too late for her.
In the finale, filmed by Ferrera in excruciating slow motion that amplifies the horror, Thana methodically massacres several of the men at the party - including a man in a wedding dress, yet another reminder of Thana's lost purity. She is finally stopped by a female coworker who stabs her in the back with a knife. For added symbolism, the woman holds the knife in front of her crotch area as a phallic reminder before stabbing Thana.
Watching Ms. 45 will leave you emotionally drained. You'll come out of it with an assortment of questions and you'll need time to work out possible answers to them. You're conflicted about your feelings towards Thana and the film itself, which only serves to make it that much harder to forget. I first saw it in the 1990s and I'm still working out my feelings about it today - and you've just read my latest attempt at doing so. The film's message is overtly feminist. It clearly denounces how women are regularly and unjustly subjugated by men. It then provides us with a female protagonist who will never let it happen again under her watch. Ultimately, what you think of what she does is up to you, the viewer. Things get complicated as the bodies mount. That's part of the film's brilliance: it never lets you feel like you're on stable ground.
In that Rotten Tomatoes interview, Ferrera was asked if he felt the film was feminist. He seemed to feel unqualified as a man to make that determination. While I might disagree with that answer, he also deferred to Tamerlis's opinion and she believed unequivocally that Ms. 45 is indeed a feminist film. In his answer, Ferrera also relayed a revolting story of seeing the film at a Times Square theater in 1981 where the audience actively cheered for the rapists in those early scenes. Ferrera was mortified by their reaction. Then, when the tables turned and Thana became the film's aggressor, the hooting and hollering subsided and the audience was eerily quiet from that point forward. I don't know if I could provide a better example than that of the film's feminist credentials. That audience, sickeningly, found pleasure in seeing a woman denigrated, humiliated, and assaulted, yet they were left unsure of what to make of that same woman fighting back. Certainly, feminism makes misogynists and sexists uncomfortable. The film has been making a wide variety of audiences uncomfortable for thirty-five years now, as it should. Its message might be more relevant today than ever. Ms. 45 represents the best of genre film making: behind the lurid title and provocative poster lies a film that will both haunt you and make you think.