The cinema of Abel Ferrara is caustic, caught in between the pervasive grime of the street and a religious fever that is all at once pure and faux, a nightmare that washes over you. While Bad Lieutenant is perhaps his most respected work and The Driller Killer his most infamous, I believe that his 1981 rape revenge thriller, Ms.45, stands as his most impactful and rewarding piece; one that finds the balance between sex, religion, horror, city, politic, body to craft an exploitation film about exploitation and depict the repressed feminine bursting out of male subjugation into something savage, both horrific and liberating.

Ms.45 sees Thana, a shy and mute New York seamstress, suffer a horrific scenario: she is raped in a back alley, and when she returns home, she is raped once again by a home intruder. This experience changes Thana, bursting out of her shell like a butterfly from a chrysalis, she becomes a force of vengeance. Every night she patrols the dark and hungry streets of New York and indiscriminately annihilates any man who she encounters with a .45 handgun. This is a slice of sleazy exploitation unquestionably, but it is also a lurid work of art, stylistically and psychologically, that is haunting in its queasy sense of damage, perversion and uncontrollable frenzy.

Even from the film’s introduction, Ferrara foregrounds the objectification of the female. Opening at the fashion warehouse Thana is employed, we see a designer promoting his outfits to a prospective client; he has a range of models trot back and forth in different designs, with no agency of their own. All they do is provide the female body to sell the item, they are there to be observed and, perversely, discarded when there purpose is served. Immediately after this sequence, Ferrara reinforces the idea of pervasive sex object culture by tracking Thana and two of her female co-workers walking along a bustling city street, where the women are ‘cat-called’, from kisses being blown toward them to explicit sexual references. Ferrara shoots this sequence between two dominant shots: a POV shot from one of the women’s perspective (or perhaps an overriding female position, representative of all women), which serves to place the viewer directly in the position of the harassed women, caught in the obscene male gaze in all its perverse dread; and a slowly zooming tracking shot, moving close onto Thana. The use of this shot combination illustrates both the overwhelming cultural pervasiveness of this male harassment and objectification, and also suggests Thana’s oncoming assault, the camera rushing toward her like the threat of sexual violence that lurks in the offensive comments that, psychologically, assault her.

Ferrara explores this objectification further by eluding the idea of the female body as a commodity during the second brutal rape. The intruder’s initial concern is money; he turns over her apartment in search of cash and valuables, and when he is interrupted by her, he demands she hand over her money, which she is unable to do. In response to this, seemingly out of a combination of frustration and disappointment, he decides to rape her instead. If he can’t take the valuable commodity he intended, then he will at least take the commodity of her pleasure; He gains his pleasure from the absolute domination of hers. Furthermore, Thana’s position as mute is another layer of commentary. She is a meek figure at the start of the film, unable to express herself, which is cruelly turned on itself when confronted with both of her rapes. In the first encounter, the assailant tells her not to scream (which of course she is not able to do anyway) before telling her in the aftermath that she was good for being so quiet. This is a mockery of her silence, the male choosing to believe silence equates her submission to him, her obedience. Here, the female voice is represented as supressed and dominated by male aggression. This reinforced in the second rape, where her attacker perversely plays on her lack of a voice; he asks her if it ‘feels good,’ knowing that she is unable to respond with the horror she feels, and, humiliatingly, whispers ‘this might make you talk.’ However as the film progresses and Thana transforms deeper into a vengeful force with each murder, her silence becomes not a symbol of oppression – but of the enigma of the feminine, something unobtainable and unknown. She finds her ‘voice’ through the violence of the .45 calibre handgun, taking control of her sexuality and rendering the men of the film, impotent and defeated. The complete nature of her transformation is explicitly illustrated in the film’s conclusion where her boss, the fashion designer, falls to his knees and kisses her boots, before moving up her legs. When he reaches her pubic area, Thana parts the skirt of her dress, to reveal her suspenders and, up on her inner thigh, the iconic handgun placed, waiting for ‘action.’ Here, Thana has absolutely forced the man (her ‘boss’ no less) into utter submission, and revealed her true self. Not simply as the .45 killer, but her ownership of her own sexuality, the gun as the symbol of her sexual mastery.

Ms.45 is a nightmarish vision, both reality and fantasy, like a funhouse mirror; this is a distorted image, but one that in its excessive stylisation and exploitation tone, is able to address crucial social concerns about the female body as commodity and the threat of female sexual agency. Perhaps the best place to conclude is at the very title itself, surely one of the most affective and expressive in cinematic history: Ms.45. An alternate title for the film was ‘Angel of Vengeance,’ which reinforces the religious tones of Ferarra’s cinema, casting Thana as the embodiment of female innocence mutated into a destroyer of those who would do her, and her kind wrong. However, the evocative nature of ‘Ms.45’ as a title is even more revealing, and perhaps, expressive of the film Ferrara has crafted. This is the female ownership of the phallic object, the gun. This is defiant, exploiting masculine frailty in the face of female power (as she takes control of the destructive power of the gun, she also takes control of her repressed sexuality, turning it back on the men of the city) and defining the film as superior exploitation, one that turns the pleasures of exploitation into a socially conscious comment on female exploitation, that is as ferocious as it is exquisite.

About The Author

Matthew Hammond is a full time cinephile, specializing in cult, art house and 1980’s cinema. While film is his overwhelming passion, Matthew has been known to enjoy comic books, Sherlock Holmes stories and a good film related T-shirt. Feel free to email me with any questions or comments: mattpaul61@o2.co.uk