Ms. 45 (1981)

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“A timid and mute seamstress goes insane after being attacked and raped twice in one day, in which she takes to the streets of New York City after dark and randomly shoots men with a .45 caliber pistol.” — IMDb

Also known as Angel of Vengeance (how badass is that?), Ms. 45 is an exploitation thriller (definitely more in that thriller genre vs horror, but there was lots of murder involved AND it was on Shudder so I gave it a pass) directed by Abel Ferrara, who is known for his controversial films that often take place in gritty, urban settings. His project before Ms. 45 was The Driller Killer, in which he played the killer himself — not surprising, considering he cast himself as the first, masked rapist in this film (an exceedingly odd choice for a male director to do in a movie about a woman seeking revenge after being wronged one too many times by men).

The film follows Thana (Zoë Lund), a mute woman who works as a seamstress in the Garment District in New York City. After being attacked and raped twice in the course of one day, something inside of her snaps and she goes in search of revenge at the expense of any man who happens to cross her…

** SPOILERS! **

This movie is an awesome blend of something close to surrealism and spot on reality. Some of the symbolism is so in-your-face (what are the odds, truly, of being raped twice in as many hours?), but I thought much of it — the predatory nature of the men in particular — still rings as true today as I imagine it did in 1981.

You really feel how filthy, how dangerous, the city was in the early 80’s. The use of angles to highlight things like huge piles of trash and seemingly endless, dripping alleyways made you really feel the grit and the pavement. I think it did a lot to highlight how helpless and alone Thana may have initially felt.

Her transformation after she kills the second rapist in self defense is gradual but striking. She doesn’t just change mentally but physically, too — not immediately, we just see smaller hints at first like her clothing becoming more bold or changing her hairstyle a bit — but the transition to heavier makeup and bold, glossy lips is intense and satisfying. She’s becoming more comfortable in her skin and more daring as far as asserting her sexuality goes: she’s no longer timid. And much of this is due to Lund’s performance — she was only 17 at the time and Ms. 45 was her debut film, and yet she manages to convey so much even without speaking a word.

I think a big part of what made this movie controversial at the time, and probably still would today, is the fact that Thana doesn’t just kill the one time in an effort to save her own life. She continues to kill, even going as far as purposely putting herself in situations where she’ll wind up killing and seeking men out. She starts off seemingly shocked by what she’s capable of, standing wide-eyed and horrified after she shoots the first man in the alleyway (and subsequently vomiting after she runs home)… but soon she’s shooting that sleazy “fashion photographer” no less than 5 times, spraying his blood all over his lily white backdrop. She kills a pimp who is smacking up one of his workers. She shoots ALL FIVE MEN who surround her in the empty park (a visually impressive overhead shot). She starts to enjoy it. She seeks it out. The slightest offense is enough to set her off, and she’s disappointed when she misses her chance (like the man who slipped into his building before she pulled the trigger). The killing is more than just revenge for her… it’s a release, a shot of adrenaline, a taste of power.

The movie doesn’t focus too much around the gore of the killings — there’s some comically red blood present for much of it — but there’s a handful of scenes that make your stomach turn. After she cuts up the second attacker’s body in the bathtub, she starts having flashes of her first attacker in the mirror but is interrupted by the gurgling of bits of flesh and guts bubbling up from the drain. Woof. The sheer fact that she packages up all of his parts and stores them in the fridge like a meatpacker (though I loved her disposal method, including dropping one bag in an unsuspecting man’s open trunk). The homeless man finding the severed hand in the trash can. It had these little bits and pieces of gore that I think brought it a bit closer to a horror film, for me anyway.

Her note to one of her co-workers — “I just wish they would leave me alone” — is the most subtle, and yet the most telling. In context the co-worker takes it as a simple comment on being annoyed by a work situation, but its meaning could fill a room, emphasizing Thana’s desire to just be able to go about her life without intrusions and harassment.

My favorite scene has to be when she’s getting dressed in her nun costume for the Halloween party. The way she’s got her habit hiked up to reveal her thigh highs, her bold red lips, her playful miming with the gun, kissing each bullet before she loaded it… brilliant. She’s gone completely mad and she’s loving every second.

The shooting spree at the party itself is just surreal, over-the-top amazingness. The sound is just perfect (thanks to Joe Delia, who did the music for the film) — just super slowed down, screaming voices layered with these screeching, dissonant effects. The chaos of everyone panicking, horrified, lit by flickering strobes, hiding, piling together in disbelief in contrast with Thana’s cold determination. Perfect. And the way her expression changes when her co-worker literally stabs her in the back — initially reeling around in anger to shoot, but having this heartbreaking realization — and she utters her one word of dialogue, which I believe was “sister”, before she collapses. Awesome.

Just a wild ride from start to finish.

Rating: 7/10 | Director: Abel Ferrara | Writer: Nicholas St. John | Music: Joe Delia | Cinematography: James Lemmo | Starring: Zoë Lund, Albert Sinkys, Editta Sherman, Darlene Stuto

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