Abel Ferrara and writer Nicholas St. John’s first film, The Driller Killer, subverted the sexism found in most slasher flicks by offering a madman who targets derelicts rather than busty teens. In their 1981 follow-up they took on the rape-revenge film with their own feminist reading of the genre, Ms. 45 (aka Angel of Vengeance). The film follows the standard path in which a woman is raped, then turns inward, starts training for physical combat or gun play, and then exacts furious revenge. What separates Ms. 45 from the rest of the pack is how it depicts the consequences of a life devoted to vengeance. Rather than feel triumphant in the end like most rape-revenge films, Ms. 45 is more somber. That’s one of the reasons it’s such a crucial film in the genre.
The stunningly beautiful Zoe Tamerlis stars as a mute teenager named Thana (from the Greek word for “death”). She works as a seamstress in Manhattan’s garment district and one day on her way home from work, she’s assaulted not once but twice (Ferrera himself plays a masked thug). The second time she manages to kill her assailant with an iron. She disposes of his corpse piece by piece in trash cans around town, but hangs onto the man’s .45.
Traumatized, Thana becomes more withdrawn at work as she constantly flashbacks to the event. She doesn’t want to be touched and is wary of people’s intentions. Because of her mute handicap, co-workers treat her like a child. Thana realizes that she has to survive on her own in this city, so she transforms herself into an avenging angel. She’s no longer a victim, she’s the hunter.
Deliberately venturing into dangerous places inhabited by male scum, Thana dishes out revenge one shell at a time. Street gangs, a manipulative photographer, a violent pimp – she intentionally encounters the swine. Thanks to Tamerlis’ incredible screen presence, Thana’s power over her victims isn’t her pistol. It’s her ability to destroy their sexuality and deny them their fantasies. And shoot them in the face, yeah.
As Thana’s warpath continues, she further withdraws from her everyday life. Her mission of revenge leads to unemployment and the loss of what female support she would’ve gotten from a group of co-workers. This aspect of the film, in which the allure and sensationalism of vengeance is wiped away, is what makes Ms. 45 transcend the rape-revenge genre. Typically, these films end on an epic victorious note (the amazing end of Savage Streets comes to mind), but Ms. 45 couldn’t end any different. And along the way, Thana destroys any chance of reclaiming a normal life – a feeling that many rape victims must share. The revenge may be absurd, but the psychology of Ms. 45 is more accurate than most films in the genre.
Tamerlis’ performance also helps elevate the film above standard genre fare. She begins the film a fragile, terrified woman. After her attack she’s traumatized. By the end of the film, she’s a stone-cold psycho. This diverse range of emotions is perfectly embodied by Tamerlis. Although she only speaks one word in the film, her thoughts are expressed by composer Joe Delia’s abrasive score. The music in Ms. 45 is fantastic and apparently Death Waltz is releasing the soundtrack sometime next year, so eyes peeled for that one. Tamerlis would go on to co-write and star in Ferrera’s Bad Lieutenant. She passed away from drug-related issues in 1999.
Ms. 45 is a bold and angry classic that defies the rape-revenge genre. And now, Drafthouse Films has remastered the film in HD and will be releasing it in theaters in mid-December, followed by a home video release.