A forgotten gem
The characters in Abel Ferrara’s early movies kill with the frequency of teens that have just discovered a new high. They don’t stand over their victims and offer snappy one-liners. They simply do what they do, enjoy whatever quick rush it entails, and then scurry off into the night, usually to a small New York apartment where their mouthy neighbors remain clueless.
Ferrara is also a director who aims not just at the jugular, but at art. From his demonic first feature, The Driller Killer, shot during the short-lived “No-Wave” era when poor young New York filmmakers were shooting films in alleys and punk clubs, he was showing the eye of a mature filmmaker with more on his mind than standard grindhouse fare. His movies were unpredictable and violent, but delivered with a kind of twitchy beauty.
Ms. 45 (1981) was the follow-up to The Driller Killer, and it serves as a companion piece. Some may complain that it’s not quite as feverish as the earlier movie, but it’s the work of a director growing in confidence. It stars Zoe Tamerlis (aka Zoe Lund) as Thana, a mute young woman who works in the garment district. Her life is knocked askew one day when, on her way home from work, a stranger in a Halloween mask attacks and rapes her. She returns home, only to find a burglar ransacking her living room. When he tries to rape her, too, she decides enough is enough and beats his head in with an iron. Dazed, Thano dismembers the man’s body and hides parts of it in random locations around the city. She also feeds pieces of the guy to her neighbor’s little dog. Aside from the guts that keep shooting up of out her bathtub drain, all that remains of him is a cheap pistol. She starts carrying it in her purse, a phallic trophy.
Tamerlis is very good as a young woman who endures a terrible experience and undergoes a mental breakdown. During the film she will kill several men, some more deserving of her wrath than others. What makes her fascinating is that she never speaks. Now and then she opens her mouth wide, as if there’s something terrible in her soul that wants to come out, but no sound emerges. This makes her stand out at work, where talkative female co-workers surround her. There’s an intriguing aside in the film where a homeless woman wanders down the street, talking to herself. She says, “Why should I speak to other women? All they do is laugh and dance and use the word ‘pussy’!” Is this woman speaking for Thana?
Thana seems to go where the chaos takes her. When a seedy fashion photographer tells her she could be a model, she starts wearing gobs of makeup and skimpy outfits. When men are too aggressive, she shoots. Even when they aren’t aggressive, she shoots. When an especially dull man corners her in a bar and shares too many details of his personal life, she decides to kill him, too. She doesn’t choose her targets; they just appear before her.
The city of Ms. .45 is a bubbling cauldron of pent up sexual anger. Nearly every male character we meet is a jittery, crotch-tugging ape, and we’re just about rooting for Thana to put bullets in them. A scene where her gun jams and her intended victim takes it from her is telling. The look on her face is like a child’s when a favorite toy has been yanked away. When he accidently shoots himself, she reclaims the gun and slinks away. She’s so childlike we’re practically glad she’ll get to kill again.
The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies (edited by Phil Hardy) describes Ms. 45 as “a stunning urban nightmare,” and correctly points out that the film “avoids the sadistic, voyeuristic sexism of so many recent American horror films.” This was, after all, right on the heels of I Spit on Your Grave, another film about a rape victim who takes bloody vengeance. Somehow, Ferrara’s film is never as off-putting as Spit, perhaps because, as Hardy’s book notes, “the various assaults on Tamerlis are not filmed in such a way as to invite the audience to participate wallowingly in them, while the film’s parade of unsympathetic male characters is relentless…Furthermore, her transformation is not achieved by her assuming the usual ‘masculine’ qualities, or even losing her positive ‘feminine’ ones.”
Hardy’s book, published just a few years after the release of Ms..45, didn’t match the tone of the original U.S. reviews. Dann Gire of the Chicago Daily Herald ended his review hoping the movie “slithers back to the nether regions from whence it came.” Fair enough. We all have bad days at the office.
The film received a nice restoration in 2013 by Alamo Drafthouse, all the better to appreciate James Lemmo’s creamy cinematography. One of the more memorable scenes is when Thana and an intended victim end their evening beneath the Brooklyn Bridge in an almost identical recreation of Woody Allen’s famous scene in Manhattan. Ferrara’s New York has always felt more realistic than the New York presented by other filmmakers. It is a tired city of old skyscrapers with garbage on the streets, a city of cut-rate glamor, where the locals turn a costume party into their fantasies of a night at Studio 54, mirror ball and all. Thana’s co-workers are tough, modern women, but they’re nothing special. They’re smart enough to maneuver around their sleazy supervisor, but not smart enough to imagine a better life for themselves. Thana’s neighbor, a big haired older lady who might have escaped from a John Waters’ movie, feels like the old New York of Joe Mitchell stories, the sort of eccentric loner who might have a flea circus in her apartment and charge a reasonable admission.
Ms. 45 could be considered part of a Ferrara trilogy about New York madness. The first being The Driller Killer, and the third is The Addiction, which starred Lilly Taylor as a meek college student who goes on her own kill spree after being bitten by a vampire. Ms. 45 may be the best of the three. It’s more accomplished than the first, and less self-conscious than the third. There’s just something so gorgeously primal about Thana’s silence. Taylor’s character, on the other hand, never shuts up, and all of her spewing about sin and rotting from the inside doesn’t add up to one slug from Thana’s .45.
Ferrara himself has said that he doesn’t like to compare his early films to his later ones, because he was a different person at the time. This is understandable. The Addiction, for instance, despite its shimmering black and white photography by Ken Kelsch, feels mannered, lacking the quiet weirdness of Ms. 45. It’s too tidy. Worse, there’s not a decent oddball in sight, just a lot of bored teenagers loafing on street corners. The Addiction was made during Ferrara’s commercial heyday, a time in the 1990s when his films were being financed by rap moguls, and attracting such stars as Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken and Madonna. He’d become a sort of fetish for moviegoers looking for “edgy” material. He was to Quentin Tarantino what The Rolling Stones were to The Beatles — darker, meaner, dirtier.
I’ll always prefer his first few films, like Ms. 45. Those early ones scream with delight at their own existence.