Y'ALL NEED TO HIDE YO WIFE, HIDE YO KIDS, AND HIDE YO HUSBAND...
As much as I love films like Bad Lieutenant and King of New York, director Abel Ferrara's masterpiece, in my book, has always been Ms. 45 (although, Fear City places a respectable second). A vigilante thriller (a la Death Wish) by way of Polanski's Repulsion, the 1981 classic has been remastered in HD from the original negatives and given a limited theatrical (and eventual Blu-ray/DVD) release, uncut for the first time in North America by Drafthouse Films. Now that I've gotten my title-dropping out of the way, does it live up to repeated scrutiny?
Thana is a mute seamstress in the Garment District of New York. While walking home from work one day, she is brutally raped by a man in a mask. Upon making her way back home, she is raped a second time (same day) by an intruder in her own apartment. After killing her second attacker and commandeering his .45 caliber pistol, she hits the streets on a mission to kill any man that dares do wrong (and some that dare no such thing).
A lot of interesting things are going on here that separate Ms. 45 from the typical late 70s/early 80s exploitation flick. Unlike many such films, this is not expressly a tale of vengeance. Thana makes no attempt to find and kill her original rapist, instead choosing to target sleazy men in general. The audience's loyalty will waiver, as it should, as she begins dressing seductively and entrapping men that otherwise meant her no harm, and, in a few cases, men that are seemingly innocent of any wrong-doings whatsoever. In a wise move, we're also kept largely in the dark about the specifics in Thana's transition from victim to misandristic murderer. This ambiguity goes a long way in making Thana such an intriguing character. We know the specifics of what drove her to do what she does, but we don't always fully understand her motivations for the specific level that she takes it.
Ferrara injects the film with much stylistically surreal imagery that makes it special in an, at the time, overly crowded field. Thana's nightmarish flashbacks and hallucinations of her attacks grow increasingly erratic as the movie progresses, culminating in an amazing costume-filled finale at a company Halloween party. The imagery also includes much of Ferrara's trademark footage of New York, which could almost be a character in and of itself. Despite being released in 1981, this is very much the New York of the late 70s. Ferrara also plays with the horror genre at times with the almost movie-length disposal of her first victim's body and the gradual way that the second half of the film envelops many elements of the early slasher films (but, from the perspective of the killer). For those that can appreciate it, there is also a pretty wicked sense of humor run through the proceedings.
Interestingly, again separating it from other films of its ilk, Ms. 45 is not overly sexualized. The rape scenes are not particularly graphic (no nudity in the film at all, in fact), and it could even be argued that sexual pleasure was not the ultimate endgame for either attacker. They seem to be coming from a direction of dominance rather than sexual satisfaction (particularly the second attacker, who seems to have a moment of realization that he is not the first to get to the victim that day). Thana, herself, in keeping with the ambiguous nature, appears to understand how to use her sexuality to create and hunt down new victims, but not necessarily the why's of how that works. It's an angle that eliminates much of the unnecessary trappings of the genre and certainly works in the film's ultimate favor.
As Thana, Zoë Lund (Tamerlis at the time of its release) delivers a knockout performance. Uttering not one word through the entirety of the movie (with one almost-exception towards the end), she is forced to create a character out of nothing more than facial expressions and body language, and is more than up to the task. Thana is both sympathetic and horrifying and it would be hard to imagine anyone else in the role. You may not always fully understand her motivations, nor does she, but everything you need to follow Thana's journey is found in Lund's beautifully expressive (and expressively beautiful) face. Honestly, there are not any other performances particularly worth noting. Other than an over-the-top nosy neighbor and a few coworkers, no one else is given any kind of significant screen time. Victims are introduced and generally they are quickly dispatched. This is strictly Lund's show and she nails it spectacularly.
Sure, there are definitely some minor quibbles that can be made. Some will complain about the lack of definitive answers. Others will wonder why Thana never runs out of bullets and becomes such a crack shot so easily. And, many may say that, other than Lund, the majority of the acting ability is pretty suspect. But, none of these takes away from the fact that this is a unique entry into a genre that was originally released around the time that it needed a good dose of originality. It's an oft-forgotten film, but now that Drafthouse Films has remastered it and presented it in its uncut form, all genre fans should seek it out immediately. It may seem like I'm heaping a ridiculous amount of praise for a cult exploitation film from the early 80s, but when said film is as original as this and can count itself one of the best that the subgenre has to offer, that's worth shouting about. Highly recommended.