Saturday, 12 March 2011

Ms. 45 - Monthly Film Bulletin review by Kim Newman

Found, tucked in a box in Tony Paley's attic was this little gem, a cover story on the 1984 video release of our upcoming feature, Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45 - Angel of Vengeance. And so, culled from the pages of the BFI's long running Monthly Film Bulletin, since merged with Sight & Sound is Kim Newman's review:

Spoiler WARNING!

Ms. 45: Angel of Vengeance
U.S.A., 1980
Director: Abel Ferrara-

Thana, a mute girl who works as a seamstress in Manhattan's garment district, is attacked and raped by a masked thug while walking home. When she reaches her apartment, she finds it being rifled by a housebreaker who also tries to rape her. Defending herself with a paper weight and an electric iron, Thana kills him, then carves up the body and stores it in the fridge for gradual disposal. While on one of her dumping expeditions, she is accosted by a street punk whom she promptly shoots dead with the burglar's .45. Later, a pushy photographer tries to pick Thana up with hollow promises of a career in modelling, and she returns with him to his studio before shooting him. Thana's boss Albert and gay/feminist workmate Laurie become increasingly worried about her erratic behaviour and moodiness. By night, stalking the city in a whorish outfit, she continues her crusade, gunning down various sexists-a violent pimp, a kerb-crawling Arab, and a threatening street gang. While she is trying to execute a barfly who has been lamenting his wife's infidelity, Thana finds that the gun has jammed, whereupon the victim takes it from her and shoots himself. Albert prevails upon Thana to accompany him to a Halloween party, during which he intends to seduce her. He finds her gun concealed under a fancy dress nun's habit, and she shoots him. She proceeds to pick off all the men in the room, but is stopped when Laurie stabs her in the back. Unable to shoot a woman, she utters a single word ("sister") and dies.

While it is undeniably true that the splatter/nasty genre, in its treatment of female flesh as meat to be carved, tends to exhibit a particularly unpleasant brand of sadistic sexism, the form does contain possibilities for militant feminism unmatched even by the likes of A Question of Silence or Born in Flames. In I Spit on Your Grave, the leader of a gang of degenerate rapists is allowed to express to the heroine the theory that, by wantonly displaying her body, she has "asked for" her violation. His uncharacteristic intellectualising of the issue is immediately undercut by the most physical retort possible -the girl castrates him in the bath and leaves him bleeding to death. With The Driller Killer, his first feature, Abel Ferrara acknowledged the sexism of the splatter movie by explicitly avoiding it, presenting a psycho whose preferred victims were not desirable young women but undesirable old men. In Ms .45 (a film whose very title has proved too much for many audiences), Ferrara, aided by the presence of the extraordinary Zoe Tamerlis, gives a rigorously feminist reading of the always problematic revenge-for-rape genre. The film signals the seriousness with which it will tackle the subject in its treatment of the initial rapes. While the incidents are profoundly shocking, they horrify mainly because of their abruptness (at least in the currently available, slightly trimmed version) and the monstrosity of the performances. Ferrara, who appears as the first rapist under his Jimmy Laine pseudonym and pops up throughout the film in nightmare flashes as the incarnation of masculine evil, presents the two unconnected assailants as merely less restrained examples of the _ attitudes espoused, not only by the chattering street people who proposition every passing woman, but by the smooth-talking photographer, the paternally lecherous Albert, and the shoe salesman who proudly admits that he reacted to the discovery of his wife's bisexuality by strangling the cat. With such a relentless parade of unsympathetic male characters, the film has little need of explicit sexual violence to make its points. The complete absence of nudity, and the remarkably soft-pedalled violence, compare strikingly with I Spit on Your Grave-which drags out the rape sequence for over half its running time--or even with such mainstream, male-oriented versions of the same basic story as Hannie Caulder, Death Weekend and Sudden Impact.
A Polanski connection suggested by the decaying rabbit in The Driller Killer is furthered here by a few clutching hands and a body in the bath out of Repulsion, and by Tamerlis' resemblance to the Nastassia Kinski" of Tess. However, while Polanski cannot refrain from making fetishes of his striking heroines, Ferrara presents Tamerlis' Thana as a neutral figure whose power over her victims derives from her ability to inspire and then contradict their fantasies of femininity. In the case of the shoe salesman, who pours out the story of his marriage to the mute girl in a bar, the moment of Thana's failed attack on him coincides with his own dawning awareness of his shortcomings; hypnotised by her silent reproach, he acquiesces in his own execution. The usual escape clause in the genre has the raped woman turning into an avenger by assuming masculine qualities (Raquel Welch learning gunfighter skills in Hannie Caulder, Brenda Vaccaro exhibiting her un-womanly technical aptitude in Death Weekend, Sondra Locke competing with Clint Eastwood in Sudden Impact). But Ferrara has Thana become more seductively feminine in appearance as she transforms into a feminist vigilante. The reductio ad absurdum of this process-and indeed of the whole genre -finds Thana murdering such varied male stereotypes as Count Dracula, a cowboy and a drag bride, while incarnated as a furious, gun-toting nun.


We will be hosting a rare London screening of Ms. 45 at the Rio Cinema in Dalston on 19th March. You don't want to miss this!

(Extra thanks to Tony's lovely wife for the scans)

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