For most filmmakers, starting a career with features titled 9 LIVES OF A WET PUSSY and THE DRILLER KILLER, would not lead to much – if any – mainstream success. Abel Ferrara may not be a director that has courted Hollywood acceptance but is one that found a way – unlike most of his down and dirty exploitation peers – to strike a balance between the grit of his earliest work and the commercial viability of the type of cynical, excessive genre cinema that would take off in the 1980s.
MS. 45 doesn’t take long to announce itself and its intentions. The title card carries with it four audible gunshots and the female lead is the victim of two rapes in mere minutes (with Ferrara casting himself as a rapist in one of them). But it isn’t MS. 45’s initial provocations that startle the viewer most, it is the casting of a 17 year old Zoë Lund as Thana in a performance that is at once subtle and aggressive while for the duration of the film’s runtime remaining entirely mute.
Though the inability for Thana to speak may come off as a gimmick at first – think 1994’s MUTE WITNESS – it is anything but. Rather than playing with tired rape/revenge conventions of the 70s, in films like ACT OF VENGEANCE, THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, Ferrara takes away what those film’s leads rely on most: a voice. Thana is never able to scream, vocally ask for help or even give demands while holding a gun. Ferrara doesn’t structure his film like a rape/revenge tale either. Thana doesn’t target individual men or attempt to seek justice for herself, she becomes a Bronson-esque vigilante acting more out of self-preservation (at least, at first) than blood lust.
For a film that is so concerned with announcing itself as provocatively as it does, it can be surprising how restrained MS. 45 actually ends up being. Sure, there are dismembered bodies, rape scenes and multiple shootings but this is far from the sleaze fests of Ferrara’s prior two features and there is more to connect on screen with the filmmaker who would go on to be responsible for carefully crafted – albeit equally scandalous – marquee titles like KING OF NEW YORK and BAD LIEUTENANT. As much as this is a work steeped in early 80s NYC realism, it manages to feel quite fantastical at times, too. The blood is the stuff of a Herschell Gordon Lewis picture, Thana’s wardrobe gets increasingly surreal as the film progresses, until she adorns herself with the nun’s habit seen in much of the promotional material – and likely spurred the overseas title ANGEL OF VENGEANCE – and the final massacre scene feels borderline dreamlike.
Ferrara would go on to make much more serious films – the aforementioned BAD LIEUTENANT, THE FUNERAL – and sillier films – FEAR CITY, DANGEROUS GAME – but MS. 45 remains one of his more pivotal and focused efforts. It announces Ferrara as a mainstay of American genre cinema as well as contributes – and challenges – the conventions of vigilante and rape/revenge films that came before it. And, lucky for us, Drafthouse Films have restored it in 4K and it is now available completely uncut – in all of its bloody glory – in the US for the first time in years.