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On "Ms. 45" and Revenge Movie Feminism

In 1981, a young Abel Ferrara tapped into the subgenre of 'urban violence/revenge/vigilante' movies ("Death Wish," "The Driller Killer") working with screenwriter Nicholas St. John (who also wrote "The Driller Killer"). They gave the genre a twist by focusing on a woman who goes on a killing spree after she is raped. The film developed a cult following. Now Drafthouse Films is re-releasing it. Three of our critics got together for a virtual chat on Facebook about the film.

Christy Lemire: OK so: I had not seen this movie before, had either of you?

Sheila O'Malley: I had not.

Susan Wloszczyna: I read about it in Danny Peary's cult movie books but never saw it before either. I knew it had this rep as the "Citizen Kane" of rape and revenge movies though.

Sheila O'Malley: Its reputation preceded it, obviously.

Christy Lemire: Do you guys think that reputation is earned, now that you've seen it?

Susan Wloszczyna: I was surprised and relieved that it did—at least in terms of being less concerned about exploiting the act of rape and more about a young woman fighting back.

Christy Lemire: That probably seemed rather extraordinary in 1981. Especially the speed with which she goes from victim to vigilante.

Sheila O'Malley: Yes, I do! There were a couple of elements that really pleased me: 1. Her note saying "I just want everyone to leave me alone" and 2. How much pleasure she got out of killing. That took it into truly subversive as well as almost erotic places, something missing from "I Spit On Your Grave", for example. The wanting to be left alone thing was really clear, from the get-go. It made her seem "off", from the very first moment we see her. I liked that a lot. Okay, I'm done with this comment for now.

Christy Lemire: Yes—the fact that she begins actively putting herself in positions to find trouble.

Sheila O'Malley: And the transformation she goes through physically, which would have seemed impossible in the beginning with her small steps and mousy hair. She's set free by violence. Pretty sick, a lot of fun.

Susan Wloszczyna: I have a theory about that. She goes way beyond just men who hassle and potentially attack her to going after any man who offends with his actions with women. It is like the awful thing that they say about women asking to be raped by their clothing and how they act. These guys were asking for it, at least to Thana {the lead character].

Christy Lemire: And yet there's also a turning point where you stop rooting for her. I don't want to spoil it for folks who haven't seen it, but she crosses a line.

Sheila O'Malley: Susan: Yes, the fact that she was not going after men who were violent, but men who were somewhat insensitive, not even overtly so, was fascinating. Like the guy she talks to in the bar who is basically just saying, "I had great sex with my wife until she got a part-time job"—ha!—The dude is Dunzo from that point on, even though he's just sharing his life story with her.

Christy Lemire: Right, Susan—she starts going after guys who haven't really done anything wrong. They're all just symbolic to her. You can really see the influence of this film on "The Brave One," for example. Jodie Foster's character similarly becomes blinded by her need for revenge.

Sheila O'Malley: I like the comparison to "The Brave One." I thought the depiction of PTSD in the bathroom following the first murder was super accurate. What is before your eyes is not reality: your mind keeps circling back over the accumulated trauma. I also felt a lot of similarity with Catherine Deneuve in "Repulsion." The character is similarly cut off at the start, moving through the streets as though in a dream. And violence, or the fantasy thereof, unleashes her power.

Susan Wloszczyna: It is interesting that most rape and revenge films previously had the girl killed and someone else sought the revenge. Like "Death Wish" (1974). Even in "The Last House on the Left" (1972), "I Spit on Your Grave" (1978), another predecessor, focus on sexualizing the victim and on the acts of rape so much, that it did not allow the audience to enjoy the comeuppance factor very much. Roger hated this film and the remake.

Christy Lemire: But what's interesting in "The Brave One" is that Jodie Foster becomes more masculine the more she kills. Thana becomes more feminine—the sexy boots, the red lipstick. I remember that! Roger was just repulsed by "I Spit On Your Grave."

Sheila O'Malley: Kissing the bullets, an image I loved.

Christy Lemire: My first thought was: Wait, now they have your DNA on them! Too many cop procedural shows on TV.

Susan Wloszczyna: She takes control of her sexuality in "Ms. 45." Kissing the bullets indeed. I though of Oprah in "The Butler" when she was slathering on lipstick.

Christy Lemire: Ooh, the Oprah comparison is good. Forcefully asserting your female sexuality, your sense of self-worth.

Sheila O'Malley: The scene where she is play-acting with the gun before going to the Halloween party, in the nun's habit, is my favorite scene in the film. She is truly mad, in the classic sense. There's a moment where a little smile of almost humor flickers on her red lips, and it's the only moment she almost smiles in the film. It gave me the creeps, but in a really excellent way. She is lost in her fantasy of herself, and it reminded me of Deneuve peering at the distorted reflection of herself in the tea kettle in "Repulsion."

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Christy Lemire: I like the subversion of her going as a nun to that party—someone who's supposed to be so pure and pious.

Susan Wloszczyna: Can we just sing the praises of Zoë Tamerlis? She was just 17. And this was one hell of a performance. Such a beauty. too.

Sheila O'Malley: And no lines either! The whole transformation has to be physical. Hell of an acting job.

Christy Lemire: This was her first movie, right? And she died so young, only 35, of heart problems from cocaine use. Robert Redford got to say more in "All Is Lost"!

Sheila O'Malley: She is such a compelling presence, creepy and authentic.

Susan Wloszczyna: She actually was a proponent of heroin use. I am not Abel Ferrara's biggest fan but the way he used the camera to allow us to know what she was thinking was rather well done.

Sheila O'Malley: I agree, Susan.

Christy Lemire: Well everything about the film is creepy from the start. There's this predatory vibe in the air from the beginning—the camera angles, the leering men with their come-ons. NYC in the early '80s—way before it got Disneyfied under Giuliani.

Susan Wloszczyna: This is quite the portrait of New York City in the early '80s as well. It was a trashier, more crime infested, lousy place to live. You feel it in droves in this. Just like in "Taxi Driver."

Christy Lemire: There's peril around every corner. Hah! We're on the same wavelength.

Sheila O'Malley: There's that one scene when she runs down that alley and it's piled high with garbage and it reminded me of the filthy NYC of that time.

Christy Lemire: I first went to NY in the late '90s—was it really this dangerous? Or is this a cranked-up fantasy of danger and violence?

Sheila O'Malley: You could feel how dangerous the place was the second you got off the bus. I first went to NYC in the 1970s when I was a kid and even I felt it.

Susan Wloszczyna: So what did you think of the snoopy neighbor. Sort of a failed graduate of the Ruth Gordon-Sylvia Miles school of acting. Actually, I kind of liked that she was so awful. And yes, Christy, it was pretty bad like that back then.

Sheila O'Malley: And the gateway to New York City, 42nd Street, the place where you get off the bus, was overrun by hookers, peep shows, and drugs. Now it's The Lion King and Applebee's.

Christy Lemire: The snoopy neighbor took me out of it. She felt like a caricature. Maybe she was intended as comic relief?

Sheila O'Malley: I wish it had been played by Sylvia Miles! She narrated her every movement, just so we don't miss anything: "Oh no, now she's going to know we were in her apartment!"

Susan Wloszczyna: She would be great in a John Waters film but did stick out in what is a surprisingly well done cheap movie.

Sheila O'Malley: The landlady, at least as written, is also part of why I loved that note from Thana: "I just want everyone to leave me alone." Even the landlady is all up in her grill at every second. The greatest freedom in the world is just to be left ALONE.

Christy Lemire: As is her sweet little dog. So how do you think this film will be received today? Will it seem shocking? Is anything shocking anymore?

Sheila O'Malley: The fact that her vigilante stance is not directly attached to the violence that was done to her could still be seen as shocking, I suppose. The fact that once she starts killing, she kinda likes it… that puts her beyond the realm of understandable behavior. That's the reason I liked it. But shocked? No.

Susan Wloszczyna: What is shocking is how well Thana is treated and protected onscreen. She uses her sexuality as a tool for vengeance but the film never gets off on the cruelty or violence inflicted on her.

Sheila O'Malley: That's an excellent point.

Christy Lemire: The film never judges her for a) becoming this self-styled vigilante killer or b) enjoying it. But! There are repercussions. She doesn't get away with it. 

Susan Wloszczyna: I just wonder how a man today would act. Have either of you been catcalled and hassled in the way that Thana and her co-workers are? I mean how a man would react.

Christy Lemire: That has never happened to me. I've never been sexually harassed at work or anything. That's part of why I think Abel Ferrara means this as a dark fantasy—the predatory behavior is so over the top.

Sheila O'Malley: I've been catcalled like that, and usually ignore it or try to treat it as a joke.

Susan Wloszczyna: I have been sexually harassed and had guys call out like that. In fact more than once I had to deal with flashers walking by me and my friends in public. I don't think it is too exaggerated. So what does the ending mean?

Christy Lemire: So do you think Ferrara intends this as an indictment of male behavior?

Sheila O'Malley: Street harassment is nothing to what I've experienced online, however, but I know that's super common. I agree that Ferrara films this as a fantasy, and when she starts reveling in her own sexuality, wearing leather pants, etc., is when we start to feel her strength. That's still pretty subversive.

Christy Lemire: Ooh, the ending—OK, here's a spoiler—the fact that she's stabbed in the back with a knife that's being held like a penis is a hugely disturbing call-back to the rape that started her killing spree.

Sheila O'Malley: Christy—I was thinking about that after seeing the film. I do think there's an indictment there, and I felt it in the way he chose to "eavesdrop" on random conversations, snippets, fragments, at the party, elsewhere, where we hear men saying stupid stuff or insensitive stuff. What I got from that technique was that, without making too big a deal out of it, Ferrara was trying to say, "This goes on every day, all around women, it is the atmosphere that women breathe."

Sheila O'Malley: "It creates an atmosphere of violence that women pick up on, even if it's just verbal." What do you think?

Christy Lemire: And she finds a way to overcome it—an extreme way.

Susan Wloszczyna: I think he was saying men are creepier and more offhandedly predatory than they think. Just take a look at Thana's boss. She turns the tables on them. Using a phallic symbol of a gun. It is funny that the first time she kills it is an iron and an apple. A housewife and Eve.

Christy Lemire: Ooooh, you're good! That symbolism did not occur to me.

Sheila O'Malley: I like that a lot!

Christy Lemire: But! Then when she is killed, it's by another woman—with a phallic symbol.

Susan Wloszczyna: There are all sorts of touches like that. The circle where the gang gathers round her sort of reminded me of the drain in her bathtub too. Yes, her co-worker who spoke out verbally against the men who hassled them but did not take real action like Thana did. I am not sure what to make of that.

Christy Lemire: And then the last shot—of the dog—provides a sort of cathartic laugh after so much violence and tension. What do you think he's saying there? Not to take all of this so seriously after all?

Susan Wloszczyna: I think we know where Thana drew the line as far as offing males are concerned. And yeah it is funny.

Sheila O'Malley: Yes, I saw that as kind of a sick joke. Maybe even a commentary on the fact that her cruelty to the dog may be seen as worse than the fact that she has killed a veritable army of men for no reason. You know, knowing the audience will gasp happily that the dog survived, but don't care at all about the poor saps unlucky enough to have run into Thana.

Christy Lemire: I was happy to see the dog survive!

Sheila O'Malley: Me too. Phil didn't do anyone any harm, although he was on to what Thana was up to!

Susan Wloszczyna: I think it was a comeuppance to the landlady as well. And yeah I was glad to see him OK.

Christy Lemire: That's a good point, though—when we think she kills the dog, we're no longer on her side.

Sheila O'Malley: Definitely. And the landlady may be nosy and annoying, but she's not evil.

Susan Wloszczyna: As a fan of "Project Runway," I appreciated the garment industry workplace. I laughed hard when Thana's boss berated her fellow female workers for doing a scoop neck instead of a V neck.

Sheila O'Malley: But that's why I think that private moment she has with the gun in the nun's habit is so important and the film wouldn't be the same without it. It shows her fantasy world, straight up, without anything between us and it. It shows her little-girl playacting in a way that is blatant and quite mad. It doesn't shy away from the fact that this woman is "off" and has been so from the beginning. But including that moment of her whipping the gun around, pretending she's a Charlie's Angel, and sort of laughing at herself in the mirror, helps put the film and its psychology over the edge where it needs to be.

Christy Lemire: Well I will be very curious to see how this film is received now that it's being re-released—whether audiences will be drawn in by its cult status, whether they'll be able to get past the low-budget aesthetic and cheesy early-'80s trappings to see the message it's trying to convey.

Susan Wloszczyna: Having lived through the '80s, it was nice to see it in all its tacky glory as it really happened. Also, Sheila—I think the film does a very good job showing us that Thana is initially traumatized by her horrible ordeal. It is only when she deals the dead body in the room that she starts to enjoy what she has wrought.

Sheila O'Malley: I'm glad it's being re-released and am also quite curious as to its reception. It's angry and dark, but has a goofball quality to it as well that I found endearing somehow (Thana running around with severed limbs in garbage bags, dropping them off all around the city). I liked the energy of the film and its gritty underlying sleaze.

Christy Lemire: Me too—it felt very raw, vibrant and in the moment.

Sheila O'Malley: Susan—yes, as I mentioned earlier, the depiction of PTSD flashbacks in the bathroom after the first murder were absolutely terrific. Her trauma is palpable.

Susan Wloszczyna: There was a snap and crackle to this—no dull moments, nothing too overdone.

Sheila O'Malley: And, best of all, it left the character somewhat mysterious. A bold choice, and it really pays off.

Susan Wloszczyna: Would this movie get made today? There have been remakes of "The Last House on the Left" and "I Spit on Your Grave." But not this.

Christy Lemire: It wouldn't be a studio film. I can imagine it as an indie. It would have to maintain its low-budget charm.

Susan Wloszczyna: That would be very hard to re-create now.

Sheila O'Malley: And it would need to understand that the rapes are not to be lingered over because they are almost (almost) incidental. This is a woman who just wants to be left alone. Why won't the world cooperate?

Susan Wloszczyna: Certain politicians need to see this so they leave women's issues alone.

Christy Lemire: OK you two—should we wrap this up? This was so fun!

Susan Wloszczyna: I think we did ok. And it was fun!

Sheila O'Malley: So fun! We should do it again some time!

Christy Lemire: I agree—we'll have to find another opportunity—maybe with something less rapey.

Sheila O'Malley: Ha. Yes, less rapey would be excellent.

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