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40 Years Later: Ms .45

18 April 21 words: Sebastian Mann

Ms .45, the second feature film by the controversial cult icon Abel Ferrara, is a powerful and haunting descent into trauma and revenge, writes Sebastian Mann…

Director: Abel Ferrara
Starring: Zoë Tamerlis, Steve Singer, Jack Thibeau
Running time: 80 minutes

Thana (the late Zoe Lund, credited here as her maiden name Tamerlis) is a seamstress working in a small fashion house in New York City. Back home, lying in her bathtub, is the corpse of one of two men who raped her the day before. She has begun to dismember his body with a bread knife, and keeps his body parts in her fridge. 

After dark, she embarks on a killing spree. She carries a .45 pistol, the one she was held at gunpoint by the same home intruder whose remains are scattered throughout New York and whose guts bubble up out of the sink in her nightmares. 

Thana is mute, and so cannot rely on her physical voice. The scene of her first wielding the pistol that paves the way for her classic genre sobriquet ‘Ms .45’ is the key turning point: the pain she feels can now be expressed. Ferrara in his early years didn’t rely so much on subtlety, but there’s nothing cheap to his tricks. 

At a lean 80 minutes, it feels like flashes from a dream. Thana’s loss of innocence has been forced, and her transformation into a femme fatale killer - with an eerie physical resemblance to Red Riding Hood - unfolds like tragedy. The violence in the film is never titillating, but scenes of pimps and leering stalkers being blown away do have an immediate cathartic thrill to them, and time hasn’t dulled its edges. In its final scenes the film collapses into heightened, fairy tale-like surrealism, as if it couldn’t bear the weight of it any longer. 

Ferrara can be a difficult director. He’s not there to meaninglessly provoke the viewer the way a director like Lars Von Trier has been known to, nor is his punk sense of aesthetic and artistry hollow or surface-level. His early films are loud and brimming with anger, but they’re about things worth shouting about.

A standout in its genre and one of the few to actually look deeper than surface thrills

Of its contemporaries, it’s closer to something like Taxi Driver’s portrait of loneliness than it is to the crass pro-vigilantism of Death Wish, and it shares a genetic connection with films like 1978’s foundational rape-revenge shocker, I Spit On Your Grave. All are noted inspirations on Ferrara, and scenes of Thana, clad in a nun’s veil, rehearsing her aim in the mirror call back to their predecessors like the feminist answer to Travis Bickle. 

Ferrara’s first proper credit was for a porno, 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy, under the pseudonym Jimmy Boy L - a pseudonym he semi-reprises for his cameo role as one of Thana’s rapists. In 1981, he was coming off the mild underground success of his debut feature, The Driller Killer, a psycho-slasher about an artist (played by Ferrara) who is driven mad by the filth of the city and the noise of the punk band practicing loudly next door before taking to the streets to indiscriminately murder homeless ‘derelicts’ with a power-drill. 

His economical direction, and ability to stretch a shoe-string budget into a feature has always been deeply admirable and certainly led to some interesting results, but even forty years later, Ms .45 still impresses. It pays visual homage to giallo classics like Dario Argento’s nocturnal masterpiece, Suspiria, with a deeply affecting, hacked-to-the-bone appeal. Ferrara remains a champion of underground filmmaking, and would collaborate with Lund again on the script for the notorious Bad Lieutenant eleven years later. 

Ms .45 is perhaps the quintessential film in Ferrara’s early body of work, and a great starting point for newcomers. It has an abrasive tone and its jagged, atonal score will hardly put you at ease, but it’s a standout in its genre and one of the few to actually look deeper than surface thrills. There is a moment when Ferrara frames a conversation between Thana and a bitter salesman, oblivious to the pistol in her coat pocket, identically to the iconic scene of the two lovers on the bench in front of the Queensboro Bridge in Woody Allen’s Manhattan - a slap to the face of blinkered sentimentality. 

Woody Allen dreams of New York. Ferrara lives there. 

Did you know? Zoe Lund's character, Thana, is derived from Thanatos, the Greek God of death. The name also served as inspiration for Marvel's Thanos.

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