Abel Ferrara’s 1981 film, Ms. 45, takes some time to appreciate, as most Ferrara films do in my experience. After all, the film’s protagonist is raped twice in the first eleven or so minutes, and one of those instances occurs before we even learn definitively that she’s mute. After killing her second attacker, Thana goes on a rampage, taking to the streets with a .45 pistol in hand. And her target is the entire male population of New York City. This makes for a film that is, superficially at least, hard to like. But viewers who look beyond its occasionally off-putting exterior and give the piece the thought it deserves will find Ms. 45 to be an empowering and socially responsible answer to more exploitative rape/revenge films—a feminist Taxi Driver, if you will.
The problem for viewers comes in initially determining whether the film is truly concerned with promoting socially responsible behavior, or if it’s merely exploitative in the way that, say, an I Spit on your Grave is. Thana’s muteness complicates this determination, for it indeed seems at first that her inability to speak is functioning as an extreme form of objectification. It does for the men in the film, at least. But really that’s the key: her muteness makes the men in the film feel superior to her, vindicating their objectification, not the viewer’s. It turns out, of course, that Thana, traumatized by the attacks of the opening, is no mere object, but instead a vicious, feminist threat to the patriarchal order that would position her as victim in the first place.
The film thus serves as a parable for the way the victimized in a society can raise up against their oppressors when pushed too far, when backed into a corner. And in this, at its most basic level, the film promotes altruism because frankly you never know who you’re messing with, if messing with people is indeed your inclination. A passing bit of rudeness or even a stray bit of catcalling directed at the wrong passerby may find you shot dead on the street. This isn’t hyperbole! These things happen, and they can happen to anybody. People have been killed for far less than some of the men Thana murders in the film are. People have been shot with crossbows on the freeway for flipping off the wrong person. You simply never know who may be an errant middle finger away from murdering someone, and Ms. 45 is a graphic reminder of just that. So I guess what Abel Ferrara and I are saying here is: be good to each other, folks… or else!
Sure, as a text unto itself, Ms. 45 is intriguing enough with its violent approach to messages of social responsibility and female empowerment. But when you dive beneath the surface, you’ll likely find the behind-the-scenes story of those involved to be just as fascinating. The film in fact debuts on Blu-ray from Drafthouse Films on March 25, 2014, and it comes packaged with a wealth of special features that provide just such a look at the film’s production history. Namely, these features reveal a lot about the tragic yet mesmerizing life and career of Ms. 45 star, Zoë Lund, who arrived on the set of Ferrara’s picture a clean and bright-eyed 17-year-old star but quickly spiraled out of control in her dealing and abuse of drugs. This is not to say that she disappeared from the industry entirely after her role in Ms. 45, however. In fact, Lund would go on to star in Larry Cohen’s Special Effects (1984) and even write Ferrara’s seminal Bad Lieutenant (1992) before her death at the age of 37.
What’s more, the Blu-ray release of Ms. 45 features a stunningly clean and vibrant restored HD transfer of the picture—easily among the very best transfers found on the home video releases of Drafthouse’s rediscovered cult films. Special features include interviews with Ferrara, Composer Joe Delia, and creative consultant Jack McIntyre; two short films about Zoë Lund by Paul Rachman; and the theatrical trailer. The release also includes a 32-page booklet featuring essays by Lund herself, Ferrara biographer Brad Stevens, and House of Psychotic Women author, Kier-La Janisse, and also boasts reversible cover art with the original promo art on the reverse side.