In the seventies and early eighties, a sub-genre of the action exploitation market was the revenge thriller. In mainstream movies, the Death Wish franchise which kicked off so strongly in 1974 kept Charles Bronson seeking vigilante style justice for almost two decades (with less and less payoff for its audience). And underground filmmakers also found a natural niche in these violent endeavors. One of the most notorious pictures of the era was 1978's "I Spit on Your Grave," where a woman strikes back against those who have violated her. These are but a few of the many highlights of the genre, and both were significant precursors and influences for director Abel Ferrara's similarly themed "Ms. 45." From 1981, this movie may be less well known than some of the bigger titles, but it still stands as an interesting example of vigilante excess. A new DVD/Blu-ray label, Drafthouse Films, is giving us a second look at this somewhat forgotten film and offers us quite a few extras including interviews and featurettes.
The heroine of "Ms. 45" is a mute young woman working in New York's fashion district. So unprepossessing and retiring, she barely makes an impact at all as the movie begins. Of course, the screenplay makes the streets of New York very mean indeed with over-the-top scenarios that have virtually every woman mauled any time she steps out into public. Trust me, there's nothing subtle here. Early on, the young seamstress named Thana (well played by ZoŽ Lund) is brutally attacked not just once, but twice in about fifteen minutes. I told you these were mean streets! As she lashes out in self-defense, it will forever change the course of her life. She finds a new sense of purpose and female empowerment as she takes back the night from the criminal element using a trusty 45 caliber gun. But as Thana enjoys a newfound confidence, it also comes at a cost. Will her lust for blood against the men who have wronged women everywhere push her over the edge? As Thana is mute, we see the subtle (and some more obvious) shifts in her demeanor and this character evolution is what makes "Ms. 45" stand out. Is Thana growing stronger or simply slipping into insanity? It's a fine line and an interesting point to pursue.
I won't reveal any more about "Ms. 45," but the movie is also assisted by Ferrara's unique visual flourish, a propulsive soundtrack, and Lund's adept performance. This was an early effort for Ferrara's who went on to do some great movies (Bad Lieutenant) as well as some painfully obtuse ones (4:44 Last Day on Earth). Here, he takes advantage of the expectations within the low budget exploitation genre and tweaks them with subversive glee. "Ms. 45," though, is certainly a product of its time. It is both garish and over-the-top, but it does work with its modest goals. As Lund transforms, the movie (though not perfect or polished) is hard to look away from and, in my estimation, that is what makes it worth a viewing for those with an interest in this type of filmmaking. KGHarris, 3/14.