The two most frequently-cited entries in the rape-revenge canon of the grindhouse era are undoubtedly "The Last House on the Left," a Looney Tunes reimagining of "The Virgin Spring," and "I Spit On Your Grave," a work of pornographic excess cynically (not to mention thinly) masquerading as a dark fairy tale of feminist empowerment. It takes some pretty serious intellectual gymnastics to justify the merits of either film past their significant shock value. They're ultra-violent versions of those Lifetime "Dangers Of Being a Woman" Movies: cautionary tales about the inherent rapeyness of the lower class and the inescapable vulnerability that comes with having a vagina. Past some graphic content enacted with undeniable ferocity by the cast and unflinchingly committed to film, there's not a lot going on there, all arguments of verisimilitude and the cathartic power of female revenge aside. And that's fine--as a culture, it's time to banish the term "Guilty Pleasure" and own the fact that sometimes, we get a thrill out of watching grotesque things.
All that having been said, it's my opinion that the greatest of the American rape-revenge flicks is Abel Ferrara's 1981 film "Ms. 45." It's a film with a deceptively simple narrative that, through its details, opens itself up to a multitude of interpretations and manages to say some pretty disturbing things about the culture we live in.
Petite, doe-eyed Thana lives in Manhattan--PRE-Giuliani Manhattan; the one that inspired "The Warriors" and "Escape from New York," where you could rent an apartment as a single person making under a quarter of a million dollars a year. While walking home from her job as a seamstress in a mid-range fashion house, Thana is pulled into an alleyway and raped by a masked gunman (played with oily fervor by director Ferrara). Shaken and still in a state of disarray from her assault, she comes home only to find a burglar has broken into her apartment, and seizing the opportunity, he violates her for the second time that day. The burglar underestimates Thana's ability to defend herself, and after gaining the upper hand, she bludgeons him to death with a flat iron. Now--this is where the "Last House" and "Grave" narratives end: the heroine of the film has earned back her womanhood through an act of violence. "Ms. 45" is only minutes into its story.
Faced with the seriousness of her self-defense, Thana drags the rapist's body into her bathroom and dismembers it, storing the bags of his body parts in her refrigerator so she can dispose of them methodically in various blighted locations across the city. Her reaction to her extreme act of self-defense is not joy or catharsis, but rather a compounding of her terror--her first attacker is still on the loose, and she begins to see threats everywhere. She begins to carry the dead rapist's .45 caliber pistol in her purse. Having shown the gun in Act 1, the story doesn't wait until Act 2 to have it go off--Thana kills a man who chases her into an alleyway only minutes' worth of screen time after placing that gun into her bag.
Many critics talk about how "Ms. 45" is a story about a woman who "snaps" after having been raped twice. That's not entirely correct. Thana doesn't immediately snap and turn into the "Angel of Vengeance" of the film's alternate title directly after her rapes--rather, she is absolutely horrified by having acted out in a violent fashion. This film isn't nearly so tidy--the story deals with the aftermath of trauma and the ways in which ordinary people are pressed into extreme actions by the aggressiveness of urban life.
Rather than snapping, Thana is worn down by repeated assaults and terrifying events that ultimately lead to her desire to seize for herself some of the power that comes from violent acting-out. Upon realizing that she is now in possession of not only a means of ultimate self-defense, but of offense, Thana begins to target the city's misogynists in an after-dark shooting spree. The initially shy and reserved woman decks herself out in a series of eroticized outfits. Her victims slowly transform from men who have threatened Thana directly to men that Thana assumes are capable of abusing women. She's no longer engaging in self-defense, but in vigilanteism, and as the film reaches its climax--at a Halloween party that Thana attends, dressed as a nun--her acts threaten to fall into cold-blooded murder.
Now, this is all heavy stuff, and I can see why some readers would still wonder how "Ms. 45" is a vastly superior film than the aforementioned Big Two of American rape-revenge movies. Ferrara's story is not a bleak morality play like other films in the revenge subgenre--it's a blacker-than-black comedy. And we're not talking about the "zany sheriffs shoe-horned into an otherwise gritty story" flavor of black comedy. There's a turning point somewhere around the time of Thana's decision to dismember and dispose of her rapist's corpse that one realizes that there's a twisted sense of humor operating here. This is where we need to give some serious credit to actress Zoë Lund's portrayal of Thana--she takes the character from an introverted, girlish young woman to a cunning, half-smiling sexpot in an entirely dialogue-free performance. While her attackers have no characterization outside of their vile actions, the supporting characters in Thana's life are played for wry laughs, from the sleazy fashion designer who employs her to her eccentric, low-rent Norma Desmond landlady, Ms. Nasone. Several of Thana's victims are characterized for comedic effect as well. The would-be fashion photographer who follows her after engaging in some very public displays of sexuality with an anonymous woman is such a sleazebag stereotype that he's funny at the same time that he's coming across as threatening. Another smirk-worthy scene occurs when Thana encounters a jilted husband at a bar--I won't spoil this interaction other than to say that it's just so unexpected and uncomfortable, it's got to be experienced.
This is a very thoughtfully-lensed film. Cinematographer James Lemmo also worked with Ferrara on his cult classic "Driller Killer," and the streets of the city rarely looked more authentically threatening than they do in these films. There's a sense of grime and dread everywhere, from the leering men who line the sidewalks to the dirty windows of the apartments.
The scary thing about "Ms. 45" is how much its themes resonate with me, as someone who's lived her entire adult life in urban environments. It's all too easy to see life as a constant stream of tiny indignities that slowly scrape away one's ability to cope with adversity. There's something richly rewarding in seeing a person who would otherwise be powerless--both on account of her femaleness and her speechlessness--taking justice into her own hands. Thana is clearly a bit mad, but she's been shaped that way by her surroundings.
"Ms. 45" is a film that will undoubtedly have more impact on certain audiences than on others and may very well leave some cold entirely. Its uncomfortable narrative ties together elements from "Taxi Driver" and "I Spit on Your Grave," and adds a twisted sense of humor that would feel at home in a John Waters film. Simply put--I love this movie. It's suspenseful, filled with unexpected moments of shock and comedy, and has a kickass punk rock/new wave attitude that comes from a place of fierce creativity.