Ms. .45

United States. Directed by Abel Ferrara, 1981. Starring Zoë Tamerlis, Editta Sherman, Albert Sinkys. 80 minutes.

Director Meir Zarchi has two movies to his credit, but people only care about the first one. He released this film–a revenge thriller about a young woman who methodically murders the four men who raped her–in 1978, under the title Day of the Woman. Nobody much cared.

In 1981, its distributors released it under a new title: I Spit on Your Grave. This time people paid attention and the film generated no small amount of controversy. Zarchi is said to have claimed that he meant the film to serve as a statement of feminine empowerment. Others see it as a piece of exploitative garbage. The battle may no longer rage, not exactly, but it still has a polarizing effect on viewers, and horror fandom doesn’t seem to have come to a consensus as to whether it’s any good or not.

Ms. .45 was released in the same year that Day of the Woman became I Spit on Your Grave. I don’t know if Zarchi’s film influenced director Abel Ferrara and screenwriter Nicholas St. John. But on the surface, they might seem to be similar movies. As titles, Day of the Woman and Ms. .45 carry feminist connotations. And comparing Ms. .45’s poster to I Spit on Your Grave’s reveals a few similarities. Both attempt to transform something that isn’t sexy (violence against women) into something that is (by prominently trading on traditional pop-cultural symbols of female sexuality).

The point of me saying all this is that, judging from my personal experience, a lot of people who know about Ms. .45 but haven’t seen it seem to think it’s a typical rape-revenge exploitation cheapie. And it isn’t. It’s a lot more interesting than that.

Zoë Tamerlis (better known as Zoë Lund, but I always think of her by her maiden name) plays the titular character, a mute Manhattan Garment District seamstress named Thana (such a name should set off your mental Symbolism Detector), who is attacked and raped while walking home from work one afternoon. She collects her wits and continues to her apartment, only to find it in the process of being burglar–and then the burglar overpowers and violates her. This guy doesn’t get away with it, as Thana is eventually able to brain him with a heavy object and kill him.

Sources can’t agree on where things go from here. IMDB’s synopsis says Thana “goes insane” as a result of her attacks and “takes to the streets of New York after dark and randomly kills men with a .45 caliber gun.” Amazon claims she “ignites a one-woman homicidal rampage against New York City’s entire male population.” Wikipedia describes her as a “misandristic spree killer (not strictly a vigilante).” None of these are strictly true, although, to be fair, they’re not all that inaccurate by 1981’s standards.

What actually happens is this: Thana keeps the dead rapist’s gun, carries it with her, and accidentally shoots and kills a cat-caller who probably thinks he’s being a bit of a white knight. After that, she becomes a bit more pro-active, dressing more provocatively and luring potential rapists and misogynists into situations where she can kill them. Eventually, yes, she does snap entirely. But that’s the climax of the film; it’s not what the film is actually about.

I want to go back to the masher, though. I probably saw Ms. .45 for the first time in 1995, but maybe it was ’94 or ’96. That guy didn’t seem like much of a threat back then–I understood why Thana killed him, she was still very freaked out and I couldn’t blame her, but I saw him essentially as an innocent.

I didn’t see the character in quite the same way when I re-watched the movie last week (the first time I’d seen it in around twenty years). The discussions that opened up as a result of the Isla Vista killings back in late May of this year have made a lot of men more aware of the smaller, less obvious acts of misogyny women are subjected to every day. The cat-caller seems more sinister, less harmless, while it’s clear that Thana suffers from PTSD and hasn’t actually “gone insane.”

Was this deliberate on the parts of Ferrara, St. John and Tamerlis? I’ll probably never know for sure, but I’d like to think so. The conversation Thana has with her boss, where he comes right out and tells her she has to “work harder” to overcome her infirmity, definitely indicates that people were putting more thought into the themes of the film than they might be given credit for.

In terms of style, Ms. .45 is very unusual: it’s an exploitation movie that doesn’t feel particularly exploitative. The rape scenes are short, sharp and to the point, with almost no nudity, and despite all the gunfire, the film isn’t as bloody as many of its contemporaries. It’s more nuanced than the two films most cited as its spiritual godparents: Death Wish and Bo Arne Vibenius‘s rape-revenge/martial arts/hardcore pornography epic Thriller: A Cruel Picture. It’s an intense psychological thriller, and a suspenseful crime drama, and a black comedy (the latter particularly clear in the subplots involving Thana’s neighbor and annoying dog, and her attempts to dispose of her attacker’s remains).

Ferrara’s direction helps tie things together, and Ms. .45 is a vast improvement over his previous film, The Driller Killer. But the true unifying force is Tamerlis, a 19-year-old musician at the time of this, her first acting gig. She cuts a compelling figure throughout the film, easily coaxing the audience onto her side for her journey, and covering a wide range of emotion that many other comparable performers couldn’t even attempt to come close to. (You’re free to speculate about whether her lack of dialogue–she makes two sounds over the course of eighty minutes–makes her job easier or harder.) It’s not a performance you’ll readily forget. The word I’m looking for is iconic.

Ms. .45 isn’t perfect, of course–nothing of its kind ever truly is. But it’s deeper and more thoughtful than your average revenge, or rape-revenge thriller. Despite being firmly rooted in its time, it manages to be better and more relevant than it was when it was made–no cheap feat, that.

R.I.P. Zoë Tamerlis Lund 1962-1999

Ms. .45 poster

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