featuring Abel Ferrara as “First Rapist”
MS. 45 is a simple, palatable slice of early sleazy arty Abel Ferrara. Much like his previous film DRILLER KILLER it’s his New York art scene take on a genre movie, and a great time capsule of that world, but it’s a much more captivating story and – crucially – the people in it are far less obnoxious. Instead of playing the insufferable lead, Ferrara just plays an alley rapist in a Halloween mask at the beginning.
Yes, it’s a rape-revenge story like THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE, and also a vigilante movie like DEATH WISH. The rape scenes are as disturbing as any, but mercifully short compared to I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE or something. The vast majority of the slim 80-minute running time is given over to our 17-year-old protagonist Thana (Zoë Tamerlis, later known as Zoë Lund)’s urban murder spree. When she beats a rapist to death with an iron she could report it as a legitimate case of self defense, but she makes the less orthodox choice of hiding the body and using his gun for the .45 caliber execution of adult men who make moves on her, attempted gang rapists, pimps she sees beating prostitutes, etc. A fun new hobby for a young woman living on her own in the city.
There’s definitely a cathartic payback feel to it (the most passionate MS. 45 fans I know are women) but it’s as much a horror movie as anything else. A major subplot involves her chopping up the bodies to dispose of piece-by-piece in garbage cans and bus station lockers, or by cooking and feeding to the neighbor (played by photographer and Warhol muse Eddita Sherman)’s dog Phil.
Thana is the youngest of a crew of women working for a man designing and sewing boutique fashions. They seem to like her, but she’s always on the outside of their group because she’s mute. She knows how to handle herself, but she’s in this weird position of being a cool kid invited to the cool parties and it’s totally boring because she can’t talk to anybody. You can understand why she prefers her solitary activities that nobody else knows about.
Ferrara depicts the sidewalks as a gauntlet of catcalls. The women walk along and face after face flies at them making comments like animatronic ghouls popping out on a carnival ride. Her friend Laurie (Darlene Stuto) is good at flipping men off or telling them to “get bent,” but it’s harder when you literally don’t have a voice.
Thana’s second murder (Vincent Gruppi?) is an aggressively New York dude who spends his afternoons standing around trying to hit on whichever woman walks by and then angrily complaining about her turning him down. When he sees Thana and starts to follow her he witnesses her ditching a bag. He doesn’t understand that it was intentional, so he picks it up and runs after her – I’m guessing more as an excuse to talk to her than as a genuine act of good samaritanism – which doesn’t turn out well for him. Either from the trauma of being chased by a man in an alley again, or in desperation to cover her tracks, she shoots him in the head. And now she has a taste for blood.
That’s bad news for men in this world where every one of the fuckers is on the prowl 24-7. She can’t even let down her guard at work because her sleazy boss Albert (Albert Sinkys) is always calling her “honey,” putting his hands on her shoulders, pressuring her to go to his Halloween party, then to be his date at it.
“I just wish they would leave me alone” she writes in a note. But they won’t, and she starts to see the fun of putting on makeup (which makes her look older and more in control) and going out with the gun. This is, after all, the “inner city” we know from vigilante movies of the era and now from Trump speeches, where walking outside is like walking into a bear cage wearing a suit made out of raw salmon. She goes into Central Park and is instantly surrounded by a circle of up-to-no-goodniks, who she takes out like it’s the OK Corral. She literally gets about ten feet out of the park before a limo pulls up and a Sheik (Lawrence Zavaglia) tries to hire her as a prostitute. When it comes to finding deserving targets she’s hitting all the green lights.
The killing starts to become her passion, and she has a flair for the dramatic. She wears thick lipstick, high heeled boots, leather pants and gloves, sometimes a cloak like Red Riding Hood, but black. Quickly she’s wobbling on the line between “this is morally wrong but it’s entertaining” and “oh no she’s a total lunatic.” She sits with kind of a Denis Leary type guy at a bar (Eddie Eisele, MP DA LAST DON) who tells her the long story of his broken heart, and it’s unclear if he ever notices that she’s not talking at all. Nobody seems to care that communicating with her is a one way street. But you do feel sorry for this guy knowing what he’s in for because he just seems a little self-absorbed in his grief, but then all the sudden his story takes a dark turn that makes you realize oh shit, Ms. 45 has a good radar for finding these dudes. She’s like Spider-man or the Toxic Avenger.
But then there’s the part where she realizes that Phil (the dog) knows too much and needs to be taken out of the picture. And I’m positive that Phil never laid a finger on that girl. Not cool. When she shows up at the Halloween party in a nun’s habit we’ve gone from DEATH WISH to more of a CARRIE prom situation. As the revelers (dressed as Dracula, Raggedy Ann, Mr. Met, Squiggy, etc.) dance to an endless horn-centric live disco jam, we hear bits of conversations such as a guy raving about the economical pricing of virgin hookers in Puerto Rico, and see drunk Albert sticking his face all over her, so it’s a ticking time bomb. But when she goes off in this crowd, in front of her female friends, it’s like the spell is broken. They hear gunshots and their first instinct is to make sure she’s okay. Laurie watches in slow motion horror as her (literal or figurative?) little sister commits a massacre, friends piling against the wall, cowering, crying. A fucked up tragedy, even if those guys are slimeballs.
Anyway, to this day the annual Ms. 45 Pageant is one of America’s fondest traditions.