In recent years there has been a surge of renewed
appreciation for the rape-revenge film and, surprisingly, most of these
champions have been women. The genre was validated to some extent (albeit at
arm's length) by Carol Clover's seminal 1992 book Men, Women and Chainsaws, and again in 2000 with Jacinda Read's The New Avengers: Feminism, Femininity and
the Rape-Revenge Cycle. But in 2011 the genre's structure, trends and motifs
met their most serious and thorough appraisal in the form of Alexandra
Heller-Nicholas' book The Rape Revenge
Film: A Critical Study. Gracing the cover of that book is Thana, the mute
protagonist-avenger at the center of Abel Ferrara's essential (perhaps the most essential) rape-revenge film, Ms. 45.
Declaring Ms. 45 as the most integral film of this oft-maligned subgenre is not just a juicy soundbite, nor is it the result of a limited familiarity with what the genre has to offer. I've watched a lot of women get raped on film. And thankfully, I've watched a lot of them get revenge! From the backwoods of I Spit on Your Grave and I'll Never Die Alone to the alleyways of Savage Streets and Vice Squad to the courtrooms of Lipstick and The Accused, from the vigilante girl gangs of The Geography of Fear, A Gun for Jennifer and Rape Squad to the upside-down and backwards mindfuck of Irreversible, most of the genre's offerings have their merits. There are very few that I would consider empty exercises in sadism. Unquestionably, I'm a fan of the genre. But there are reasons why Ms. 45 stands head and shoulders above the rest.
Ms. 45 came at a key point in the development rape-revenge genre. Poised in that enviable liminal space between 42nd street and the polished, somewhat sanitized drama of its late 80s counterparts, the film's combination of sound, setting and setpieces made it one of the first rape-revenge films to be appreciated on its own terms. From Joe Delia's unforgettable score -- a harsh, punctuating, repetitive sonic stab that lets us into Thana's whirring, panicked headspace -- to the fashion-district backrooms of late 70s Manhattan, the film is alive with the culture clash that epitomized (and revolutionized) the arts scene of its time. And at its center is a young woman who gets catastrophically lost in her long-awaited agency.
That woman is Thana, a mute, somewhat naive junior seamstress at a New York fashion warehouse. Unaware of her otherworldy beauty, she sports a classic 40s bereted bob, with dark eyes so big they're like all-absorbing black holes. The film's opening walk home -- during daylight on a busy street -- not only sees her get dragged into an alleyway and raped by a masked assailant (played by Ferrara himself), but when she picks herself up and stumbles back to her apartment, a second assailant is waiting for her and the ordeal begins again.
This double sucker-punch trumps the established rape-revenge trajectory right out of the gate. It is such an unexpected and grim succession of events that it causes the audience to immediately accept Thana's subsequent mental deterioration. It invites us to share in her paranoia about what lurks around every corner, to question what desires lie hidden beneath the stares of onlookers, and to suspect the motives of those she considered her allies. And while our sympathy for Thana is challenged as her program of revenge accelerates, we still understand her need to lash out, to hurt. As I mention in my book, the more horrific the crime, the more outlandish the revenge is allowed to be. The audience will buy into any decision Thana makes because culturally, rape is worse than death.
Another reason Ms. 45 remains a singular classic of the genre is in its tragic depiction of self-sabotage. It's no accident that many rape-revenge films end immediately after the film's primary "revenge" is carried out on either the single attacker (Handgun) or band of attackers (They Call Her One Eye, Sudden Impact) who are pursued throughout the film. When they meet their end, the film follows suit, rarely allowing for a coda that will expose the avenging protagonist to the realities of how the law deals with vigilante justice, or how witnesses or friends and family may treat the necessarily "transformed" character. Ms. 45 bravely dares to accuse its wayward protagonist of being complicit in her own misfortune.
The film's lingering impact owes a great deal to the alternately frantic and calculating performance of Zoe Lund as Thana. Lund was a stunner who didn't need to say a word to captivate audiences; the image of Thana in a Halloween nun's habit, acting out a silent, almost autistic rendition of DeNiro's Taxi Driver soliloquy before kissing each bullet she puts in the magazine of her .45-caliber pistol became a central image of the genre. Her mysterious post-Ms.45 life and credits -- she wrote Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant, one of the most notoriously misanthropic skin-creepers to emerge from the 90s indie heyday -- and her premature death at age 37 from drug-related heart failure, only bolstered the mythology that continues to surround her.
This re-release of Ms. 45 comes at a pivotal time -- as Heller-Nicholas' book shows, there are a remarkable number of contemporary rape-revenge films, belying the notion that rape-revenge is predominantly a 70s obsession. The "woman's revenge picture" is alive and well -- but Ms. 45's Thana remains the pioneering stepsister to this new crop of avenging angels.
The film is being released this Friday in NY and Austin and next week in LA. Details here.
Kier-La Janisse is a film programmer for Fantastic Fest and SF Indie, the founder of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies and Owner/Editor-in-Chief of Spectacular Optical Publications. She has been a programmer for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, Texas, co-founded Montreal microcinema Blue Sunshine, founded the CineMuerte Horror Film Festival in Vancouver (1999-2005) and was the subject of the documentary Celluloid Horror (2005). She has written for Filmmaker, Rue Morgue and Fangoria magazines, has contributed to The Scarecrow Movie Guide (Sasquatch Books, 2004) and Destroy All Movies!! A Complete Guide to Punk on Film (Fantagraphics, 2011), and is the author of A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi (FAB Press, 2007) and House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012). She is currently working on the book A Song From the Heart Beats the Devil Every Time, about children's programming in the counterculture era.