*CONTENT WARNING: RAPE*
Revenge is not solely one of the oldest story-telling themes, but also one of the most frequently used throughout film history. Rape-revenge films, an infamous type of exploitation film that was particularly popular in the 1970s, is equally hated and loved. It can be considered trash and it can be considered brutally realistic or even empowering. It all comes down to the viewer and the director’s portrayal. Rape-revenge films are often characterised by a three-stage pattern consisting of the following: a) the victim endures a rape carried out by either one or several men, while often being tortured and left for dead; b) the victim survives and rehabilitates herself; c) the victim carries out her (often bloody) revenge on the rapists. There are examples of films not following this pattern where, for instance, the victim/victims dies and someone else carries out the revenge. The majority of rape-revenge films are about male rapists and female victims, but of course there are exceptions.
Abel Ferrara, known for the provocative content in his films and use of gritty urban settings, first drew a cult audience with The Driller Killer. A couple of years later Ms .45 was released, another film that would soon become a cult film and fan favourite. The film stars Zoë Tamerlis Lund as Thana, a mute New York City seamstress. One day, on her way home from work, she is raped not once, but twice. Both male perpetrators are unknown to Thana; one of them pushes her into an alleyway to commit the crime and the following one happens in her home, a place she should feel safe in, by a burglar.
While the scenes involving rape in the infamous I Spit on Your Grave (1978) are almost excruciatingly long and graphic, the scenes involving the sexual assault of Thana is the opposite. The scenes are short and Thana’s body is never shown naked to anyone’s pleasure – neither that of the people inside the cinematic world or to the viewers to titillate them. Because she is mute, we as viewers rely heavily on her facial expressions and body language to get an insight on what she’s feeling. During the first rape, Thana is obviously shocked but during the second one something changes. Suddenly she finds the strength to fight back. Thana manages to grab a paperweight and hits her second rapist repeatedly with it. While he is hurting, she gets up and uses an iron as her final weapon. The next day she decides to dismember her killed rapist in her tub while keeping his .45 calibre handgun. She, then, carefully wraps each piece of his butchered body in black plastic – an act that’s very reminiscent of the way a butcher would do with his meat. Her second rapist went from a metaphorical pig to a literal one. He’s now nothing more than solely meat in need of disposal after a justified killing. This might be even more obvious in one scene where Thana puts some of the body parts through a meat grinder and lets her landlord’s curious dog eat it like it was any other meat.
The next day, when Thana is out distributing one of the bagged body parts, a young man sees her, which frightens Thana. The man thinks she accidentally dropped the bag; he retrieves it and runs after her. He chases her, and Thana (fearing another sexual assault) ends up shooting him when he eventually corners her. This is a turning point in the film, suddenly we as viewers aren’t as on-board with Thana’s behaviour and we are conflicted. From here on, Thana gets deeply focused on her vengeance while spiralling deeper and deeper down a destructive dark hole. It doesn’t take long until Thana’s victims start collecting, one after another. One of them is a pushy fashion photographer; another one is a pimp who assaults a prostitute; if you’re a man, you’re not safe anymore.
Often the attacked women in rape-revenge films are left bleeding and hopefully – if you ask the perpetrators – dying. But in Ms .45 Thana isn’t left for dead, there isn’t someone trying to silence her – the rapists just took what they wanted and then left her like she was nothing and no one. In many rape-revenge films there’s a big focus on the cat-and-mouse game between the attacked and the attacker(s). Thana’s first rapist is out there somewhere in the world free of punishment, while her second rapist can be found all over New York City. However, Thana isn’t too bothered about chasing her first rapist since bad men are everywhere around her. Thana and the women around her are surrounded by leering taunting men on a daily basis, which we see many examples of throughout the film. To these men, they are simply meat. Women are a pleasure to be consumed, nothing more. Women are nothing worth having, nothing to be scared for. Or, at least, so they mistakenly thought.
Ferrara almost structures Thana’s muteness as two separate parts in the film. The first version of Thana is the oppressed, scared victim whose silence represents her literal inability to speak for herself. The second version, more of a femme fatale kind of character, sees Thana in control and her silence is a weapon and not a weakness. Along with this, Thana begins to experiment more and more with clothes and make-up. After her attacks (which is evidence that you can be raped regardless of how much or little space you take up in society) she decides to not be in hiding anymore because what’s the point? She is now well aware of the stereotypical fact that women don’t need to dress revealing to be attacked by men since all they care about is control and a desire for power. Her clothes and make-up is empowering to her. She dresses mainly in black and uses exclusively red lipstick, two colours associated with power. Before the attacks she was relatively plain looking, but after the attacks, or specifically after her third murder, she is often seen wearing bright red lipstick and more prominent makeup that enhance her eyes, eyebrows and cheeks. Additionally, there’s a specific and almost hypnotising way Thana is seen applying her lipstick on, it’s almost like a ritual when she puts layer on top of layer while staring into the mirror at herself. It’s her own version of war paint, something she applies before going out to her version of a war. However, it’s a war she’s ultimately going to lose.
Rape-revenge films usually have a happy ending with our female revenger being the last one standing with a new mind-set of never letting a man hurt her again. However, Ms .45 is different. It’s much less just another rape-revenge fantasy, and more like a realistic exploration of the trauma, rage and fear women experience in a sexist society. Ms .45 isn’t very graphic in either the sexual violence or the violent revenge, there’s more focus on her psychological struggles. She’s our troubled vigilante. Over and over again she learns that men can’t be trusted, and can we blame her? The men we meet throughout the film aren’t especially good characters. Over and over again, men around her harass, abuse, lie and manipulate women for their own personal gain. For instance, the photographer she meets in a restaurant is seen engaged in an intimate relationship with a woman just seconds before he attempts to crawl his way into Thana and her group of female colleagues. Afterwards, when Thana is alone, he continues to do so while taking her silence as female attentiveness and an encouragement to proceed with his actions. However, even though Thana’s initial actions was justified and her underlying intentions of protecting women was good, more violence isn’t the solution in Ms .45.
I think people in general are quick to judge this type of film from the simplistic violent premise and the head-on umbrella term for the films. Just because it’s a rape-revenge film doesn’t mean it’s automatically a misogynistic exploitative film that’s degrading to women. Rape-revenge films have often been criticised for their “empty” and superficial content without substance. However, because of how exploitation films are right from the start regarded as trash, they’ve the chance to disrupt the conventional norms that exists. If the director realises the film’s potential, these films can portray a story other films either aren’t interested in or doesn’t dare to do. I think it all comes down to how the director chooses to portray the woman and, more importantly, how the director chooses to portray the attack.
The misogynistic behaviours portrayed in Ms .45 – everything from catcalling to sexual violence – are still very much present today. I think many women can resonate with the paranoid feeling of being followed and being humiliated daily like the female characters in Ms .45 are. The topics Ms .45 discusses and the questions it raises are terrifying but in a more realistic way compared to other films following the rape-revenge structure. If you’re raped in real life, it’s more likely that you’ll be affected by it mentally than that you’ll go on an emotionless ruthless rampage killing your rapist(s) in the most imaginative bloody fashion. Even if you’re angry and wish your perpetrators pain, you’re probably more likely to be condemned for your act than they are for their sexual assault.
Also known as Angel of Vengeance, Ms .45 is filled with symbolism, some more hidden than others. The first rapist, for instance, wears a mask that can be representative of masculinity as an act, a form of masquerade. In addition can the film’s Halloween party be described as an exploration of gender being a masquerade since women, with the help of traditionally masculine clothes, are seen pretending to be men and vice versa. Furthermore, Thana’s first choice of weapon is a paperweight in the shape of an apple, which could resemble the apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The apple was the source of knowledge, but also a symbol for temptation and human’s disobedience. To fully kill the man, Thana uses an iron that can be seen as a symbol for both her feminine profession as a seamstress but also a symbol for something that’s traditionally associated with women and the household. Then she advances to a handgun, something more traditionally masculine.
Ms .45 is one of the bravest films I’ve ever seen in terms of showing the consequences of trauma and revenge. It dares to de-glamorise its female revenger and her agenda. In Thana’s search for redemption while trying to save women, she sabotages herself. Therefore, there’s a huge sense of sadness about how the film develops that’s not encountered in the majority of rape-revenge films. In the beginning Thana is triumphant and empowering, but it’s obvious that it’s not going to last. Furthermore, Ferrara makes a real effort trying to convey and portray Thana’s PTSD, showcasing that she’s more affected by these actions than the majority of other female revengers we’ve previously seen. Thana is desperately trying to live a normal life again, but it’s hard and her distorted mind takes over. She’s hallucinating, has acute stress reactions and vomits on several occasions and she’s obviously affected by what happened to her. Sometimes we get so caught up in the revenge-part of rape-revenge that the trauma part is often never shown at all. Furthermore, in rape-revenge we rarely ever get to see our heroine turning into something much less heroic. At first Thana had control, but the more she continued to act immoral, the less control she gained which eventually lead to her death. With each deadly interaction, Thana descends deeper and deeper into a protectionist rage thinking she’ll be able to protect every woman from every man. Her trauma results in a morally ambiguous view where she likens all men with her male rapists.
Not only is Ms .45 different from the majority of rape-revenge films when it comes to its portrayal of non-sexualising rape and its portrayal of realistic trauma and mental distress, but in the final act of the film, Ferrara definitely leaves the mark of a different rape-revenge story. We see Thana sitting in front of her mirror getting ready for a Halloween party she isn’t even keen on attending. She’s dressed in a costume depicting a nun’s clothes, occupied with loading her handgun while leaving an imprint on each bullet with a kiss from her nowadays trademark red lips. Then, in a sequence reminiscent of the iconic scene with Robert De Niro as Travis in Taxi Driver, we see Thana preparing for what’s to come. She silently moves her mouth, as if she’s saying something, while we hear imaginary gunshots as she’s aiming with her handgun at imaginary targets around her room. Later, when she arrives at the party, her boss quickly tries to seduce her. Thana, not at all interested, shoots him, which causes an end to the festivities. Afterwards, Thana reveals herself to the clueless crowd and starts shooting every man in her sight. However, things don’t go exactly according to Thana’s plan. Without Thana noticing it, her female friend and colleague appears behind her with a knife. Thana accidentally walks backwards into it, lets out a scream, turns around, sees her friend and then lifelessly drops down to the floor.
However, there’s much more to this final moment with Thana then the surface might initially lead on. Thana’s friend and colleague is holding the knife with both hands placed in front of her own genitals reminiscent of a penis and this positioning isn’t accidental or hidden. When Thana lets out a scream after being penetrated by the knife and turns around to see her final attacker, she lowers her handgun. She thought, from her experience, that her attacker was going to be a man. Thana responds with quietly saying ”Sister”, which can resemble both the sisterhood between the two women and her disguise as a nun. The fact that Thana is stabbed by a knife that’s placed and held like a penis just reflects the penetrating penis that started Thana’s violent journey. The circle is now closed. The facial expression of Thana when she turns around is almost heartbreaking; it’s the shock of betrayal from not solely a friend but by her own gender. The very thing she was trying so hard and hoping to protect ultimately destroys our vigilante. However, Thana quite frankly destroys herself in the end and Ms .45 dares to accuse its protagonist for being complicit in her own eventual destruction.
The ending of Ms .45 is far from what we’re used to see in rape-revenge, there are no feelings of justice, but rather an overwhelming feeling of emptiness. In the end viewers aren’t cheering on Thana anymore and when she dies, it’s just a very tragic ending to a life that was filled with tragic moments. Violence begets violence, and violence brings consequences. Thana’s ending isn’t triumphant or without consequences, which makes it more realistic and reflective of our society. It’s simply tragic and sad. In all honesty, Thana thought she was doing good work and in a society that repeatedly pushes victims of sexual assault to the side, maybe this was the only way available for her to go. After Thana’s death, to refer back to symbolism, we witness her landlord’s dog returning – a dog we thought Thana had earlier killed. The returning of the dog, with his very human male name Phil, could suggest that Thana’s fears that men will always come back if they are not stopped are valid. The dog returning marks Thana’s failure, but also motivates her constant fear. In a society where the civilised path to retaliation still fails, the personal avenger and vigilante appears yet again – because if not herself, then who?
by Rebecca Rosen
Rebecca Rosen has studied film for several years at university in Sweden where she currently resides. Besides film, she has also studied television and is currently deepening her knowledge of gender studies. When she isn’t writing or talking about all things film, she enjoys getting lost in foreign cities, playing video games and watching German football. Besides being a lover of Twin Peaks (both the band and TV series), she knows Wayne’s World 2 off by heart and will forever ugly cry to Call Me By Your Name. She’s still contemplating about the impossible question regarding what her favourite film is ever since a stranger asked her 10 years ago. She still hasn’t seen Titanic. Share you favourite films with her on her Twitter and Instagram.
Categories: Feminist Criticism