So the first film of An EyeLyd Halloween is a trip back to the 80’s. Ms. 45, Abel Ferrera. 1981
This film belongs to the exploitation genre, which was developed in the 60’s/70’s. A genre that pushed the boundaries of the MPAA system which restricted viewing of films through the age rating system. Exploitation cinema approaches typically taboo subjects and frames them in confronting scenarios. These films are usually regarded by critics as crude, in bad taste, poorly executed, and low brow nonsense.
Ms, 45 is set in New York, which is shot as an awful cesspool of lurking danger hiding in plain sights. It tells the story of a mute seamstress, Thana -played by Zoë Tamerlis Lund- who gets raped twice within the first ten minutes of the film and subsequently becomes a killer of lecherous men all over the city.
The thriller comes after a decade which produced many classic cult films belonging to the similar rape-revenge theme, such as Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, 1972 and Lady Snowblood, 1973 and I Spit on Your Grave, 1978.
The 80’s also provided the Jodie Foster revenge feature The Accused, 1988.
The genre is uncomfortable, to say the least, not the type to watch with your family, that’s for sure.
It’s an interesting genre for young filmmakers to explore as it allows for exploration of all the elements of mise-en-scene to be exploited themselves in the story-telling process.
I last watched this film in 2017 during a film theory course I took on Women on Film that had a very niche ‘rape-revenge’ module… for a whole semester. Watching it again now in 2020 is a different experience as I’m not just looking at the way women’s stories are told but also how minorities are portrayed in cinema. This scene depicted above is uncomfortable since all of the ‘catcallers’, bar one – are people of colour. So, this was the 1980’s, this was filmed in New York, I’m not saying it isn’t accurate. However, to make movies is an important and powerful tool which can imbed imagery in people’s minds. Is it ok to portray sexual predators as mostly people of colour?
It’s a good question and thoughtless tactic that film is by far not the worst culprit for, but it’s necessary to consider it’s responsibility in society.
What I do appreciate from this scene is that, aside from the negative racial profiling – the nature of catcalling itself is not exaggerated. Most women I know, myself included have experienced this exact situation, walking somewhere with leering eyes on you, muttering disturbing somethings to you as you pass. Unfortunately, most women have, before they are even women.
Ms. 45 uses clever, if not very genre-specific choppy editing and cinematography to showcase the themes. The camera angles interestingly captures the female experience of catcalling from a woman’s perspective.
The time frame in which Thana is raped by two different men doesn’t allow her to process anything that just happened to her. It’s beyond post traumatic.
She leaves work, approaches her apartment complex and is pulled into the alley nearby by a masked rapist, meanwhile the next attacker is breaking into her apartment, who she finds when she slowly makes her way into her home. The attacker asks her to give him her money, which she doesn’t have and cannot explain because she’s mute, he gets angry and rapes her. In his…climactic moment, he releases the gun he’s holding, Thana takes her moment to use a nearby paper weight to whack him over the head with, killing him. Hence, how she ends up with a 45 caliber pistol in the first place.
This is all in the first ten minutes folks, so if you’re looking for a light watch…
consider something else.
Oh who am I kidding, no-one will read this before watching the film – it’s riddled with spoilers and half-assed analysis.
Anyway, so Thana is introduced as the odd one out of her working pals. The literal mute one of the group, her mousy brown hair covers her shy eyes as she goes about her work wearing lifeless clothes, minding her own business. When this life-changing trauma sequence happens to her, she begins to establish ultra-feminine aesthetic with red lipstick, black/leather pants and high heels.
Lund’s performance is amazingly choreographed and her mannerisms are uniquely nuanced. It’s a unique plot to have the leading lady be mute. Lund powerfully uses eye movements and facially reacts to situations in a beautiful way.
There are two moments where I find myself memorized by Lund’s performance:
1) When Thana is preparing to go to the Halloween party, she kisses each bullet before prepping the 45 and rehearses her upcoming slaughter with imagined gunshots. She stares at herself in the mirror the same way a stranger might look through someone. She raises the corner of her mouth to form a slight grin or smirk. It’s eery.
2) When Thana turns to retaliate against the person who stabbed her, only to find her female colleague Laurie holding the knife. She is genuinely aghast at the person she sees before her.
Her eyes search for an explanation as her mute mouth finally speaks the word, ‘sister’ as her arm lowers the gun and her bodies falls to the ground.
What the director, Abel Ferrara does a great job of, is never allowing the film itself to hold a bias of justification for the crimes Thana commits. The character being mute already distances the viewer from really bonding with her. Of course, the viewer feels sympathy and rage at the disgusting crimes committed against her, but there is a point at which it is clear Thana has developed an unraveled sense of reality and begins seeking danger to senselessly kill..
The audience is therefore not strictly on the journey with her, we are not rooting for her to kill every man on the planet – but we can read her as a symbol of vengeance, the avenger of rape victims.
The missing presence of speech here I think really achieved the separation of connection between viewer, the omniscient aspect of the film itself and the character of Thana. The only glimpse we get of how she is feeling is after the inappropriate talk from her boss during which, he disgustingly breathes down her neck, slowly dragging his fingers over her flesh, she writes a note to her colleague.
‘I just wish they would leave me alone’.
This is the only real sense the view gets of how much Thana is misunderstood, underestimated and disrespected by almost everyone around her.
This includes her colleagues, boss, people on the street and even her neighbour/landlady.
Editta Sherman provides the interfering neighbour trope and, although she is an acclaimed photographer, philanthropist, muse to Andy Warhol – she was a heavily irritating presence in this film. I feel as though her character was not given much thought and something more interesting could have been done there.
The vaudeville performance felt incongruous from the substance of the film as well as contrasting too vividly from the quality of Lund’s performance, perhaps that was the point?
She reminds me of Joey’s casting agent; Estelle, played by June Gable in Friends – but far less entertaining.
Some of the exploitation cinematic tropes are plain irritating, but some can so bad that they’re great. There is a great shot of Thana shooting a man dressed as a bride. When he falls down due to the gunshot wound, the veil he wears gets caught in the slatted door behind him, resulting in the veil and wig to fall off – the film is showing it is self aware, but not bias. It is always ensuring the understanding, the justification of the kill. Although this man was dressing as a woman, he is a 100% male, and therefore a victim.
You could almost go so far as to say that Ferrara squeezed everything out of the mise-en-scene to the point where sound and colour are the storytellers. Thana hits the burgling rapist over the head with a red glass apple, she then adopts a heavily applied red lip for the next two thirds of the film. After Thana is stabbed, the screen cuts to a bunch of gaudy fake red and white flowers in the home of Mrs nosy-neighbor-Nasone weeping over her lost dog. The red not only symbolizes blood and death but also life and sexual awakening.
The original motion picture soundtrack was done by Joe Delia, a long time collaborator with director Abel Ferrara. The jarring saxophone provides the soundtrack to the Halloween party which made me uneasy from the start. It sounds like a trumpet imitating a saxophone and is the kind of sound you want to turn down immediately – that might just be me. It seems to be the soundtrack of exploitation cinema. But it does a good job of keeping the viewer on their toes throughout this party scene that really looks like a cocaine-fueled 80’s bash.
So as I said, I recently watched the film for the second time around. What got me thinking about it again was the hit Emmy award-winning HBO show Euphoria, 2019. The character Kat dresses as Thana from Ms. 45 for a Halloween party in the show. Her character is very complex and opens discussions about sexuality, confidence and experiences for generation Z, which refers to those born after 1996.
The character of Kat really explores the extent to which people live online. She experienced humiliation and bullying for her weight from peers and boys and turns to the internet where she becomes an erotic fan- fiction writer where she is very popular. She is then fetishized by some boys at school for being overweight and what stereotypes go with that in the bedroom. A video leaks of her online and she sees some boys are attracted to her. This results in Kat claiming her sexual freedom and identity online as a ‘cam girl’, receiving money for video meetings with paying men. She then has a disturbing experience with one of her paying watchers, which causes her to re-evaluate the position of men and they’re privilege – hence dressing as Thana.
The Ms 45 star seeks retribution for other women, not just herself – what a babe?!
She kills a pimp whilst he was harassing a prostitute.
Costume design is so important in Ms. 45 as it helps show the transformation of Thana’s mental journey, this aspect is also used heavily in Euphoria for all of the characters, especially Kat. Black, leather and latex are all markers of the depths of these characters mind state. At some point, Thana in Ms. 45 begins wearing leather pants to work. Later in the film, she dons a stylish black poncho that can be symbolized as a cape. She is god damn superhero for the violated and oppressed.
In Euphoria, Kat introduces dominatrix and punk aesthetics into her school looks. It’s a way to explore the power in sexuality and an understanding privilege and strength.
Ms.45 can be appreciated for the time in which is was made and likewise for Euphoria. The HBO show was offered a very visible, mainstream platform on which to explore the realities of youth today, whereas in previous decades, topics of sexual, consensual, gender identification were thrown together in the exploitation box, filed at the back of the room as unimportant B-Movies.
Now, young directors are given the opportunities to collaborate with huge teams to bring these projects to life in the correct way to tell a more realistic version of the reality of the youth today.
I think it could be worthwhile to entertain the idea that Euphoria creator Sam Levinson was a student of Exploitation cinema and possibly a fan. Euphoria tackled a multitude of mental/ethical/physical issues and this by definition falls into the category of exploitation.
As it turns out, Ms. 45 closes with Phil the dog returning to his irksome owner – a metaphor perhaps? for rape being an on-going issue. What is it they say?… ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. But we can track trends in cinema and how it approaches the topic and issues surrounding it.
Check back on Tuesday 13th October for Week 2 of An EyeLyd Halloween!
Thanks for reading and hey….if anything – you’ve got a cool Halloween costume idea for all of those quarantine parties you’ll be attending online 😉
How to watch the Ms. 45:
To watch Euphoria:
Amazon Prime: https://www.amazon.com/Euphoria-Season-1/dp/B07NWL1J6Y
OR an HBO subscription 😉
Abel Ferrara is a director who comes from the grindhouse, underground and independent filmmaking background with films like, Driller Killer, 1979 and Bad Lieutenant, 1992.
I’m better off directing you to his Wikipedia page to get a real sense of the guy, but let’s just say his early career sets the tone for the genre he is so synonymous with today, regarding themes of a sexual nature.
Born into an Italian family, Ferrara had Catholic imagery engrained in his childhood – he speaks very openly about his explorative religious reflections.