Ms. .45/Angel of Vengeance (1980) ***½
It seems to me that the rape revenge movie occupies a position in the wider world of American exploitation cinema broadly comparable to that of the cannibal movie on the Italian shock-schlock scene. Controversial enough in its “respectable” form (think Thelma and Louise or, arguably, The Accused), in its most extreme grindhouse iteration, it is a genre that can send even quite jaded and desensitized viewers scrambling for cover— how many other US movies can you think of that have provoked as venomous a backlash as I Spit on Your Grave? And yet in contrast to the cannibal movies (many of which really are as repugnant as their reputations would have it), the loathing elicited by most rape revenge flicks strikes me as being largely misplaced. Far from catering to sex fiends and would-be molesters, the typical rape revenge film seems calculated to make its primarily male audiences as uncomfortable as possible with their maleness per se. But due to the sheer unpleasantness of the subject matter— an unpleasantness which is absolutely vital if the films are going to do their job properly— many casual viewers cannot bring themselves to look closely enough to see what’s really going on. They see men watching movies that hinge on sexual violence directed against women, and simply assume that it’s all about closet sadists seeking vicarious kicks. So in order to expose that line of reasoning for the gross misconception that it is, let’s have a look now at Abel Ferrara’s Ms. .45/Angel of Vengeance, simultaneously one of the hardest-hitting of all the grindhouse rape revenge movies, and the one whose intentions are the most difficult to misinterpret.
Thana (Zoë Tamerlis) is a mute who works as a seamstress for a New York clothing designer named Albert (Albert Sinkys), and we meet her on what must surely be the single worst day of her life. Right about the time she gets off from a typically grueling shift at work, a burglar (Peter Yellen, who also had a bit part in Ferrara’s earlier The Driller Killer) breaks into her apartment through the kitchen window, and begins ransacking her place for anything portable and valuable. Meanwhile, Thana makes a stop at the grocery store, blissfully unaware of what’s going on at home, or that much worse than that is yet to come. Scant blocks from her building, she is seized by a man in a cheap plastic mask (director Ferrara in one of his customary cameos), who drags her into the nearest alley and rapes her at gunpoint. In a daze, she drags herself home, barely even noticing the disorder into which the burglar has plunged her apartment while she was out… until her eyes come to rest on the shoes. Standing in those shoes is the thief, who has just finished turning over the apartment, and having found nothing worth taking, he’s in an extremely bad mood. His mood doesn’t improve any, either, when he discovers that Thana has no money in her purse, and is incapable of telling him where on the premises he might find some, and in the end, the robber takes the one thing Thana has to give him— he too rapes her. This second rape doesn’t go as well for its perpetrator as the first one, however. Among the debris on the floor within easy arm’s reach of Thana is a heavy glass paperweight, which she grabs and then uses to bludgeon her assailant senseless. Then, before he has a chance to recover, she snatches up her iron from behind the couch, and smashes in the man’s skull.
Of course, now Thana has an entirely new problem. She’s just killed a man, and because of her handicap, she’s in no position to call 911 and explain the situation. Evidently figuring that playing by the rules will get her nothing but a fast trip to the nearest women’s penitentiary, Thana again takes matters into her own hands. She drags the dead rapist into her bathroom, and then saws his body into manageably-sized pieces with a serrated kitchen knife. The parts, wrapped neatly in plastic garbage bags, go into her refrigerator to keep them relatively fresh while they await individual disposal in the coming days. (The gradual emptying of the refrigerator makes for a unique yardstick by which to gauge the passage of time in the movie.) All in all, I’d say she seems to have herself pretty well in hand for someone who just got raped twice in one day.
That state of affairs doesn’t last long, however. The first sign that Thana’s hold on her mind is slipping comes with the marked drop-off in the quality of her output at work, which earns her a string of patronizing meetings with her smug, self-impressed asshole of a boss. Then she starts having hallucinations about the men who raped her, and gets to feeling so paranoid about everything in general that she begins carrying around in her purse the .45-caliber automatic pistol dropped by the burglar when she brained him with that paperweight. That last part is ultimately what leads Thana to reclaim control of her life in a manner far more assertive— most people would say sociopathic— than anything she would ever have contemplated before her double rape. Thana is about to start living up to her name.
The transformation occurs gradually, and to a great extent by a combination of accident and impulse. It all begins with some shit-for-brains (Vincent Gruppi) who thinks it’s a good idea to spend his days hanging out on a street corner, yelling moronic pickup lines at passing women. When this guy latches onto Thana and starts following her down the street on one of her body-disposal errands, he gets it into his head that the way to make an impression on her is to pick up the bag she just dropped in an alley, and return it to her. (It never occurs to him to have a look inside.) Thana panics when she sees a man running after her carrying a shopping bag that contains several pounds of chopped rapist, and as soon as he gets within about fifteen feet of her, she whips out the .45 and shoots him in the face. It’s a total heat-of-the-moment thing, but it’s the first step down a road leading to ever more premeditated and indeed programmatic murder. A day or so later, Thana is out at lunch with some of her friends from work, and the next booth over is occupied by a man (S. Edward Singer) so sleazy and boorish that he pushes the limits even by late-70’s standards. One of the other seamstresses fights him off with a display of New York rudeness that is truly awesome to behold, but that just isn’t an option for Thana once the shaggy-haired Guido shifts his attention to her. The smarmy creep follows her for block after block, prattling all the while about how he’s a photographer and a great appreciator of beauty, apparently so caught up in himself and his spiel that he simply does not notice the woman’s utter silence. Finally, he asks Thana if she would come back to his studio with him to take a few pictures. The deciding factor seems to be the offensively familiar manner in which he wraps his hand around hers as he makes this fateful suggestion; Thana follows him back to his place, alright, and then empties an entire clip into him from inside the elevator.
From here on, Thana becomes increasingly predatory, visibly reveling in her new role as the avenger not just of her own rape, but of all the wrongs suffered by women at the hands of men. She takes to walking the streets alone by night, dressed in the most provocative outfits she can devise, just waiting for some scumball to make his move. She shoots a pimp (Stanley Timms) whom she sees beating up one of his hookers. She kills Arab oil magnate Sheik Muhammad al-Faisal (Lawrence Zavaglia), who has the temerity to assume that he can openly buy her companionship for the night. She mows down an entire street gang who surround her in a park with violence on their minds. And eventually, she acquiesces to Albert’s desire to take her to the company Halloween party, which she attends with her trusty pistol tucked into the top of her right stocking…
The thing that makes Ms. .45, to my way of thinking, the purest of all the rape revenge movies is that there is simply no way for even the most willfully obtuse audience to misread it as a sexploitation piece. There is not a single second of nudity anywhere in the film— not even in the two rape scenes which largely define its bluntly traumatic first act. Nor is there any suggestion that Thana, or her rapists either, relate to the assaults as anything other than acts of power projection. Nothing in Thana’s behavior could remotely be construed as “asking for it,” nor does she give the faintest hint that she takes even the most infinitesimal bit of pleasure from the experience. Neither do the rapists themselves seem to take any specifically sexual pleasure from their acts; their stake in the attacks is to all appearances confined to an urge to hurt and dominate someone weaker than themselves. In short, in the face of this movie, none of the stock liberal or feminist explanations for what makes a man want to watch a rape revenge film hold any water at all. We can’t be leering because there’s nothing to leer at, and with the double rape itself dealt with and dismissed within the first four scenes, even the position that we’re in it for the anticipation of thrilling sexual violence is untenable.
What we get instead is in fact the precise opposite of a sexploitation movie, a film that depicts men in the harshest and most unforgiving light, presenting them as legitimately deserving a substantial proportion of Thana’s wrath. The approach to characterization in Ms. .45 is especially noteworthy in this respect. Simply put, Ms. .45 has no patience with mitigating circumstances. In this movie, people, both men and women, are defined entirely by what they do rather than by who they are. All we know about the rapists, the pimp, the sheik, the gangsters, the various and sundry sleazebags— and all we need to know about them, so far as the film is concerned— is that they harm women because they can. And all we really know about Thana in the end is that she harms back, both on her behalf and on that of all the other women she sees. It doesn’t matter, or so Ms. .45 contends, whether an exploiter had a rough childhood or a bad day at work or a steady stream of shitty luck with the girls he dated in his formative years. Violence buys violence, end of story.
The beauty of the film, if I may use the term in connection with something so determinedly ugly as Ms. .45, is that it forces the male spectator to play along with it, to agree with it, even if only for the span of time between one set of credits and the next. Part of the reason why is that it never resorts to fantasy or hysterical exaggeration in its portrayal of men behaving badly. This is not to say that the film doesn’t exaggerate to some degree, but every affront against women which Thana witnesses is something which practically any man will have seen in one form or another in the real world, often with his own eyes, and a few are things which the average male viewer is likely to have actually done or at least considered doing at some point in his life. As Carol Clover put it in Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Ms. .45 is “a virtual checklist of masculine privilege.” The uniform flatness of characterization, meanwhile, leaves the viewer no choice but to look squarely at the assorted offensive acts, with no comforting cushion of justification or excuse. But equally important to getting the men in the audience on Thana’s side is the fact that the movie (along with Thana herself) stops short of embracing the most extreme formulation of its overall stance. There are two key scenes here. In the first, Thana stalks a young man in Chinatown whose only apparent misdeed is making out with his girlfriend in public. His behavior is arguably crass, but there’s no indication that it comes as unwelcome to the one person whose opinion on the subject really matters. And significantly, this is the one man who escapes from Thana, slipping into his apartment building bare seconds before she is able to draw a bead on him. What’s more, the next time we see Thana in action, it’s clear that she’s given the matter some thought, and has concluded that it would have been going overboard to kill the Chinatown guy. For rather than the rapid recourse to her pistol that has been her modus operandi up to now, the next hunting scene shows Thana taking the time to listen to her prey’s side of the story. The man in question is obviously an asshole from the moment we lay eyes on him, and he is busily engaging in the tiresome behavior of telling a woman he just met (that is to say, Thana) an aggrieved sob-story about the collapse of his last marriage, but it isn’t until he gets to the part of the tale in which he strangles his wife’s cat in revenge for her infidelity that Thana reaches for her gun. And at that point, we in the audience have lost any sympathy we might have had for him, too. Taken together, these two incidents show that no matter how harsh Thana may be, she is neither unreflective nor unreasonable, and they preempt any inclination among the guys in the audience to dismiss her out of hand as nothing more than a psycho harpy— even though that would be an entirely fair description of her by virtually any moral or social standard. Rather, by the time she loads up her piece for her date the with boss (the only man whom she sets out to kill specifically), we’re actively rooting for her, in direct defiance of what might seem to be our natural emotional interest in the film. It’s as deft a display of audience manipulation as any I’ve seen, and its success shows conclusively that the relationship between an extreme exploitation movie and its fans can be much more complicated than meets the unpracticed eye.