Uncle AD's Cult Corner is another feature I'll be contributing to Film Faction from time to time where I write about some of my favorite cult classics. Defining the term "cult film" can be difficult. Technically any movie with a small but loyal following can be considered to have "cult" status. But for the sake of these articles, my focus will mainly be on genres that generally aren't considered respectable in the mainstream. Hong Kong kung fu flicks, spaghetti westerns and giallo movies from Italy, horror films from all around the globe, and exploitation cinema in all it's many forms. The kind of stuff the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences likes to pretend doesn't exist.
One of my favorite films in 2018 was "Revenge" Coralie Fargeat's debut feature. That film is considered part of a movement of boundary pushing genre films coming out of France called New French Extremity. But it's also part of a long (and not always very proud) tradition known as the rape-revenge movie. Films in this particular genre have been known to range from entertaining but morally queasy ("Death Wish") to just downright disgusting ("I Spit on Your Grave"). But the one that stands head and shoulders above the rest in the minds of most fans is probably Abel Ferrara's 1981 breakout "Ms .45".
A headlong plunge into the sleazy, garbage-littered streets of early-80's New York City. Today "Ms .45" functions as much as a time capsule of those pre-gentrification days when the city was synonymous with the word "danger". This is the New York of "Taxi Driver". Where punk rock was born. And Frank Miller was inspired to write "The Dark Knight Returns" (look at me making a comic book reference - don't get used to that, readers). It was also part of the last wave of true exploitation movies in this country. The home video market would soon put the grindhouse cinemas and drive-ins where these movies once thrived out of business. And films such as this would cease to exist and be replaced by cheapo direct-to-video productions.
This is the story of a mute young lady named Thana (Zoë Tamerlis, giving a commanding performance despite not speaking a single word of dialogue) working as a seamstress in Manhattan. One day, on her way home from work, she's pulled into an alley by some creep (played by Ferrara himself), and raped in broad daylight. To make matters worse, when she pulls herself together and gets home, she finds a burglar in her apartment who begins to assault her all over again. Thankfully, she's able to fight this one off, killing him with an iron (a symbol of female domesticity if ever there was one) and in doing so comes into possession of his gun. Before long she's making herself up with dark eye shadow and bright red lipstick and stalking the streets at night dressed all in black, looking for men who have it coming. It's worth noting here that the assaults aren't lingered on in gruesome detail. Any rape scene is hard to watch, but these ones won't put you off your lunch like some others in this genre. The film is more concerned with Thana's mental state than the actual act of her violation.
While the lurid subject matter and low budget production qualities firmly situate this film in the realm of exploitation, the formal craftsmanship, and concern for character details helps it transcend that distinction. The way it deals with Thana's trauma is particularly noteworthy. In a scene that feels like it could have come straight from Roman Polanski's "Repulsion" she looks into a mirror as she begins to undress and sees a hand come out of nowhere to grab her breast. Reliving her assault over and over. For a less sensational approach to PTSD, take note of the way she tenses up when her creepy boss leans over her from behind, invading her personal space. Maybe the saddest moment in the film is when one of her coworkers tries to see what's bothering her and Thana hands her a note that reads "i just wish they would leave me alone."
The sequences detailing Thana's nocturnal vigilantism are entertaining in a more traditional genre movie way. Highlighted by a jazzy score by Joe Delia that uses repetitive notes to build tension and let us inside Thana's shattered psyche. There's a scene in a park where she gets surrounded by street punks before drawing her pistol from her purse and whirling around to gun them down. A sequence where she stalks her prey in an inversion of the usual horror movie scenario where the beautiful girl is the one being followed by the killer. This time she's the predator. And it all climaxes in a party scene where slow motion photography and distorted sounds are used to create a surrealistic quality while she goes on a rampage (wearing a nun's habit for added kink), possibly having finally suffered a complete break from reality.
One thing that makes this movie fairly unique within it's genre is that the filmmakers never try to justify their protagonist's behavior. She's always sympathetic because we've witnessed her trauma and isolation. But there's an escalation to her activity that quickly gets out of hand. Her first kill is out of shear panic, as she's chased down an alley by an aggressive catcaller. On her first trip out at night she targets only men who pose an immediate threat to her or other women. Pretty soon she's going after any man whose behavior offends her. Then by the end she's taking aim at any man in sight. It's clear she finds the act of killing liberating--her hallucinations and nightmares stop after she goes on the hunt. But just because we know she's been driven to madness doesn't make her actions any less insane.
Of course, it wouldn't be a true exploitation movie without at least one off-the-wall performance that's completely inconsistent with the tone of the rest of the film. And this one's got a real doozy. Editta Sherman, who plays Thana's nosy landlady Mrs. Nasone, is completely batshit crazy in this movie. Apparently in her real life Sherman was a beloved figure in the New York art scene. A photographer known for working with Andy Warhol. I'm not sure how much of her performance here is a put on, or if she was just really like that. But if there's one thing that might put a first time viewer off the whole film it's her. However, if you've seen a lot of these movies it's just another part of the low budget charm that makes you enjoy them that much more.
There's a thin line between the arthouse and the grindhouse, and no filmmaker straddles that boundary more brazenly than Abel Ferrara. His star in this picture, Zoë Tamerlis, would become Zoë Lund, and together the two of them would write the script for Ferrara's 1992 film "Bad Lieutenant" which makes this film look like a low-key charmer by comparison. That is perhaps Ferrara's most respected film, featuring a soul-bearing performance by Harvey Keitel that's hard to watch but impossible to look away from. And his most famous work is probably "King of New York". An entertaining gangster film with Christopher Walken, known for being the Notorious BIG's favorite movie. But I think "Ms .45" is his best. The one that manages to be challenging and confrontational, but still entertaining and well-crafted. A perfect blend of art and exploitation.