I love movies. That is pretty obvious if you've read anything on the site or, perhaps, listened to Aliens Under The Vatican. There are certain genres I watch more of than any other though: horror and exploitation cinema.
Yep. The vile stinking pile of cinematic refuse that most critics refuse to acknowledge or outright obliterate in rambling rage-filled attack pieces happens to be one of my absolute favorites. We're talkin' grindhouse flicks, people. Directors like Abel Ferrara, Russ Meyer, Jack Hill and even auteurs such as Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter. We're talking films like I Spit on Your Grave, Coffy, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Assault on Precinct 13 and other such notorious pictures. The ability of these directors to take shoestring budgets, innovate and present unrelenting stories of sex, violence, mayhem and more has always been a big soft spot for me when it comes to analyzing films.
I thought I might start this series off with a BANG! by talking about Abel Ferrara's cult classic, Ms. 45 (Otherwise known as Angel of Vengeance). A brief background on Ferrara, though, before we dive in.
Ferrara, born in the Bronz and of mixed Italian and Irish descent. Abel was raised in the Catholic church and, well, this would inform a lot of his work featuring overt religious themes, perversion of them, depiction of the seven sins and so forth. He later went on to study film at the film conservatory at SUNY Purchase. A bunch of short films came out of that which then lead Abel to his first full-length film. It was for a movie entitled: 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy . He doesn't talk much about his first film other than casually mentioning, back in an interview done for the Guardian in 2010, that one point he had to step in front of the camera and take care of business. "It's bad enough paying a guy $200 to fuck your girlfriend, then he can't get it up." He was titled on the film as Jimmy Laine. It was not long, however, before Abel Ferrara came forth from the grimy streets to grindhouse prominence with his first feature, The Driller Killer (1979).
Driller Killer, while definitely feeling a bit like a lower-rent Taxi Driver rip-off, turned out to be one of the more classic pieces of horror/gore/grime to come out of the 1970's. An artist named Reno (played by Ferrara) is fed up with the city. The pressures of New York City and the filth present in it have driven him to the point of madness. Enter a power drill and some great cross-cut POV shots that really put you in the moment. He probably went for more of a Texas Chainsaw feel to it but, really, Scorcese's Taxi Driver is what this fim is comparable to. It is a bonafied grindhouse classic. It isn't long before Ferrara gets noticed for his work following up with Ms. 45 (1981), Fear City (1984) followed by the pilot for the Michael Mann produced Police Story (starring Dennis Farina) along with some episodes of Miami Vice. Ferrara really made his name, though with 1990's King of New York (starring frequent collobarator Christopher Walken) and 1992's Bad Lieutenant (starring Harvey Keitel).
Ferrara, perhaps better than any other New York auteur, captures the feel of the city in a way few can. His name will never be quite as synonymous with the Big Apple as Scorcese or Allen yet he is no less talented. He manages to manifest the nervous energy of a city caught between sleaze and opulence and does so while bringing sex, violence and all the grindhouse qualities to his work that I adore so much. He is, by far, one of my absolute favorite filmmakers from NYC.
Okay. Maybe that wasn't so brief.
Exploitation cinema is wrought with stigma. It is too violent, too pornographic, too racially charged or just too repugnant to really be considered true art by many. It is, however, one of the defining facets of art that it represent all sides of life. The ugly. The obtuse. The rancid. The bloody. All of these things and more should be represented by art. Now I know that might be a tough pill to swallow when it comes to certain exploitation flicks like I Spit on Your Grave but with Ms. 45 it is an apt moniker.
It is the story of a mute seamstress, Thana, who upon coming home from her job in the Garment District is visciously attacked and raped. A second assault soon occurs after and it changes her. This is the sort of rape revenge tale that carries heavy resemblance to others in the genre like I Spit on Your Grave, Last House on the Left, The Virgin Spring and I Saw The Devil. It follows the same "formula" of the wrong being done, the female lead surviving and eventually exacting her vengeance. It is in the last aspect where Ferrara's second feature film deviates, though.
The perpetrators of those dastardly crimes against Thana (played by Zoë Tamerlis Lund) were not good people by any means. Most of the men in the film aside from later entries are rather boarish and overly skeezy. They leer. They cat-call. They're disgusting. All of that and still many of her victims aren't exactly deserving of a bullet from the titular .45 caliber pistol. It is in her plot to seek vengeance that Thana swings from an angel of vengeance into full blown psychotic serial murder. The crossing of that line makes Lund's performance compelling in that she never speaks a word of dialogue. All of this is portrayed through her facial expressions and the eyes. She is a stunner, no doubt, but there's also a crazed lunacy that begins to wash over her visage as she's plotting her next kill.
Her choice of victims moves from those who've wronged her to, well, any man she sees fit. One such victim, a fellow she meets in the bar who is complaining about his wife, meets a grizzly end. The two are sitting on a park bench while the gentleman yammers on and slowly, agonizingly slow, she draws the pistol. It's brought to the side of his temple as he's looking away and she nearly drops the hammer. It is here, with quick close-up cuts between the two in the scene and the gun that Ferrara's craft really shines. The scene itself is actually reminiscent of something right out of Woody Allen's Manhattan. The park bench that looks over the bridge, the framing showing off what could be a beautiful background. There is, however, instead, a grime to it that just works. It shows just how two-faced New York is.
He grabs the gun with surprise and then proceeds to pull the trigger and what the viewer is left with? A compromised view of a beautiful city at night. It is a subversion of the clear love for the city that he has by showing just how awful it can be too. I wish I could say the same for the whole movie as nearer the end it gets a bit too stylized for my tastes with the murders at the Halloween party. The climax of the film sees our angel of vengeance, Thana, looking more like a deranged killer. She starts gunning down every man she sees at the party before she's cut down herself. It, honestly, is a fitting end to what morphs from vengeance thrills to lunatic delght.
It is a film that warrants discussion as it can be seen as both a strong female empowerment piece and a debauched exploitative piece of trash. I tend to land somewhere in the middle with this film and I think that's why I adore it so. Zoë Lund and her portrayal of Thana evolves over the course of the briskly paced picture in a way I didn't expect. The adorning of her war garb (the nun costume complete with red lipstick and very little else covering her) symbolizes not only is she very much in control of her own sexuality and not afraid to let others know but that she's also quite alluring and dangerous. The mousey and scared girl from the first twenty minutes of the film is long gone. This is the dolled up evolution of a urban nightmare meets the ultimate revenge thriller fantasy. This is Death Wish by way of I Spit on Your Grave and though it was made in the early part of the 80's it is VERY much a product of the late 1970's. If ever there was a director who's work personified the punk spirit of the that seedy period when the New York Dolls and Television were the rage. The New York depicted doesn't exist anymore. Not really. It is, however, a gorgeous time capsule back into those more fertile days.
Ferrara, as much a proponent of NYC as he is, depicts the city as one full of rapists, men who want to use and abuse at any given time. It borders on the cartoonish in a way that makes the viewer feel justified in supporting Thana on her murderous quest for vengeance even if, by the time its over, the plausbility and ugly truth of it all is far too obvious to ignore.
The film's restoration by Drafthouse Films brings the full uncut version to North America for the first time. Ferrara's grim and gruesome vision of New York through the eyes of a woman wronged has never looked better either. The restored 35MM prints are pristine and the sound quality impeccable. Every moment of Zoë Lund's heartwrenching performance looks absolutely glorious. It is available for purchase through the Drafthouse website and other fine retailers on DVD and Blu Ray.
That'll be it for this week, gang. I've got another one coming up that's sure to remind us all of just how wonderfully revolting exploitation cinema can be. But that'll have to wait for now. Thanks for reading and be sure to keep it grimy, folks.
Be sure to comment below if you've seen Ms. 45 or Mr. Ferrara's other work. Disagree with me? Let me know here or on Twitter (@ScrivenerJeff)! Like what we're doing here at Zeitgeeks and with our podcast, Aliens Under The Vatican? Give our Patreon a look. We always love hearing from you the reader/listener.