If you’re in Toronto, you can see Ms. 45 at The Royal Cinema starting tomorrow night at 9 p.m. (its run there continues until the night of January 16th).

SAM: Ms. 45, released in 1981, could have been an overlooked relic, lost in the wave of “rape-revenge” films that permeated throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Abel Ferrara‘s effort, however, is much more mindful of the complex gender dynamics often present in these hyper-cathartic exploitation releases, and the ambivalence—even pragmatism—in Ms. 45 has rightfully built it a reputation as a more sophisticated and accomplished treatment of difficult subject matter. A mute seamstress named Thana (played unforgettably by a teenage Zoë Lund, credited as Zoë Tamerlis) is raped twice in a single day, once in a back-alley and once more in her home by a burglar; the latter encounter being the first time she kills a man. Rather than send Thana immediately on a murderous binge, the film settles in on the aftermath and trauma of these two events and the unimaginable torment eating away at our female lead. Her disability renders her unable to protest, leaving her helplessly lodged in her own mind and under the constant nightmarish imposition of gawking males. Eventually, Thana’s anguish reaches an apogee, and her character becomes lost in a world of misandrist vengeance, using sex appeal and a .45 to rid New York City of its venomous male inhabitants. Ferrara—who initially seems deeply empathetic toward Thana—offers more ambiguity in the second-half of his brisk narrative when the film explores the protagonists’ blossoming psychosis and it all becomes something akin to a horror movie (complete with hair-raising horns on the soundtrack and severed limbs in the fridge). When the climactic Halloween party scene arrives in which the battle between sexes becomes a literal war-zone, it’s very clear that in Ferrara’s world no one reaches any kind of easy redemption or impunity—it’s all quite a bit more complicated than that.

SPENCER: Indeed, complication is Ferrara’s greatest coup here, with his subversive touches twisting Ms. 45 into a corruption of the traditional “rape-revenge” trajectory. Rather than defeminize herself to reinforce her wrath (as is common in such films), Thana supplants her demure disposition with a predatory but nonetheless feminine sexuality. She harnesses trauma in order to be reborn as a vengeful vixen, leather-clad and lipstick-adorned, silently stalking the men of NYC with a pistol as her voice—each bullet signed with a kiss. While this atypical incarnation of the subgenre’s usual murderess figure embodies Ferrara’s vision of a kind of alternative female agency, it is ultimately Thana’s downfall that reveals the filmmaker’s true aim. In Kier-La Janisse’s autobiographical exegesis of exploitation movies, House Of Psychotic Women (FAB Press, 2012), the author succinctly sums up Ferrara’s concerns:

Ms. 45 dares to deglamorize its female protagonist and her agenda. The film does a more thorough job than most in showing the consequences of giving in to revenge – Thana sabotages her own future, her career, a circle of supportive friends who are themselves outspoken women who could have helped her. This gives the film a sense of sadness and regret not always encountered in the standard rape-revenge films, which are more centred on how the male assailants have ruined their victims’ lives, and not how the women contribute to the ruination of their own lives. Thana may be triumphant briefly, but she loses out in the end.”

It is precisely this doomed quality that makes Ms. 45 such a standout among other films of its ilk. Not only that, regardless of genre or cinematic inclinations, it is an outright remarkable work due in no small part to Ferrara’s moral consideration of material often deemed too “trashy” or without aesthetic artistic merit.