The past 25 years have seen a dramatic turnaround in the image of New York City regarding law and order. Today, it is one of the safest large cities in the U.S., and in fact, the Lord Mayor of London, the capital of a country once home to public safety that was the envy of the world, recently confessed that he felt safer in the Big Apple than he did in his own city.
It wasn't always so--in the not-so-distant past, New York was a symbol of urban degeneracy in the U.S., and its high murder rate, senseless violence, riots, and mean streets made Britons, Canadians and other non-U.S. Westerners thankful for where they lived. The frustration it generated spilled over into cinema, where it spawned several revenge and vigilante films where, at least on celluloid, someone would strike back against the forces of predation and evil that kept a fearful citizenry huddled behind locked doors and barred windows at night. One of these was Ms. 45, a stylish, dark and brutal piece released in 1981 that incorporated elements of earlier films, such as Death Wish and the notorious I Spit on Your Grave, and is now a genre cult film in its own right.
A meek, pathologically shy New York City seamstress named Thana (ZoŽ Tamerlist) is brutally raped at gunpoint twice in one afternoon by two different assailants, first while walking home, and the second in her own home. The second time, she kills her victimizer after he lets down his guard, and rather than report the crime to the authorities, decides to dispose of the body herself...one piece at a time. Meanwhile, she finds herself the new owner of his Star .45-calibre pistol, which she takes to carrying for protection.
However, the mix of newfound, intense anti-male phobia and ready accessibility to deadly force leads to the killing of an innocent man guilty of nothing but boorishness. A metamorphosis then takes place, a transition from meek seamstress to bloodlusting vigilante and serial killer, which quickly accelerates to the point where any man in the company of the fairer sex is a target, and her once-quiet nights are spent stalking and luring prey. By now descending into madness, her work performance deteriorates to where all that is keeping her employed are the designs her effeminate boss (Albert Sinkys) has on her, her prying landlady grows increasingly suspicious, and her attempts to conceal the evidence leading back to her fail. The authorities close in on her, but how many more innocents will die before her murderous path ends?
This was independent filmmaker Abel Ferrara's breakthrough film. A gritty, violent piece, it was shot mostly on the mean streets of New York, much of it at night, in well-composed scenes that create a convincing backdrop of indifference, decadence and corruption. It is intense, well-acted, and disturbing, with a dark, cynical tone, virtually every male character being a two-dimensional predator, thug, misfit, or seedy, obnoxious boor, and briskly paced at only 80 minutes (alas, this is not the 90-minute uncut version). There is no nudity, despite the two rape scenes; apparently Ferrara wished to emphasise the inherent violence of these crimes, without the obfuscation their sexual elements might have imposed. Over 20 years old, the film has aged well, and although at times we have to suspend our disbelief (where does a mute seamstress in a city with tight restrictions on firearms learn how to handle a hard-kicking big-bore pistol like an IPSC champion?), it works.
The late ZoŽ Tamerlist delivers an excellent performance as Thana, the avenging vigilante, and dominates the film throughout. She is complemented by a well-chosen supporting cast, including Albert Sinkys as Thana's effeminate boss, Editta Sherman as her prying and obnoxious landlady, and Jack Thibeau as a despairing, self-loathing blue-collar divorcee who figures in one of the several plot twists.
Video: The transfer is 1.78:1 MAR or OAR, depending on who you believe, and not 16x9-enhanced. There are some dust speckles, a small amount of edge enhancement, the occasional compression or digital noise reduction artifact, some grain at times, and occasional light flickering. On the plus side, flesh tones are natural, shadows are delineated, and colors are reasonably saturated. Detail overall, despite the lack of anamorphic enhancement, is good and the picture is quite steady. All in all, the transfer is above average for a film of this genre and released during this period.
Audio: The audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, but clean and well-defined. There are no alternative languages or mixes.
Packaging: Snapper, with the cover containing a classic example of exploitation art, which features a short-skirted woman pulling out a pistol tucked into a garter as a brutal-looking, bludgeon-wielding thug closes in.
Conclusions: Those offended by the portrayal of violent revenge and vigilantism will do well to avoid this disc (and this film). Ferrara completists and collectors of cult genre films will find it a worthy purchase, although others will balk at $24.95 for this cut version with no extra features, in which case rental is a better option.