Abel Ferrara loves New York. But for every New Yorker, there's a different New York. "We're shooting the street from the view of the character," said the veteran filmmaker. "If he's the cop in Bad Lieutenant, he might be anywhere, you dig? If it's a character like the driller killer, he ain't leaving his house. He's staying close to the fucking Lower East Side."
In 1981's underground classic Ms. 45, re-released this week through Drafthouse Films, New York is the grimy sweatshops of the Garment District. That's where mute seamstress Thana (Zoë Lund) lives and works; it's also where she is raped not once, but twice. Shattered and unable to communicate her abuse, she picks up a gun and cuts a bloody swath through the would-be rapists and street corner wolf-whistlers. In other rape-revenge movies, like 1978's I Spit on Your Grave, it's the bad guys getting their comeuppance. Thana is less discerning, and for every act of vengeance, there's a death that leaves the audience wondering about their damaged heroine. "At what point does revenge stop?" Ferrara asked.
Before filming Ms. 45, Ferrara and his longtime screenwriter Nicholas St. John only had two feature credits to their names: 1979's infamous splatter-shocker The Driller Killer, and their debut, 1976 porno 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy. That made it a little easier to kick open with the film's shocking opening act of Thana's assaults. "After you've drilled someone in the head, I mean, c'mon," Ferrara said. Yet the film is about a lot more than just rape and easy cinematic revenge. Three decades later, post-Bernhard Goetz, post-George Zimmerman, in the era of Stand Your Ground and concealed carry, America still roils with the debate about self-defense. Ferrara said: "At what point do you say, 'Hey, I'm defending myself here. I don't know what this guy's going to do. Do I have a right to carry that gun?' These are the questions that are still being asked every day."
The issues are still pertinent, but why exactly re-release now? Ferrara said, "You'll have to ask Evan."
That'll be Drafthouse Films Creative Director Evan Husney. "The easy answer is that I've always loved the movie," he explained. The more complex version involves the reality show Shipping Wars. In one episode, the Drafthouse's American Genre Film Archive project received a container full of old movies. When Husney started sifting through the cans, he found "an absurd amount of Ms. 45 35mm prints." He was inspired not just to bring the movie back to cinemas, but also to change its place in the canon. "It's been marketed as this sleazy, Eighties, 42nd Street-type movie, and that's partially what it is. ... But there are flourishes in this film of Repulsion and Polanski and the anxieties of European psychological thrillers."
So this weekend, after years relegated to beat-up celluloid and tattered VHS tapes, Ms. 45 opens in Austin – the home of Drafthouse Films – and New York. Makes sense; NYC is the city that made Ferrara a film lover, spending hour after hour soaking up every vintage arthouse and well-worn grindhouse title he could. "Most of the films I saw, the films that really moved me, I saw in a retrospective-type situation." While there'll be a DVD next year, it's clear he gets a kick out of knowing that the film will be back on real screens. "As a person who literally carried film cans around for a long, long, long time, to have my own film in the inner pocket of my sports jacket, I really appreciate that. But at the same time, it's part of a tradition that movies are watched in a communal situation, and they're watched big, real big. And even though I'm guilty of iPhoning these movies, it's not the same deal, you dig?"
More than three decades after it scorched screens, Ms. 45 still hits hard, and it was finding new audiences even before this re-release. Last year, another New York shocker classic, 1980's Maniac, was transplanted to Los Angeles for a remake. Ferrara's film goes much further. "A woman wants to make it in Cairo. How's that for a remake? I told her [to] go for it." Ferrara still credits Lund's performance as the damaged and dangerous Thana for the film's abiding power. "She was 17 years old, and she got it," he said. "She was on scholarship to an Ivy League university, and she understood what was going on, the movie aspect of it. And she's obviously a gifted, gifted actress. It was a perfect marriage of the character and the screenplay."
The other major character is Ferrara's lifelong muse: NYC. At the cusp of the Eighties, the movie world revolved around the Big Apple. In 1979, the Oscars were dominated by Kramer vs. Kramer and Manhattan. A year later, Raging Bull delivered a knock-out punch from Hell's Kitchen. Ferrara's New York may have seemed a million miles away from those bigger productions, but for him, it was just a couple of stops on the subway. "We were New York filmmakers," he said. "We weren't street-shooting, college avant-garde movie makers. ... We were selling tickets to movies. We're not just showing this to our friends after we smoked a bunch of joints." He pointed to a distinctive style of filmmaking, defined by cinematographers Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and Gordon Willis (Manhattan, the Godfather trilogy). It seeped into Ms. 45, not least because the same union crews that worked on those sets were pulling duty on Ferrara's little revenge flick. He said, "It was made out of an IA world, with 35 millimeter and [New York audio studio] Sound One and blah blah blah. It might not have been a big budget, but it was definitely a film of the era of those DPs and great directors."
Ms. 45 was a tough shoot, footage captured on a run-and-gun schedule. Ferrara said, "I just shot documentary-style, so it's not like I was changing anything." Every scene was a steep learning curve. "We shoot quicker now, because we know what we're doing. But then, every shot was the first. Dolly shots, this and that, just getting the equipment together." The season and the schedule took its toll, as Ferrara and his crew avoided tempests and what he called the "Pied Piper-type rats" of Central Park. "I ended up in the hospital, just through exhaustion, and they kept shooting without me," Ferrara recalled. "It was pouring rain, and I thought, 'Well, maybe we can stop for a night,' but the DP's going, 'Wow, I can really use this rain.' I'm thinking, 'Man, we've got to work all night tonight.'"
Still, Ms. 45 returns to a different New York than that of the 42nd Street sleaze pits and Times Square crimes of its era. Ferrara said, "There's not one inch of an abandoned anything anymore. Every square inch of Manhattan, from the George Washington Bridge to Chinatown, is taken, polished, it's up and running. It's amazing." Still, he has his own ideas for bringing the grime back. "Tell Evan to let a few rats loose in the theatre, bust out some crackheads, so you can really feel 42nd Street."
Ms. 45 opens Friday in Austin. See Film Listings for showtimes.
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