After Werner Herzog was told that Abel Ferrara, the director of 1992’s “Bad Lieutenant,” was miffed that Herzog was remaking his film (released in 2009 as “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans”), the irrepressible German director sniffed, “I have no idea who Abel Ferrara is.”
Always with the jokes, Werner. But on the off chance he was telling the truth, Herzog should have watched the scene in “Ms. 45” when Thana (Zoë Lund), dressed as a nun, with rouged, pillow lips, points a gun at her reflection in a mirror and does not repeat the famous Travis Bickle line (she’s mute). Not only does he parody the iconic “Taxi Driver” scene by changing the gender of the protagonist and adding the sexual and religious iconography that is common to both Ferrara and Martin Scorsese’s Catholic roots, he eliminates the detail everyone remembers from that scene, a detail which is a key to Thana’s character. In short, there’s a lot going on in this seemingly toss-away allusion. Had Herzog seen that and some of the film’s other outré, inspired moments, he might have recognized Ferrara as a fellow genius, and one as weird as himself.
Unfortunately, Ferrara has not been nearly as prolific as Herzog. Prior to “Ms. 45” (1981) his credits include “The Driller Killer” (1979), a cult favorite with a subversive subtext, and a 1976 porno directed under the pseudonym “Jimmy Boy L” and with a title that cannot be printed in a family newspaper.
Since then he has built a dedicated corps of fans with films such as 1990’s “King of New York” (which featured both Christopher Walken and Laurence Fishburne in stunning performances) and 1996’s “The Family” (described by Roger Ebert in his review as “about the kinds of gangsters the Corleone family might have become, if they had all gone to college”).
Intermittently he made a handful of studio films that did not tap into his rarefied talents. And then there was “Bad Lieutenant,” with a screenplay co-written by Lund (seen in a drugged-out cameo), a 19-year-old musician, political activist, and writer who made her motion picture debut in “Ms. 45.” (She died of drug-related causes in Paris in 1999 at 37; her life would make an amazing movie in itself.)
Lund is fragile, luminous, and frightening as Thana (or, in Greek, “Death”), a seamstress for a clothing designer in New York’s garment district. She dresses like a Quaker, looks like an angel, is shy, vulnerable, and quiet — only later, and subtly, does Ferrara reveal that she can’t speak. Declining an invitation to join her colleagues for an after-work drink (a red flag in this genre), she walks home alone. Shots of a burglar ransacking her apartment are crosscut with her timid progress to what seems an inevitable encounter with evil. But before she even steps through her front door, a creep in a mask (played by Ferrara, no less) drags her into an alley and brutally rapes her. Then, when she finally gets home, the other guy rapes her, too. But much to the audience’s satisfaction, Thana fights back, and the robber’s head ends up in the freezer, and his .45 automatic ends up in a holster on Thana’s thigh.
At first her subsequent murder spree evokes sympathy — even when she kills because of a misunderstanding, the victims are macho creeps who probably would have done something nasty anyway. And the violence does bring Thana out of her shell, as after each shooting, in part to entice would-be rapists, she dresses more fashionably — it’s makeover via murder — until eventually she looks like one of the back-up singers in the “Addicted to Love” music video. But long before she targets the landlady’s dog, she has gone too far. And it all explodes into a “Carrie”-esque Walpurgisnacht at a Halloween party (a word to the wise, don’t invite a woman who has been assaulted by a man in a mask to a party where everyone wears masks).
“Ms. 45” came late in the rape-revenge trend sparked in 1972 by “The Last House on the Left” (itself a reimagining of Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 “The Virgin Spring”), a genre that took a feminist turn with “I Spit on Your Grave” (1978) and achieved its consummate expression in Clint Eastwood’s “Sudden Impact” (1983). But “Ms. 45” might be the most subversive, perverse, and entertaining of them all. Together, along with Sigourney Weaver’s heroic performance in “Alien” (1979), these films were arguably instrumental in the empowerment of female characters, manifested most recently in “The Hunger Games” series.
Thankfully, Ferrara and Herzog mended their differences, meeting cordially during the 2013 Locarno Film Festival. Could they have discussed collaborating on a new version of “Ms. 45?” Now that would be a remake worth watching.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.