Catharsis is an expected trope in the rape-revenge film. Revenge is part of the name, after all. After watching the torment of a sexual assault survivor, the viewer assumes they’ll get to experience that emotional release alongside the avenger, cheering them on to enact justice. Yet, flouting this desire for a blood-soaked version of a happy ending, recent rape-revenge films such as MFA, Violation and Rose Plays Julie subvert expectations to portray the reality of seeking revenge. While it is seen in more interpretations of rape-revenge films today, Abel Ferrara’s 1981 film Ms .45 was integral to establishing such a generic subversion—examining what it means to deny such a release to both the survivor and the viewer.
Ms .45 takes place in Ferrara’s typically grimy New York City full of danger and skeeze. Thana (Zoe Lund) is a mute young seamstress who lives alone in the city. On her way home from work one day, she is raped twice by two different masked assailants. In fighting off her second rapist, she subsequently kills him; her revenge happens at the very beginning rather than his death being the film’s climax, which is seen in films such as I Spit on Your Grave. After her trauma, Thana embarks on a vigilante’s quest to kill all predatory men to protect not only herself but all women.
Yet, while Thana does murder quite a few creeps, she is denied any sense of justice as she’s killed at the film’s end. Throughout, she has used her pistol to murder men she has seen prey on young women, from a famous fashion photographer to a Saudi Arabian businessman. She is not seen experiencing catharsis and is instead thwarted in her mission, which ends Ms .45 on a bleak and nihilistic note that would rather examine the consequences of enacting “justice” and getting revenge rather than providing audience-expected spectacle that portrays Thana as a hero-like figure.
This ending was by no means the first of its kind. Ms .45’s story builds from 1973’s Japanese rape-revenge animation Belladonna of Sadness, where a young woman named Jeanne takes revenge against her town after she is raped by a lord on her wedding night. Yet, ultimately Jeanne is burned at the stake as a witch and denied any justice against those who wronged her. While these two films are quite different in style and story, they share the crucial similarity of killing their female survivor. Their deaths at first seem cruel; both Thana and Jeanne have already suffered so much at the hands of men and it is frustrating, to say the least, that despite their efforts neither are able to emancipate themselves from patriarchal systems of control.
But, what is so frustrating about these films is also what makes them so revolutionary. The deaths of these women are not about torturing women, but about telling a harrowing truth about the struggle to reclaim bodily autonomy, and how revenge does not always equate to healing. While Belladonna of Sadness relies on unrelenting violence and cruelty against Jeanne to illustrate her neverending suffering due to the egos of men, Ferrara and his long-time writing collaborator Nicholas St. John create a more empowered character in Thana who undergoes a life-changing metamorphosis where she seems to gain more control over her narrative—making her death all the more tragic.
This metamorphosis can be tracked through Thana’s aesthetic and sense of style, which is a rape-revenge staple. Women such as I Spit on Your Grave’s Jennifer Hills move from modest clothing to low-cut dresses to seduce their rapists, which can reinforce a problematic narrative of sexualizing rape survivors. Yet, in Ms .45, Thana is embedded within the fashion industry, which gives her an intimate knowledge of the power of clothing and the emotional reaction a piece of fabric can elicit. This is not just a subconscious sexualization of Thana, but rather a conscious decision informed by her own occupation; she’s aware of the manipulative power of clothing. Fashion becomes not just a job, but a tool to more readily attract the very men she wishes to annihilate.
Thana was a new kind of female avenger who used her rape to seek justice for women in general, not just for herself. Her mission is ultimately impossible and self-destructive as seen in her death; revenge is all-consuming and empowerment is denied. Just as Belladonna of Sadness began the blueprint for films such as Ms .45, the 1981 film established a malleable framework for modern, complex rape-revenge films such as Natalia Leite’s 2017 film MFA to follow. Leite takes Ms .45’s conceit and builds upon it to create a more nuanced film about sexual violence on college campuses and the systemic issues that rape survivors face in trying to get what the so-called justice system is named for.
In MFA, Noelle is an art student raped by a classmate during a party. In the aftermath of her trauma, she both accidentally kills her rapist and discovers how rampant sexual assault is on campus. In the death of her rapist, Noelle is following in the footsteps of Thana; this is not just about revenge against one man, but all men. But in MFA, this is not just about the larger idea of rape culture, but rather the corrupt academic institutions that enable sexual assault on campus and how they work to silence survivors and support perpetrators.
However, in Noelle’s search for her own brand of justice, she is thwarted, ironically, by the broken justice system and is arrested for her crimes. She is not killed and therefore not continuously put in physical pain on screen, yet her arrest feels even more devastating. Instead of a symbolic release from her traumatized physical body, Noelle’s trauma is now assumed to be compounded as she enters the justice system that does not care about survivors. She must now be put on trial, not unlike Jeanne in Belladonna of Sadness, and her fate is in the hands of others. Any autonomy she once tried to achieve is now revoked as she undoubtedly becomes part of a dehumanizing process. MFA’s Noelle is the 21st century Thana, seeking revenge for all other women while also being denied her catharsis.
After 40 years, Ms .45’s influence can still be felt in new women-led interpretations of exploitation cinema, from MFA to this year’s awards darling Promising Young Woman, with its polarizing ending and martyred avenger. These films closely examine how vengeance doesn’t equate to freedom, particularly as rape culture is still a rampant issue today. A brief moment of catharsis for Thana or Noelle is squashed by structures that exist to silence survivors and protect perpetrators. Their shining moments of violent success are quickly squashed by the overwhelming realization that they cannot save everybody, or even themselves. The subversive ideas created by Ferrara and St. John don’t just rely on the spectacle of the female body, but how the female body can be willingly weaponized against those who prey upon it. They helped launch a tradition where catharsis can be denied from the avenger for more than just shock, but to launch a conversation about rape culture and the futility of revenge.
Mary Beth McAndrews is a freelance film journalist with a love of all things horror. She’s written across the Internet about found footage, extreme horror cinema, and more. You can follow her on Twitter to read more of her work, as well as her hot takes about her favorite cryptid, Mothman.