So, apparently it is possible to make a decent rape-revenge movie. Or about half of one, anyway.
You guys! I did not intend for this to be such a rape-scene-heavy feature! My plan was to cull the vast field of potential candidates down to a few movies that represented different lady-based fears. It went as follows: Ginger Snaps, fear of periods; Teeth, fear of the vagina; Ms. 45, fear of rape; Rosemary’s Baby, fear of pregnancy. Such was the plan. But then Teeth had all the raping in it, and then it was time to watch Ms. 45, and then I was like, “geez, I really don’t want to watch or think about or write on the topic of rape any more; thank God Rosemary’s Baby is coming up next.”
Then I remembered that Rosemary’s Baby also has a rape scene in it. Rosemary’s Baby (Which She Is Going To Give Birth To Because She Has Been Raped By Satan) would be a more appropriate title for that picture!
Yes, if there is one thing I have learned, over the course of my studies in lady horror, it is that people who make horror movies focused on female experience just love to spice things up with a rape scene or two. Which is problematic, given that women are far more likely to be sexually assaulted than they are to have werewolf sisters or vagina teeth or apartments that they lease from Satan. The rest of it is fun and games, but rape is real. And it’s scary.
What’s strange is that that Ms. 45, the rape-revenge exploitation pick, and the one movie from this list that I fully expected not to like, turned out to have one of the best takes on sexual assault, and on the fear and trauma that results from rape, that I’ve seen yet. For a while, anyway.
It is, however, an exploitation movie, and concerned with amping things up as much as possible. You can tell because it begins with its lead character, Thana, experiencing two – count them, two – separate stranger rapes over the course of an afternoon. The first happens when a man pulls her off the street, into an alley. She doesn’t fight back, and she gets out alive. Then, while she’s still reeling, she stumbles into her apartment. There’s a strange man there. His intentions are not good.
If rape scenes trigger you, you will be triggered by this movie. I was. It’s not Irreversible – the scenes are relatively brief, and free of gory details – but it’s still terrifying. (From a review on Evil Dread, which seems to encapsulate what your average rape-revenge fan wants, and gets, from films of this genre: “the actual rape scenes are not graphical at all, we don’t get to see anything… take I Spit on Your Grave or Irreversible were [sic] the rape scenes are really drawn out… [it] adds more to the whole outcome. Unfortunately it’s too ‘nice and quick’ here.”)
I suppose if what you’re looking for is extremely brutal, detailed rape simulations, Ms. 45 is not the movie for you. Yet these scenes are terrifying, because they happen like rape happens: out of nowhere, with no warning, changing everything forever. Also, Thana is mute; she can’t scream.
This is when the movie twists and barrels into full horror. During the second rape, Thana manages to grab a weapon (first a paperweight, then an iron) and kill her attacker. Going to the police never seems to occur to her; she just hides the body in her bathtub. It’s this, the way her life quickly spins completely out of control in a sequence that plays like an extended bad dream – first you’re raped, then you’ve killed someone, then you’ve got a dead rapist in your tub, then you’re cutting up the dead rapist, then you’ve got a refrigerator full of dead rapist, then you’re trying to dispose of the dead rapist parts, then you’re killing people more or less in self-defense because they might find out about the dead rapist parts that you’re trying to dispose of – that I really admire. It feels, weirdly, like having been raped: having a big, ugly, gory, unbelievable secret that you have to hide at all costs. Thana’s muteness is a big, clunky symbol, but it works – the girl literally can’t talk about it.
A word, here, on how Ms. 45 played to male audiences at the time of its release:
Predictably, when Thana is being raped at the beginning of Ms. 45, an unsympathetic soul cackled: “How does it feel, baby?” …But something fascinating happens. Once these men identify with the rapist, the filmmakers have Thana conk him on the head with an iron and kill him. Then she chops him up into little slabs and stores his parts in the refrigerator. Unexpectedly, the men who had whooped all through Amin and the obscenely gory previews of Dr. Butcher(1982), whimpered worrisomely “Oh, my God” and slumped in their seats and shut up.
Personally, I was with Thana throughout. This is pretty easy, given that the filmmakers actually spend some time on her trauma, and that Zoe Lund conveys it beautifully. She has panic attacks at work; she can’t take her clothes off to shower because she flashes back to the attack (there’s a shot in this scene that I believe was repeated almost verbatim in Teeth); she’s falling apart, and every time a man comes on to her (they’re all, it seems, coming on to her – including her creepy, patronizing boss) she’s sick and terrified.
So, eventually she just starts killing them. More and more of them. Indiscriminately. And this is where the movie gets goofy.
Not all of the goofiness is bad! Some of it is funny! The scene in which Thana delivers sweet justice to one of those dudes who hits on you in the street and won’t go away (“hey, I just want to talk to you!”) is a delight, as is the scene where she finally figures out how to reconcile her rapist-disposal needs with the fact that her neighbor’s dog is always hungry. Yet it’s hard to reconcile the tone of these scenes with the unmitigated terror of the early parts of the movie. The violence transitions from being real and scary to over-the-top and campy. And the scene in which she tarts herself up to go on a killing spree in the Neighborhood of Racist Stereotypes – she nabs, in one night, a black pimp, some black gang members, and a wealthy “sheik” – is just, well… no. NO, is all I have to say to that scene.
Thana becomes a monster. She’s a serial killer; she’s unhinged. It’s that transition that bothered me most – how the movie goes from portraying her fear to fearing her. Yet, to deal with that, you have to deal with how very ’70s this movie is. Even though it was released in 1981! There are Plato’s Retreat references; there is the depiction of Manhattan as a wasteland of random violence; there is the freaking title of the movie, for God’s sake. “Ms.” was a title with very specific connotations, when Ms. 45 was being made.
The movie, actually, seems to be about dealing with the implications of feminism. In one vastly offensive yet somehow moving scene, a man describes to Thana how his wife’s case of the Feminine Mystique (“she was getting antsy, she wanted something to do – I said, ‘No wife of mine’s going to work’”) led to job-having and, eventually, lesbianism. (Ain’t that the way?) Thana seems to hesitate to kill him; he collaborates in the act.
It’s a scene that seems to sum up most of the movie: we’re asked to feel for Thana, and also encouraged to fear Thana, because men (and this movie was made by, and for, men) just didn’t know what to do about the whole “feminism” thing. (They still don’t know, actually, but back then they talked about it.) Like, here are all these women, right? And they’re angry. Too angry. Scary angry. But, then again: haven’t they been put through a lot of shit, these women? What if they have a reason to be angry at you? What if you deserve it?
Who, really, is the problem here?
What are you afraid of?