Lost to video store oblivion for ages, Abel Ferrara’s 1981 female vigilante psych-out Ms .45 once again is stalking the nation’s theaters – rereleased in a new edition by Drafthouse Films, the distribution wing of the Austin, Texas-based Drafthouse Cinema empire, which is promoting the grungy rape-revenge thriller as a midnight movie. (DVD and digital platform release is due in late March). Ripe for re-appreciation by a new generation of genre fans, Ms .45 delivers with an unlikely feminist kick and artful camerawork that evokes the paranoid perspective of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and The Tenant.
Ferrara, a voluble Bronx native whose dark studies of tormented characters include the infamous Bad Lieutenant and Dangerous Game (the rare Madonna film that sparks admiration in cinema cultists), hopped on the phone recently while he was in Rome, working on a new film about Pier Paolo Pasolini with star Willem Dafoe. He spoke about Ms .45, and its debt to Tobe Hooper’s gore-splattered sensation The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, New York City in the crime-ridden late-1970s, and the film’s astonishing 17-year-old lead actress Zoë Tamerlis Lund, whose untimely demise in 1999 has turned the movie into a kind of monument to a tragic talent.
Tell me about the environment that created Ms .45.
“In the late ’70s, there was no video, there was no digital, there was no Internet, there was no nothing. Everything was in the theaters. Anyone who wanted to watch a sex movie, whatever strata of society you were, you’d have to find your raincoat and go get your kicks. Yeah, gettin’ your kicks in the theater… only because you couldn’t see it on TV. Everything happened in a communal space and it wasn’t just sleazy bad guys. It was the whole spectrum of people.
“Texas Chain Saw was kind of a seminal film in that [world]. It was a very X-rated hardcore kind of violent movie that wasn’t coming out of Hollywood. They weren’t making those films because they were self-censoring themselves. It was the same market for porno films. Back then, the 50 top grossing films, ten of them were porno films. The top-grossing films. So Chain Saw came out, and we’re young filmmakers trying to figure out how to go from using the equipment in college. We were going to be in college for the rest of our lives unless we could find the equipment and wherewithal to make movies. We were blue-collar kids, basically. Alright. You’re gonna raise what? The kind of money to make a movie like Jaws? No, when you see…these guys invested $30,000 and made $25 million back on Chain Saw. [Actually, the budget was something shy of $300,000]. That article in Variety I could take to everybody I knew and say, hey, man these guys are putting up 30 grand and making 30 million, and if we can’t make a film as good as Texas Chain Saw we better hand our diplomas back. Whether we even had them or not. You dig what I’m sayin’?
“There was a marketplace, there were theaters. Ms .45 opened in 96 theaters in New York. Unrated, basically. And it had to be unrated. What we were offering was not part of what they were putting out yet. But then it did very quickly. When Halloween, which was kind of an indie film also, made 60 million, that’s when Hollywood said, ‘Yeah, we’re in.’ Then Friday the 13th, this that and the other thing, then comes the ratings board, and you can’t advertise things like Driller Killer. So Ms .45 came out of the success of Driller Killer. The producer of Driller Killer and Ms .45 made his mark in the business with Debbie Does Dallas. Made for $35,000. Made 30 million. But dig this. They owned 70 percent of the theaters that movie played in. And these weren’t the kind of guys that even the kids in the ticket booth were stealing from, ya dig? So it wasn’t bad. The guy, he was from Detroit, he was a street guy, and his name was Arthur Weisberg may he rest in peace, and he had two porno films playing in his theater and there was Ms .45. People were actually going in to see it, because it was the weekly hardcore scary movie. The only other one was Oliver Stone’s The Hand.”
Was this on 42nd Street?
“It was 47th Street. In this kind of double thing. Ms .45 opened at 96 theaters, like a regular movie. We had to drag the prints to every one of them. There was no distribution company. We were going to put out 20 prints, and I think Paramount decided not to put a film out that all these theaters were going to play. And we were stuck trying to make 60 prints and drive them around to West [unintelligible], Babylon. Places I heard of but never was in, to some mom and pop theater that was actually going to be dark unless we showed up.
“I learned my lesson then, too. This old woman was waiting. We were there the day before Friday with a print. It didn’t matter what we had. She asked us to help her change the marquee. I’m on a ladder, pouring rain at midnight. And I’m saying, man, I’m glad this film isn’t called The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. You know. From that day on, I made them titles short, in case I had to be up in that ladder in the rain.”
Was the movie shot in your apartment?
“No, no, no. It was on 42nd Street somewhere. The crew stopped for four days to build it. The grip was a great wallpaper hanger. The other guy could fix doors. Everybody did everything. It wasn’t like we had out fuckin’ design crew come in and knock it up.”
Vigilante flicks were hot then.
“It began with Death Wish and it ended with Gloria. Death Wish, which made a zillion dollars, and then Cassavetes ended that fucking genre. He’s one of my heroes but that’s ironic.”
Looking back, the movie reflects the reality of what was happening in the city? Is that how you saw it then?
“We were making genre films for theaters that were expecting it. They weren’t expecting an Abel Ferrara movie. They were expecting an 80-minute film, more violent than they get out of Hollywood. OK, it was a little bit of a curve ball that we threw the chick in like that. They expected the violence. The violence was there. You didn’t have to look for it. 1979-1980-1981, there wasn’t even a police force. The title of our film Fear City was from a bumper sticker on cars the cops used to drive when they went on strike.
“Central Park you couldn’t even go in. That night we went in there to shoot that [scene of a mass shooting]… a rat…OK, you see a rat, but when you see 200 of ‘em! C’mon, dog… now you’re getting the badge of courage to film that fuckin’ scene. Those kids getting shot in the park like that, half those kids, it’s like ‘No, he’s been shot, he knows how to fall down.’ I’m talking about 16-year-old kids.
“Things certainly changed in New York City. Did they change for the better? I don’t know. Everybody wants what’s yours. But back then it was a little more ‘your money and your life.’ Now it’s ‘take your money and move to Brooklyn or back to wherever the fuck you come from…’”
How did you discover Zoë?
“There was a movie after Saturday Night Fever [Times Square], and the producers were doing a Gone With the Wind search-the-whole-world for the star. The casting guys were friends of mine. I said ‘hey, when you get the girl, we’ll take whoever’s in second place.’ And the guys call me, ‘we got the girl for you…’
“She was 17, she was the pre-drug Zoë. She was on a scholarship to Columbia, I think a music scholarship. Brilliant, off the hook, super-talented, super-creative. She didn’t speak in the film but she had a gorgeous voice. And she was tragedy city. At 38 she was another dead junkie. My relationship to her, after that film for whatever reasons, I couldn’t be around the chick. We got together again and she wrote Bad Lieutenant, and she acted in Bad Lieutenant, and now she’s dead. It’s sad. For me, Ms .45 is sad because of her. It’s a heartbreak because we couldn’t help her. I couldn’t at least at that time.”
I read somewhere that she had a lot of pet rats.
“Oh her rats! She had rats. She had this beautiful apartment on 5th Avenue and 11th Street. Can you imagine? Eight-room rambling apartment-house in a beautiful brownstone. Now God knows what it is. She had like 50 live rats in there. She knew the names of each one, treating them for whatever disease. The only person I ever brought into her house that was cool with it was Chris Walken. She was writing something for him. She was writing the biography of John Holmes, which we never did make. I couldn’t go. Man, I used to tape electrician’s tape to my you know. The ultimate fear is a rat running up your pants, right?
“When I’d go over with people, I’d say, ‘Well, she’s got gerbils.’ And she would say, ‘They’re rats, Abel!’ OK, they’re fuckin’ rats, honey. They were in cages most of them, but there were five or eight specific ones. You’d be standing there and they’d be on the cupboard. I don’t… the chick was too much, man.”