Back in the Times Square grindhouses of 1981 nobody ever could have guessed that Abel Ferrara’s “Ms. 45” would one day be exhibited alongside the Monets at the Museum of Fine Arts, but here we are.

The bad boy auteur’s symbolically fraught follow up to “The Driller Killer” screens tonight as part of the MFA’s “On The Fringe: American Cult Films of the 1980s,” which features a disreputable modern classic on the first Friday of every month for the rest of the year. This one’s a doozy.

Seventeen-year-old Zoe Tamerlis Lund gives a stunning performance as Thana — named for the feminine form of “death” in Greek, just one of the screenplay’s deliciously unsubtle touches. She’s a mute seamstress who goes insane after being raped twice in a single afternoon. (Ferrara himself plays the first assailant, who notably gets away clean.) Thana caves in the head of her second attacker with an iron and pockets his pistol. She hacks the body into pieces and keeps them in her fridge, depositing limbs in trash cans here and there all over Manhattan while going on a kill-crazy rampage offing random, predatory men.
A distaff companion to “Death Wish” and the vigilante fantasies that were all the rage in that crime-ridden era, “Ms. 45” captures a crumbling New York City comprised mainly of alleys overrun with trash. Ferrara’s subjective camerawork presents ogling males as omnipresent threats, catcalling from every street corner. Thana starts blowing them away first out of self-defense, then righteous indignation, and finally just because they’re annoying.
“Ms. 45” differs from other rape-revenge exploitation movies in its refusal to objectify the protagonist. The camera doesn’t leer. Ferrara and screenwriter Nicholas St. John went on to carve out a career of high-minded, lowbrow pictures such as “Fear City,” “King of New York” and “The Addiction,” but the director is probably best known for 1992’s “Bad Lieutenant,” which he co-wrote with Lund. Ferrara’s movies have a way of being morally serious despite their sometimes silly genre trappings, and “Ms. 45” provides a feast for feminist studies.
We’re never told why Thana doesn’t speak, but she’s a stand-in for women suffering in silence. The intensely Catholic Ferrara outfits her in a nun’s habit and garter belts for the final massacre, and it’s no coincidence that she’s betrayed by a female friend holding a phallic-looking knife at crotch level. Thirty-six years later, the ugly and audacious “Ms. 45” has lost none of its pungent punch.
If you go:
Feb. 3 at 8 p.m.
Museum of Fine Arts Boston
465 Huntington Ave.
$9 members/$11 non-members,
Latest From ...