Angel Of Vengeance (1981)
By: Mr Intolerance on October 9, 2009  | 
DVD
Seven7 (France). Region 2, PAL. 1.78:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 5.1, English DD 2.0 Mono, French DD 2.0 Mono. French Subtitles. 81 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Abel Ferrara
Starring: Zoe Tamerlis Lund, Albert Sinkys, Darlene Stuto, Helen McGara, Nike Zachmanoglou, Abel Ferrara
Screenplay: N G St John
Country: USA
AKA: Ms. 45
External Links
IMDB Rotten YouTube
It Will Never Happen Again!"

The unequivocal nature of Angel of Vengeance's tag-line is pretty indicative of the remorseless, unflinching, steely nature of the film itself, and indeed also of its heroine, the mute seamstress Thana (Lund). Angel of Vengeance, widely known as Ms. 45, is a one-of-a-kind film, despite adhering to many of the lurid conventions of exploitation films generally and more specifically the hard to defend nature of the rape/revenge genre. The narratives of these films are usually pretty straight-forward – our heroine is usually a placid, sedentary and innocent woman who for whatever reason is raped, otherwise humiliated and/or beaten, and eventually, having been made abject, cast aside like trash. She then learns how to defend herself and takes after her attacker or attackers, administering an increasingly bloody retribution the impotent if not openly corrupt legal system and society generally can't openly allow, let alone condone, often with a touch of poetic justice. More often than not, her end is left ambiguous – let's face it, the audience really doesn't want to further punish a woman who's already been through horrors. Angel of Vengeance doesn't necessarily play by all of those rules, and its individuality as well as its objective view of its heroine and her actions place it apart from the pack. Director Abel Ferrara's talent behind the camera helps elevate this film into something better and more unique than the average sleaze-grinder.

Thana is about as vulnerable and sympathetic a victim as you are likely to get. She's mute, alone, child-like in appearance, manner and decoration of her apartment, shy and I don't think that it's any accident that her job is a traditionally feminine one – a seamstress. In a violent man's world like New York in 1981, she isn't exactly best equipped for survival – through no fault of her own, this isolated and disempowered woman will be preyed upon; this is part of the horror and tragedy of modern life that Ferrara depicts, whether intentionally or not.

I'll just say at this point that Lund's performance single-handedly powers this film and helps to raise it above the rank and file. Even without saying a single syllable she dominates every scene, expressing emotion (and ultimately complete dispassion) with her face in a way that leaves many more recognised actors for dead. The dramatic range she achieves is completely credible in a way that you probably wouldn't expect in what is essentially a B-movie.

Even from the title the pro-feminist, anti-misogynist agenda is apparent – it's not "Miss .45" or "Mrs .45", you know. And once Thana (an abbreviation of the Greek word "Thanatos", an expression of the death wish, or from a Freudian perspective, the willingness to indulge in dangerous behaviours, and the ugly sister to "Eros", or the more loving aspect of the human psyche) takes up the .45 automatic of the film's title, the marrying of feminine empowerment to traditionally phallic male means of oppression or violence is complete, and she's ready to exact some vengeance. I'm getting ahead of myself.

Thana is walking home from her job in Garment Center, Manhattan, when she's dragged into an alley by a masked assailant (played by director Ferrara – I hope his analyst is on danger money; why would you want to cast yourself as a potentially homicidal rapist?), bent over a garbage bin, face pressed to the filth, and raped. Obviously traumatised, she gets home to her apartment only to find that it's not the safe haven she was hoping for, having been broken into by a burglar who, when he finds that she has no money, rapes her for the second time that day at gunpoint. Snap. She beats the man to death with an iron, and then dumps the body in the bathtub, to later dismember it, throw parts of it in the trash around various parts of New York, and even give some of it to her obnoxious nosy harridan of a landlady to be fed to the landlady's equally repellent and hateful dog. Holy shit! Now that is vengeance. Like the old saying goes, "Two wrongs don't make a right, but they make you feel a whole lot better." And Thana, now the immediate trauma is over, needs to feel better, and redressing gender inequities is a way she sees as a way forward to do so.

Now, the dead fella's .45 is in Thana's possession, and much like Paul Kersey in Death Wish (a film Angel of Vengeance is often compared to – honestly, the similarities besides this one are minimal to me – many of the themes in either film unique to each film with little cross-over besides the most superficial), Thana's reactions to violence, having had violence enter her life, have changed – slowly at first, but eventually with a roller-coaster momentum. The gun, previously a symbol of terror, becomes a symbol of liberation. She starts having visions of her first, unpunished assailant (who after raping her and before fleeing the scene promised to come back for her), and as she slips into a kind of misandronist paranoia (albeit a totally understandable one), starts to perceive all men as potential rapists and tyrants, from her prissy and patronising boss to the street hustler who pursues her while distributing bags of rapist to disparate parts of the city, much to his detriment.

Speaking of the city, it is, if you'll excuse the almost unpardonable cliché, practically a character in its own right. There's garbage everywhere, the noise of life on the street is offensive and intrusive, the general populace, or what we see of them at least, are the most unlikeable cavalcade of human offal (Thana's equally beleaguered workmates aside) you're likely to see, the men specifically. I've never thought of asking a girl out by standing on a street corner and asking her to sit on my face as my opening line, personally. That's the kind of world poor frightened Thana is immersed in – a world where sex is a powerplay at best, a means of violent, animalistic and brutal oppression at worst. People don't connect here, and there's no idea that relationships can work; in that regard you see an echo of the same theme as Ferrara raised it rather hamfistedly in The Driller Killer, or some ten years later in, God help us, Body Snatchers. All of the women we see in Angel of Vengeance are alone, whether literally, as in most cases, or figuratively. Modern day New York as Ferrara depicts it is a complete abnegation of the Brady Bunch-style American Dream ideal of the white-picket fence, two kids, a nice house and car and an upwardly mobile job. His vision here, as always, is bleak and comfortless, bordering on the existential, if not positively life-denying.

Thana's conscience about killing perceived threats changes at the same rate as her sense of identity, and her identification of those threats. Her femininity becomes a weapon equal to the .45 she becomes evermore adept with (and never seems to need to reload or buy bullets for, but let's not go there...). As violence becomes an intrinsic part of her life, the Thanatos and the Eros start to merge. Thana starts to dress more provocatively, her blood-red lipstick becomes emblematic of not only her growing bloodlust (and let's face it, giving her experiences with every man she comes across in this film, you can't blame her), but also the feminine wiles she uses to lure men to her. And...BAM! This is where the film enters a kind of moral de-militarised zone. Thana starts to lure men towards her basically in order to kill them when they make advances on her. Ferrara must have been really hating himself when he made this flick (probably hence casting himself as a rapist), because by making Thana so initially sympathetic he's basically saying that each and every man on the planet is a potential rapist. Sure, pretty much each and every man in the film deserves exactly what's coming to them, but when innocents are killed solely for the crime of possession of a penis, well, the moral compass we view the film with starts to swing around a little. Mind you, if it was a paint-by-numbers revenge flick, it wouldn't have stood the test of time so well.

Before Thana attends her work Halloween party (dressed in a rather abbreviated nun's habit, accentuating her aberrant use of her own sexuality – yeah, okay, that's a man's view of proceedings) for the film's apocalyptic climactic moments, there's one scene that you may have heard about I'd like to briefly discuss. Thana is "picked up" (who am I fooling, she's in the driver's seat the whole time) by a fella whose marriage has gone down the toilet – his wife is cheating on him with another woman (his best vengeance? He strangles her cat – The Killing Kind, anyone?) and he's at a pretty low ebb. He doesn't put his moves on Thana, yet she still finds it necessary to try to kill him – her reasons are never really explained besides the ones I've given above. The scene plays out I think quite unexpectedly, opening another different moral window on Angel of Vengeance, and allowing for another layer of meaning to be read into this deceptively simple film. Thana isn't the only initially impotent victim with recourse to violence as a solution, her tragic story is only one in a city full of tragedy, and that's part of the horror of the film. So is where that violence is directed – the choice of victim for the wronged party is a complex one indeed.

Critically mauled upon its original theatrical release in the States, Angel of Vengeance is a film that really didn't find its audience until video, and find that audience it did...with a vengeance! Sorry, couldn't resist. Most sites like this one (albeit not as good as Digital Retribution) rate this film very highly indeed, with many fans of cult cinema seeing Angel of Vengeance as Ferrara's iconic work, or if not, then certainly as an early masterpiece of his, and one rarely, if ever, surpassed. On this re-watch a lot of the at first not-so-initially-apparent levels of complexity came to the fore; to see this as simply just another exploitation film would be a deeply dumb idea, and the ideas it raises about the nature of vengeance and justice are every bit as weighty as those raised in Oscar-winning fare like The Accused or The Unforgiven. Re-watch this with a critical eye and hopefully you'll see what I mean.

I've tried to avoid spoilers as best I could (I wanted to give you more than just a capsule review of this iconic film), and I've deliberately not given you a blow-by-blow retelling of each and every killing Thana makes or her motives for them – you can see them for yourself, and it wouldn't really add anything to either this review, or your enjoyment of the film if you've not seen it before (or even if you had), but shall we just say that's she's a busy little beaver (no, I don't mean it in that way), and given the high bodycount, a helluva lot of fellas must have rued the day they crossed paths with this particular angel of vengeance.
Video
The picture is tip-top. You'd almost believe that you were knee deep in the filthy sewer that New York is represented as being in this film. The grime is practically palpable – so are the anxiety and claustrophobia. Ferrara is by no means my favourite director (matter of fact I tend to dislike his films more than like them), but here he creates a cold, inimical urban wasteland by letting his camera do the talking and laying off much of the heavy handed symbolism and stylised shots of forgettable dreck like The Driller Killer.
Audio
I preferred watching this in the English dual mono track as it kinda reminded me of the first time I saw it back in the day on VHS. It's a grimy film, the 5.1 track just somehow didn't seem to suit it – it's just superfluous, too much. I mean, Angel of Vengeance is hardly a whirling-blades-of-death action-soundfest. The 2.0 track sufficed, thank you – and I should probably mention that the French subtitles aren't burnt in, they are most definitely removable. The rather dissonant score adds to the uneasy feel of the film, too, veering from almost blaxploitation swagger to harsh stabs and raw blasts of noise to punctuate the nastiness. Oh, and in case you're blind, drunk or stupid, as I mentioned above the featurettes are unsubtitled French-language only. Bon chance!
Extra Features
Not a great deal, and really, after all, not the reason you're buying the film – in particular this version. You're after the only uncut DVD version there is, preferably with an anamorphic picture if you own a big screen TV, so mission accomplished on both counts. Your other Extras, such as they are, include a slipcase and two unsubtitled, French-language featurettes, the twenty minute Auto-défense: autopsie d'un genre cinématographique and the 11 minute L'Ange de la vengeance: la sortie française. This is all well and good, but if you can't parlez vous Francaise, well my friend, you just paid a lot of cash for what is effectively a bare bones disc. And a lot of cash it will cost you now, because these days this little baby is as rare as rocking horse shit.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
The best version available of an absolutely essential revenge film. The only problem with getting it is that it's almost prohibitively expensive, unless you live in France, it's getting incredibly difficult to locate and the Extras package is not English-friendly in the slightest. This is a crying shame given the quality of the film itself and the treatment it's been given – OAR, anamorphic and uncut, unlike the Image Entertainment version which was previously the only version you could get your grubby mitts on. Angel of Vengeance (this release bears the Frenchified version of the alternate title L'Ange de la vengeance) at times uncomfortably straddles the prurient excesses of the exploitation film, the man-hating sensibilities and vehemence of a separatist feminist arthouse flick, the cold and bloody frontier justice of the rape-revenge film and the gritty street-level squalor of pre-Guiliani New York in the early 80s. I say "uncomfortably" because Angel of Vengeance seems, like much of Ferrara's body of work to be a schizophrenic film – you can understand why if the director was trying to represent his heroine's decaying sense of identity and morality via his wildly oscillating approach, but it means that this isn't a film for everyone. If you go in expecting a more conventional approach to the rape/revenge genre (for example I Spit On Your Grave), you may be disappointed, but to me the film's idiosyncracies have given it much of its power and originality, and much of its well-deserved long-lasting appeal and cult following. I recommend you watch it because even though it's part of a pretty formulaic, tired and gratuitous genre ever-increasingly built on shock value and rubbing the viewers' collective noses in filth (a la the execrable Baise Moi, or the morally grubby Irreversible), I really don't think you'll have seen anything like it. Poetic, powerful and confrontational, much like its eponymous heroine Angel of Vengeance stands alone.

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