As horror fans we’ve heard it all. ‘Horror is easy. Horror is cheap. Horror is vulgar.’ And while these criticisms are rather easy to shrug off and ignore, there’s one that consistently ruffles my black feathers: ‘Horror characters have no depth.’ For some reason, horror tends to get accused of shallow, tropey characters more than other genres. While there are of course horror films that warrant character-based criticism, there are just as many that deserve praise. Here, in this monthly editorial, we’ll take a look at some of the best developed, most interesting and well-rounded characters that horror has to offer. These characters defy stereotypes and their value transcends the genre into the world of film at large. First up is Thana from Abel Ferrara’s 1981 film, Ms. 45.
Tagline: She was abused and violated. It will never happen again!
A timid and mute seamstress goes insane after being attacked and raped twice in one day, in which she takes to the streets of New York City after dark and randomly shoots men with a .45 caliber pistol.
It would be easy to write off Ms. 45 as a simple rape-revenge exploitation film. However, there are a variety of factors that contribute to the film resisting that title while simultaneously embracing and elevating it. The largest and most obvious example against a simple categorization is the character of Thana played by the complicated and brilliant Zoe Lund. Through Lund’s performance, Thana becomes a character that transfixes, raises questions and invokes both sympathy and fear. All without saying a single word.
Right off the bat we learn many things about Thana. She is a young, reserved woman living and working in the garment industry of New York. Along with her beautiful physical features sans makeup, Thana is also mute. While this fact in no way inhibits her mental capabilities or her ability to function as a professional seamstress, the people in her every day life tend to infantilize her. We very quickly see her co-workers, boss and landlady consistently talk down to her and treat her as if she is somehow incapable. But here’s the thing. Thana doesn’t want or need help with any of it. She turns down opportunities to socialize and ignores offers of help, all with a look of someone who has been hearing these things her whole life. Through these early initial interactions with people in her immediate circle we get a very early impression of Thana‘s personality. It’s not that she is scared or can’t ask to hang out with friends, it’s that she doesn’t want to. Perhaps that’s due to years of being treated differently, or perhaps it’s just her nature. Whatever the cause, Thana‘s desire to simply be left alone (by strangers and acquaintances alike) soon takes on layers of meaning and relevance.
What comes next are two separate, unrelated, but equally depraved and disturbing armed sexual assaults on Thana. The first rape happens in a dirty alley while Thana is walking home from the grocery store. The next occurs once she returns home and interrupts an armed burglary in process. This second attack becomes a horrifically disgusting crime of opportunity once the burglar discerns Thana has already been raped. However, this one ends differently when Thana fights back, killing her attacker.
“It would be easy to write off Ms. 45 as a simple rape-revenge exploitation film. However, there are a variety of factors that contribute to the film resisting that title while simultaneously embracing and elevating it.”
While truly disturbing, there is nothing exploitative about the scenes, and Ferrara deserves some credit for that. While a lot of exploitation films tend to linger on similar scenes, Thana‘s first assault especially is limited in both screen time and visual sexual content. Instead, the focus in both attacks is on Thana‘s experience. As the terror and shock explodes from her eyes, her inability to scream out for help adds a whole other layer of horror to the scenes. Together, these two attacks work as the inciting incident for Thana. As one can easily imagine, what she has gone through in this one day is more than any one person could reasonably process. On top of layers of new trauma to deal with, whatever underlying mental health issues were already present now become heightened.
As we enter the next phase in Thana‘s journey, we see her struggle to make sense of what she has experienced. At work, she becomes triggered by her boss angrily ripping a flawed top off a mannequin and throwing the fabric in the trash. As the situation causes her to experience a panic attack, her co-workers all swarm around her offering help and concern. Despite their outward attempts to console her, their questions and words lack true empathy as she is clearly overwhelmed. Therefore, the actions come off insincere as none of them truly seem to care or attempt to ‘listen’ to Thana. Later, when her boss pseudo-counsels her in his office, he advises Thana to ‘Be more like the other girls’ and to ‘Try harder.’ All while massaging her shoulders in a totally inappropriate and creepy fashion. Thana‘s response when her co-worker questions her about the meeting? A written note saying, ‘I just wish they would leave me alone.’
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Through Lund’s incredibly expressive facial and body expressions, we are able to emotionally track Thana as she enters a new headspace. Because of this, when Thana returns home to the dead body in her house, her choice to dismember and slowly dispose of the body makes sense to us. Each and every time Thana leaves her apartment with a piece of her attacker, she not only disposes of him, but with a bit of her former self as well. She is no longer the same person she was before, but who she is becoming is still a mystery to both us and her. However, it’s not long before Thana makes a pivotal decision that will act as her first true turning point.
“Through Lund’s incredibly expressive facial and body expressions, we are able to emotionally track Thana as she enters a new headspace.”
While making one of her many rapist disposal runs, Thana becomes the target of a young man who seems to have nothing better to do than to verbally harass women on the street. He notices Thana drop her bag, and runs after her to return it under the guise of altruism. Thana finds herself cornered in an alley, and when the man begins to approach her, she pulls a gun (left by the rape-burglar) and proceeds to shoot the man. In this moment, a bevy of emotions come silently exploding out of Thana. In her eyes we see fear and anger. Her strong stance and determined grip on the gun exude power and determination. And with her lack of hesitation, her commitment to her choice is made clear. While the encounter was not pre-meditated, it was inevitable.
After Thana returns home, she vomits in the bathroom, purging what is left of her formal self. While this recent event has shaken her, it has also awakened and empowered her. She begins to play up her stunning natural beauty and begins dressing in a way that she finds powerful. Leather pants, black gloves, red lipstick. Using her own inherent appeal, she deliberately becomes the predator and the prey. What comes next are a series of kills focused on men who are somehow abusing, disrespecting or exploiting women. In these incredible screen moments, Thana is focused, powerful and determined. As an audience, we can sympathize, understand and even support her in this endeavor. These men are scum and after everything Thana has been through, her actions can be hypothetically validated. However, Thana is not as simple a character as that. On one of her night hunts in Chinatown, Thana begins stalking a young man who can’t really be accused of being anything other than a good boyfriend. After dropping his girlfriend off at work with a kiss, Thana stalks him and becomes frustrated when she loses the man entering a building. Here, for the first time, we don’t agree with Thana‘s actions and the deterioration of her mental state becomes clear.
Ushering us into the third act of the film, Thana encounters a chatty bar guy endlessly complaining about his ex-wife. Thana finally brandishes the gun and pulls the trigger. *Click* Nothing. Immediately the shock is written all over her face when the gun misfires. This was not in her plan. Quickly, we see fear once again return to her as the man grabs the gun. And then, surprising her and us, the man chooses to put the gun to his own head. This time, the gun works.
This moment takes Thana by surprise and even without words, we can tell she is unsettled with the way the event has made her feel. For a moment, she was scared and not in control and this frustrates her. Her anger escalates the next day and she takes it out on her landlady’s vocal dog Phil. This is another situation in which Thana‘s actions defy audience support and further show that Thana‘s quest is not just a simple rape-revenge or avenger story. This quest of hers is personal and more than than, she enjoys it. But this is not the end of Thana‘s story. All of these events, all of these kills have to be leading somewhere right?
In a poetic and clever play with the story, Thana chooses to unleash her full potential at her work’s Halloween party. While cheekily costumed as a nun, Thana is now fully transformed. As she is dressing for the party, we see her acting out her plan in true Taxi Driver fashion. Unlike many of her attacks, this one is more focused and deliberate. Time and time again we’ve seen her absorb her boss’ disgusting micro-aggressions and watch her co-workers socialize and interact in ways she doesn’t fully understand. Like a sponge she has been silently absorbing it all just waiting for the right moment to release. This party is her moment. She is attending with a purpose, and that purpose is dark.
“The complexity of Thana‘s character is one that defies a simple characterization. She is not just an avenging angel or a symbol for women’s empowerment.”
While Thana calmly navigates the party, the trap she has laid at her apartment for her landlady has sprung. Saving the most important piece for last, she has left her rapist’s severed head in a place she knew it would be discovered. The last remaining piece of her fear, her former self has been disposed of in the most public of ways. In doing so, Thana demonstrates a clear self-awareness of both purpose and consequence. She knows what will happen when the landlady discovers that head, and yet she sets the events in motion regardless. Her fate is sealed, but this time it’s on her terms.
As the party rages on downstairs, Thana calmly allows her boss to paw over her body as she knows what lies ahead for him. Once he discovers the gun hidden in her stockings, her true and final plan is set in motion. While it’s the only kill to happen off screen, it symbolically holds the most weight. This is the man she has truly been waiting to exact revenge upon for both symbolic and literal reasons. Now that her cover is fully blown, Thana holds nothing back. Shot after lipstick-lace-shot is fired with purpose and fueled by silent determination. While men are clearly her victims of choice, some of these men have done nothing to specifically warrant or deserve her wrath. However, that fact only further solidifies Thana‘s full character transformation. Any previous remnants of her former logic or moral code left the moment her boss’ body hit the floor.
There was to be no happy ending for Thana, and she knew that. And yet, she did not expect her downfall to come at the literal hand of a woman. As she executes her final shot, a co-worker stabs a cake knife (in indisputable phallic like fashion) into her lower back. As Thana spins around to face her assailant, we see genuine shock and sadness spread across her face. Quietly, the whispered word ‘sister’ escapes her lips. Here is this moment, as Thana‘s body falls to the floor, the tragedy of her thought process is made clear. The subjective nature of her actions never once became a consideration for her, and thus became her downfall.
No, Ms. 45 is not about women’s liberation, any more than it is about mutes’ liberation, or garment workers’ liberation, or your liberation, or my own. Notice that her climactic victim is not a rapist in the clinical sense. He is her boss. The real rapist. Our real rapist. And so, Ms. 45 presents a humble, yet well-crafted metaphor for rebellion of the any-sexed oppressed. But the gun was put in a woman’s hand. A woman carried that universal message, and so it was all the more powerful. It made us shiver. Male and female. Different timbres and temperatures of shiver, but shiver all around. – Zoe Tamerlis Lund
The complexity of Thana‘s character is one that defies a simple characterization. She is not just an avenging angel or a symbol for women’s empowerment. She is not just a victim, disabled, mentally unstable or simply on a straight revenge mission. Thana is all of these things, and so much more. As her character unfolds before us, we find ourselves cheering and fearing her in equal measure. Her journey is one that is so sympathetic, so terrifying and well executed that it transcends the film itself. While Zoe Lund’s life tragically ended far too soon, her performance and embodiment of Ms. 45 is one that deserves endless exploration and respect.