© 2004 Filmmonthly.com
Thriller - A Cruel Picture (1974)
by Barry Meyer
They robbed her innocence, rendered her mute, and stole her life ... now she'll have her revenge. From Synapse Films.
70s American cinema seemed to have a fairly tight headlock on the revenge film, with amazing blood and guts classics like Rolling Thunder, Death Wish, Taxi Driver, Hardcore, and the Billy Jack flicks. Who'd have thought that some Swedish director who makes innocent little family movies woulda showed us one better. Bo Arne Vibenius, who'd previously worked on Ingmar Bergman's films before branching out on his own, siced his own version of the rape/revenge film onto the world, with the stunningly unsettling Thriller - A Cruel Picture (hell, even Bergman, himself, beat us all to the punch when he delivered Virgin Spring in 1960 - the unlikely inspiration for Wes Craven's super-exploitation flick Last House on the Left). Thriller not only raised the bar on the revenge flick with it's alarming violence, it also leaped over it with some fairly disturbing graphic sex. So edgy was this film that Thriller gained infamy by being the first film ever to be banned in Sweden. And I always thought the Swedes were supposed to be so progressive!
Thriller tells the story of Frigga (played by Swedish starlet Christina Lindberg) an innocent young woman who'd been rendered mute by a traumatic childhood sexual attack. Frigga spends her days working on her parent's farm, tucked away in the tranquil hills of Sweden and shielded away from the cruel world. After missing the bus to her doctor's office in the city, Frigga accepts a ride from a dubious stranger in a swanky sports car. The suave gentleman persuades Frigga to let him drive her, and winds up drugging and kidnapping the innocent girl. Before long, Frigga gets a new name, Madeline, and is forced to turn tricks for Tony, her captor-turned-pimp. As an eye-for-an-eye initiation, Tony plucks out Frigga's left eye after she refuses her first john and sends him running by clawing his face. Missing for several weeks, Frigga's parents become distraught, and the father commits suicide. Frigga hears the news and becomes bitter over the cards life has dealt her, so she begins to secretly train herself in the fine arts of fighting, killing and revenge. Transformed into a one-woman killing machine -- and armed with a sawed-off shotgun and sporting a boss black leather eye patch -- Frigga uses her new skills to enact bloody revenge on those who have done her wrong.
Vibenius may have worked closely with Ingmar Bergman on the legendary director's arty, existential films, but his cinematic influences didn't come from his mentor. With a hearty use of slow-mo photography throughout most of the action sequences -- with Christina Lindberg firing off explosive rounds from her sawed off shotgun and kicking the shit out of a mess of combatants who spew long trails of crimson blood from their mouths - Vibenius seems most influenced by maverick director Sam Peckinpah. Peckinpah was known for the use of action and violence over dialogue as a valid valid narrative structure, and Vibenius tried hard to emulate that style. Though there are some vast gaps in Thriller's narrative, and considerable leaps of logic, Peckinpah would be fairly impressed with the homage.
The action auteur was also known for his heavily misogynistic treatment of women - and this is another aspect of Peckinpah's style that Vibenius seems to have cribbed. Though Peckinpah never used explicit sex in any of his films, he was reputed to have allowed the mistreatment of women on his set, as well as in front of the camera (Susan George had expressed fear for her safety when a gang-rape scene in Straw Dogs got too realistic under the director's commands). It was the graphic use of explicit sex that ultimately separates Vibenius from Peckinpah, and set Thriller apart from the other exploitative rape/revenge flicks, including I Spit On Your Grave, and Ms. 45. Not content enough to portray the harshness and brutality of rape in more conventional ways, Vibenius displays the sex in all its close-up, pornographic glory. These scenes certainly prove to be unsettling and far from glamorous (by today's audience may seem more like old fashioned porn than shocking reality) giving the story a necessary sense of cruelty. Whether these graphic images are truly necessary, or if they're just plain gratuitous is, more or less, up to the viewer.
Regardless of all the hype and controversy Thriller is a striking film. Christina Lindberg gives a bold performance, melting away the vulnerable desperation of a victim who channels her bitterness into a powerful force of vengeance, with convincing energy. Vibenius, as well, demonstrates a perceptive eye with visuals that pit some of the violence against unlikely backgrounds. Most memorable is a scene where Frigga desperately tries to escape her captor -- crying and horrified, the girl crawls through a field covered in beautiful fall-colored leaves. The juxtaposition of the terrifying pursuit and the glorious colors proved to be quite unsettling.
Thriller has also earned some attention recently, beyond the controversial sex and violence. Pop director Quentin Tarantino has been a longtime fan of cult films and action flicks from around the world, and has not been shy about drawing inspiration from the obscure films he's seen (nor has he been shy about actually lifting sequences from them, as in Reservoir Dogs/City Of Fire). With the release of Kill Bill; Volumes 1 and 2, Tarantino gave praise to Thriller, confessing that the rape/revenge tome provided much influence in creating the two blockbusting epics. He even modeled Elle Driver's trademark eye patch (sported wickedly by Daryl Hannah) after the image of Christina Lindberg.
Synapse Films has painstakingly restored Thriller from original vault materials to bring this totally uncensored version of the ultimate revenge-exploitation movie to its rabid fans. Originally released in the U.S. in a heavily truncated form as They Call Her One Eye (as well as A Hooker's Revenge), Thriller is presented here with over 20 minutes of previously censored footage -- all the graphic sex, violence and action - restored to its original edit.
Barry Meyer is a writer living in slo-mo out Jersey way.
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