Thriller: A Cruel Picture Review
A young woman named Madeleine (Christina Lindberg), struck dumb as a result of being raped as a child by a perverted old man, works at her parents' farm. One afternoon, she misses the bus into town and accepts a lift from Tony (Heinz Hopf), a charming gentleman with a flashy car. Tony treats her to a luxurious meal, then drugs her, and over the course of several days gets her addicted to heroine. Told that she will die without her daily fix, he forces her to work as a prostitute at his sleazy home-grown brothel, entertaining all manner of unsavoury characters. Things don't go well at first, as Madeleine scratches a client and Tony responds by blinding her in one eye, but when Madeleine discovers that her parents are dead (took their own lives or were killed by Tony's thugs?), she begins learning various combat skills and, sawn-off shotgun in hand, prepares to exact revenge against those who have wronged her.
Thriller: A Cruel Picture (Thriller: En Grym Film) is a movie that would probably have vanished into oblivion had Quentin Tarantino not drawn attention to it by claiming to have based the character of Elle Driver in his Kill Bill saga on the film's heroine. As a result of Tarantino's name-dropping, the film became the subject of far more interest than it would otherwise have received. Enter Synapse Films, a DVD production company specializing in releasing high quality versions of rare exploitation flicks and who, for a number of years, had been working on bringing an uncut version of Thriller to home cinema. Sensing the opportunity to make a quick buck, writer/producer/director Bo Arne Vibenius began wrongfully accusing Synapse of distributing the film unlawfully, resulting in in an online scandal that culminated with Vibenius making idle threats and threatening to "tell George Bush about [Synapse]". This can only have added to the interest surrounding the title and now, finally, Synapse is releasing Thriller on 28th September, in a production run limited to 25,000 copies. However, the question that always surrounds such releases is, of course, whether the film is genuinely any good or just another cheap exploitation movie that should really have been left in the vault.
One thing's for sure, people buying Thriller and expecting a 1970s Swedish version of Kill Bill are in for a rude awakening. Although both share the concept of a woman going on a spree killing those who wronged her, and yes, Madeleine bears more than a passing resemblance to Elle Driver in terms of eye injury and attire, Thriller is a different product entirely. For one thing, Kill Bill never included graphic sex scenes featuring close-ups of pentetration (of various orifices) and ejaculation. Around a minute of hard-core material found its way into the film, and the jury is out as to whether this was a good idea. Certainly, it comes across as unneccessary and was probably included purely to give audiences a cheap thrill or to repulse them, but it is nothing like as invasive as it sounds. I must confess that hardcore pornography does absolutely nothing for me (apart from making me laugh), but I do think that to include such material in scenes that essentially feature Madeleine being raped multiple times by members of both sexes was extremely bad judgement on the part of Vibenius. That said, one could make an argument for it being intended to highlight the full extent of the unpleasantness of Madeleine's plight, and I'm glad that the entire film has been included, so that audiences can see it, warts and all, and make up their own minds as to how they feel about the inclusion of this material.
Ignoring the dick-thrusting and anal penetration, what else have we got? Well, sit down before reading this, but I actually think Thriller is a pretty artistic piece of work. Visually, the whole thing is quite striking, with the sparsely decorated interiors (probably a result of the film's miniscule budget) contrasting with the outdoor splendour of Sweden in the autumn. Vibenius has the natural setting to his advantage and he proceeds to milk it to its fullest potential, with a rich palette of oranges and blues for the exteriors compared with the monochromatic walls of Tony's brothel. Light and shadow play a major part in the look of the film, and the natural backdrop against which it is set gives it an air of authenticity that belies the events that unfold. There are a number of very beautiful shots, my favourite being one in which Christina Lindberg emerges from a shed after sawing off a shotgun, and the dead autumn leaves on the ground swirl around her. I also appreciated the way that, as the film progressed and Madeleine's revenge drew closer to completion, the sky became more and more blue.
The film is paced very methodically, but this works in its favour as it allows us to get to know Madeleine and sympathize with her before she begins her campaign of bloody revenge. None of the characters are particularly three-dimensional, it's true, and Madeleine is no exception, but Christina Lindberg portrays her in a way that makes her sympathetic right from the outset. Her performance is so impressive that is comes as something of a surprise to learn that she was in fact a former model turned porn star. Heinz Hopf's Tony does exactly what is required of him and gets the job done, but to be honest his personality isn't important. In fact, this is true of everyone except Madeleine: they are all either horrible to her or kind to her, nothing in between. The first two-thirds of the film is essentially a montage showing everything that goes wrong for her, in unflinching detail (except her rape as a child, which is handled with surprising subtlety). We see Madeleine taken to the brink of despair, followed by her return from the abyss and hardening of her resolve as she learns the skills that will be neccessary to punish the brutes who have treated her so badly. The final act is a veritable bloodbath as Madeleine, using all manner of techniques, disposes of her enemies with a cold ruthlessness that is genuinely unsettling. The revenge sequences are flawed by the fact that they are played out in extreme slow motion - so slow, in fact, that I found myself looking at my watch while waiting for shots to end. This was partly done, I am told, to mask Christina Lindberg's lack of athletic ability, but Vibenius manages to turn it into a style that, if handled a little more judiciously, could have been very successful. Shots of blood flying from victims' mouths at something in the region of 1000 frames per second make for an awesome sight to behold.
Ultimately, Thriller is flawed and at times struggles to convince as a genuinely serious piece of work, but it has a good deal more going for it than a great deal of the exploitation shockers out there. Yes, the script is minimalist and the dialogue often clumsily expositional, but it is, for the most part, successful in its aims. While Tarantino and Uma Thurman improved upon the formula with Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2, Vibenius and Lindberg undeniably laid much of the groundwork upon which these glossy 21st century blockbusters are based. Thriller will not be to everyone's tastes, and I'm sure the hardcore footage will repulse some people, but curiosity seekers should find this to be an engaging and at times touching piece of work: a rare exploitation movie that actually comes close to being an art film.
This limited release presents Thriller: A Cruel Picture completely uncut, with more than 20 minutes of previously censored material reinstated. This film remains banned in its native Sweden, meaning that this unmolested version of the film is a rare beast indeed and one that, until now, few people, if any, have seen.
The film is presented anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The packaging lists 1.78:1 as the disc's ratio, but the image has black bars on either side, confirming that the presentation is actually in the film's original theatrical ratio. Given the film's budget and obscurity, and the fact that it was shot on 16mm film, this was never going to look as good as the latest blockbusters, but it's actually quite surprising just how nice it does look. Detail is limited by the nature of the source material, but colours and contrast are absolutely superb, with a fantasticly rich quality, and I could spot no edge enhancement. The grain structure has been maintained to an extent that is usually limited to Criterion releases, resulting in a fabulously film-like experience. I highly doubt that the film could look any better than this on the DVD format: Synapse have clearly invested a huge amount of effort in making this release look as stunning as possible.
In terms of audio, the original Swedish mono audio and an English mono dub are provided, both in Dolby Digital 2.0, with the option to view English subtitles that pertain to the Swedish dialogue. As with the image transfer, audio quality is limited by the film's age and budget. Both tracks sound rather thin, and are a good deal quieter than most DVDs, to the extent that I had to increase my speakers' volume to nearly three times their normal level.
It is interesting to note the differences between the two tracks. Most are minor (for example, in the Swedish version Tony refers to the protagonist as "the pirate", whereas in the English dub he calls her "one-eye"), but one rather odd point is the name given to the protagonist. In the Swedish version she is Madeleine, whereas in the English she is Frigga. Quite why her name was changed is a mystery to me. The English dub itself is actually not too bad, with a reasonable effort having been made to match the actors' lip movements with the dialogue, but of course the original Swedish soundtrack is the one to go for.
On paper, it would seem that a plethora of bonus materials have been provided; in reality, this is not the case. Missing is any kind of behind the scenes featurette or documentary - backstage materials are limited to the image galleries and some very skimpy liner notes provided in the DVD's inlay. While it's true that it would been difficult to put together a decent documentary, given that both Bo Arne Vibenius and Christina Lindberg repeatedly refused to participate in the making of this DVD, I'm sure there are plenty of scholars of schlock out there who would have been only too happy to record an audio commentary (I'm thinking of people like Joe Bob Briggs).
Promotional trailers include a US TV spot and theatrical trailer (both announcing film under the title of "They Call Her One-Eye"), a double feature trailer announcing the film as "Hooker's Revenge" and pairing it with The Photographer's Model, and a Swedish trailer, with the title Thriller. For some reason, the Swedish and US theatrical trailers are both subtitled in Spanish.
A 1-minute outtake reel is up next, featuring lengthier and alternate cuts of various stunts, including the infamous eye-poking shot. An alternative cut of the harbour fight is also provided, which is essentially a composite based on different footage shot for the US version, as well as some outtakes, that plays slightly differently from the version presented in the film itself, but doesn't radically alter the proceedings. The most noticeable difference is that the slow motion shots showing blood shooting out of the various combatants' mouths are missing.
The final feature in this section is a bizarre piece of work entitled "Movie in Pictures", which compresses the entire film to around 40 seconds by running through the whole thing very quickly. Quite frankly I am a little confused as to why such a feature was included, other than to fill space.
"In Bed with Christina" features a number of shots of Christina Lindberg posing nude or topless. This little number is... nice... to say the least. Behind the scenes snapshots and advertising materials are also included.
Stills are also provided for a deleted fight scene. According to the production notes, the lab incorrectly processed the footage, ruining two days' worth of filming, which led to the fight scene between Lindberg and the two police officers being relocated to a warehouse. This collection of photos attempts to piece together the events of the original version of this scene.
This section is rounded off with a collection of promotional photos illustrating a number of key scenes from the film.
A rather small filmography is also provided for Vibenius, as well as a somewhat larger one for Lindberg.
Thriller: A Cruel Picture is a film that manages to transcend its sleazy origins and become a genuinely gripping piece of work. Synapse have clearly put a great deal of loving care into this release and, while it could have benefited from more extensive extras, it undeniably presents the film in a manner that exceeds the quality of any previous release, legitimate or otherwise.