Exploitation cinema doesn’t have a particularly good name, and in a way I think that’s how I, and other fans, like it. As with all genres, there’s a lot of crap to sift through, but every now and then you’ll find a dirty, battered, unpolished and (if you’re lucky) uncut diamond of a movie. Thriller: A Cruel Picture is unapologetic and unflinching in its status as an exploitation movie. It’s a film that befits its name, and it’s been restored to all its scuzzy glory in this definitive, extras packed, 4K and Blu Ray release from Vinegar Syndrome.
Left mute following an assault as a child, 15 years later Madeline (Christina Lindberg) hitches a ride from her village into Stockholm with Tony (Heinz Hopf). Initially he wines and dines her, but when Tony gets Madeline home he drugs her, gets her hooked on heroin, and puts her to work as a prostitute. When she scratches her first customer’s face, Tony cuts out her eye. As she works, Madeline saves her cut of the money and on her days off she plots her vengeance, taking classes in karate, shooting, and high speed driving until the day she fights back.
In the three years prior to Thriller, Christina Lindberg had made ten films but, as she observes, most of them had cast her for her body—she was, after all, Sweden’s most famous nude model at this time—rather than any other talents. Writer/Director Bo Arne Vibenius apparently didn’t think much of her dialogue delivery, and elected to make Madeline (who is also called Frigga in some prints) a mute character. Ironically, stripping away her voice lends Lindberg a whole new dimension. She had always possessed a doll-like beauty, and an outward innocence that was effectively set against the sexploitation content of the films she made, but those other films showed her body almost entirely as an item for display.
Make no mistake, Vibenius is having his cake and eating it in terms of exploiting and dwelling on Lindberg’s nudity, but there is another dimension to what he’s doing here. Thriller, for all its depiction of sex and nudity, is never a sexy film. Lindberg’s acting and Vibenius’ coldly clinical camera put us inside Madeline’s experience. Every time we see her with a client it’s clear this isn’t a job, it’s an unending series of assaults. Vibenius only makes that point more powerfully with the hardcore inserts (made not with Lindberg, but with a couple who performed in live sex shows in clubs). In these scenes, Lindberg’s performance, set against those inserts, paints a tough to watch picture of Madeline’s pain, while in the scenes outside the brothel, it’s her resolve that comes through.
Anna Oskarsdotter, who designed Lindberg’s costumes, deserves special credit. In her colour co-ordinated clothing and eyepatches, Madeline’s look is instantly recognisable and peerlessly cool (so much so that Tarantino swiped the look for Elle Driver in Kill Bill). Sadly, Lindberg’s brief filmmaking sojourn in Japan never had her cross paths (onscreen at least) with Meiko Kaji, but watching her here: her one eye staring down the barrel of her sawn off shotgun, she’s as commanding and as instantly iconic in exploitation cinema as Kaji’s Female Prisoner Scorpion.
If Vibenius repels us with the film’s scenes of sexual exploitation, he takes a similarly impactful approach to the scenes of violence. Madeline’s attacks on first her customers and then the men Tony hires to go after her are shot at 3000 FPS. This super slow motion, which required specially made cameras, gives the violence appear almost as if it is happening underwater. You could easily read it as being how Madeline experiences the moment, whether that means that she’s wanting to savour it or that her nerves make every second seem interminably long. It makes obvious that Lindberg is doing all of her own stunt work (except perhaps some of the driving, though she did at least some of that, despite not having a license at the time). It also gives some of the brutality a strange beauty. This is best seen in the very long karate fight, as streams of blood artfully arc from the mouths of the stunt performers.
Thriller: A Cruel Picture won’t be for everyone, but the title itself will have the advantage of filtering out most people who wouldn’t like it. It definitely does what it says on the tin. It’s not for me to say whether it now looks like a feminist film, but certainly it can’t be said that it presents Madeline purely as a victim. She may be victimised, but she emphatically takes back control in the latter part of the film. The hardcore moments, the real scalpel to a real eye and the aesthetics of the violence will still offend plenty of people, but if exploitation cinema is your thing then Thriller is an essential text. Not only does it feature an iconic and excellent performance from Lindberg, its influence can be felt in many films that followed in its wake, and Vibenius’ controlled direction makes it as technically interesting as it is compelling purely as a revenge movie.
Can we talk about the box for a moment? This is probably the best looking boxset I own. The pink hard board outer case has new paintings on both sides: Lindberg in her eyepatch with her shotgun on her shoulder on the front, and a montage image on the back. Inside are two slipcases (much better quality than most), with artwork for each cut of the film. The black 4K cases inside have double sided inserts, so your cases can have different artwork to the slipcases. It’s a stunning package, with real thought put into it, right down to notches cut in the outer case to make taking the slipcases out easy.
As for the image, earlier this year, I made the mistake of buying the Blu-ray release of Thriller from Synapse Films. That disc looks like what it is: a simple upgrade of their previous DVD. It would have been somewhat impressive a decade ago, but it was clear there had been no additional restoration, and overall it wasn’t much better than just putting the old DVD in a good upscaling machine. Vinegar Syndrome’s 4K is a revelation. It’s still not exactly reference quality: there are limitations to what can be done with a near 50 year-old super 16 print of a very low budget film. There are still some stray flecks and lines on the print, but they are minimal, and the colour and detail are magnificent. The grain is of course heavy, but lends a pleasingly filmic texture, rather than swarming the frame. I’ll always choose grain over DNR and so, it seems, will Vinegar Syndrome.
Not exactly an extra, but included on its own 2 disc set, is the alternative cut of the film, as distributed in the US, under the title They Call Her One Eye. I’ve never seen this version, because not only does it remove the hardcore shots and the gouging of Madeline’s eye (done on a real corpse), but it’s a full 18 minutes shorter. I’m not especially interested in a neutered version of Thriller, but I may watch it in the future as a pure curiosity.
The UHD disc of Thriller features a commentary from Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. It’s dense and academic at times, but she’s a great speaker who has forgotten more about these kinds of movies than most of us, myself included, will ever likely know.
The other extras are on the Blu-ray discs. The Thriller disc, as well as a selection of trailers, houses a new 43 minute documentary. Vibenius contributes by penning an odd voiceover, telling his life story but only referring to himself as ‘Film Lover’. There are more conventional interviews with Lindberg, as well as various members of the stunt team. It’s an interesting, if slightly weird, piece.
The They Call Her One Eye Blu-ray has the bulk of the extras. Three interviews with Lindberg run for a total of two and a half hours. The standout is the one from Paris in 2015, which hits on every film she ever made, she seems to be having fun in this one, enjoying the reminiscences of films you suspect she doesn’t get asked about much. It’s a goldmine for fans, and I’ve added some movies to my watchlist. There is also a Saab advert directed by Vibenius, radio spots for Thriller and stills galleries. An outtakes reel runs for just under six minutes, most interesting here are the normal speed takes of the fight sequences, which feel a little clumsy next to the super slow motion version. Finally, we get both of the songs from Lindberg’s single, let’s say whatever you make of her an actress, she’s better at it than she was at singing.