Pssst, want to see a list of all the great Swedish revenge films? Want to see it again? Yes, it's true our neutral friends of the north have not really been a factor in action-packed cinema. They did have a bit of a grindhouse resurgence back in the day thanks to a number of artistic films which broke sexual taboos. Hence for a while, "Swedish" was synonymous with innocent yet willing blonde-haired girls. Whether you want to point to the films of Joe Sarno, the controversy and fascination surrounding I AM CURIOUS (YELLOW) or some other source, it's irrelevant. The Swedes did sex, not violence and soon they could even do that in the eyes of American producers. It was not important to the unscrupulous that a film be filmed in Sweden, just that it has Sweden in the title. Hence, there were many films that featured naked hippies frolicking in a Sweden that looked uncannily like upstate New York.
But there was one notable film that managed to survive all the way through the declining years of the exploitation film. Mostly it was talked about in whispers. The film was rare and those lucky enough to have viewed it, most likely saw a heavily cut version, by over twenty minutes in the U.S. alone. It was released on the ugly 42nd Street crawl as THEY CALL HER ONE EYE and HOOKER'S REVENGE, but it's true title was THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE (a.k.a. THRILLER - EN GRYM FILM).
Like many great pieces of art, THRILLER was born out of a creative vacuum. The director, Bo Arne Vibenius had an amazing pedigree. He had worked with none other than the legendary director Ingmar Bergman on two of his classics - HOUR OF THE WOLF and PERSONA. He finally broke out on his own by directing a family picture. It was a financial disaster. Word has it that Vibenius wanted to make the most commercial film possible to cover the loss. If by commercial he meant "shocking," THRILLER was that. If he meant "like everything else," he didn't even come close.
We start with Madeleine (She is named Frigga in the surprisingly good dubbed version, but for the purposes of this review, we're sticking with the original language.) a petite and carefree young girl frolicking in the forest. She is swept up by an older man who twirls her around. Unfortunately, this is not her father but a child molester. She is saved, but so scarred by the experience that she never utters another word. Years later, Madeleine (Christina Lindberg) has grown up to be a pretty happy young woman. Raised by a loving aunt and uncle on a farm, she happily skips out for a day off in town. She is met by a charming young man named Tony (Heinz Hopf). Unfortunately, Madeleine doesn't know better than to talk to strangers so she accepts a ride from him and they have dinner. He takes her back to his place where she is drugged. But Tony is not interested in having his way with her, Instead, he has a morally bankrupt bring a fresh supply of drugs over. He spends the next couple of days injecting her with heroin until she is hooked. He confines her to a room with a single dirty mattress. He tells her she will be given a fresh supply of heroin if she becomes a prostitute. She will even be allowed to keep a small percentage of the fee. At first, Madeleine is rebellious. Tony retaliates by gouging out one of her eyes. From then on, there is less fight. One by one, sleazy men and women are sent to Madeleine's room and she has to accept them. When she tries to escape, she finds she cannot return home and also realizes that this continued existence will kill her.
Ordinarily, this would be the time where we see Madeline arm herself and strike out. Or we would see a brief training montage to some Frank Stallone song and in five minutes, she would be a killing machine. Not so here. Revenge takes time. She saves every penny she gets from her johns and janes. Each week, she is given one day off. She spends this time learning how to shoot, drive and defend herself. When the day is over, it is back to the smelly room with the dirty mattress. Think about the thought process there. To back in every day and be abused, treated like an object, all the while plotting a very clear revenge. It is a very slow, agonizing and determined process. Eventually, the time comes. She uses spare money to buy enough heroin to keep her head clear, or so she can slowly come down. We're never quite sure. She then sets out to kill all of her johns and everyone connected with Tony's operation.
THRILLER strikes an odd balance between the art house and the grindhouse. On the sleazy side, there is the strong sexual content. In fact, in the uncut version all of the sex scenes are hardcore - including penetration shots and climaxes. It's surprisingly effective, adding a gritty realism to the proceedings. Hopefully, no one is actually turned on by these sequences. Let's face it, it's a bunch of slobs taking advantage of a mutilated young woman, not exactly the type of thing that floats my boat. All the sequences are done with a complete frank honesty and a lack of all emotion. There are some action sequences that show the wonderful exploitation feel we've come to know and love. And personally, I just love how she has an eye patch to match every outfit. Remember, just because you've been kidnapped, molested, partially blinded and hooked on smack, that's no reason for you to lose your fashion sense. Quentin Tarantino sent this up when he had Elle Driver's nurse outfit match a white eyepatch with a red cross on it in KILL BILL VOL 1.
But even most of the action sequences have an overly artistic flavor. All but two action scenes are done in ultra slow motion, particularly when Madeleine strikes. The bodies fall and the blood seems to fly out of them like a grotesque Jackson Pollack painting. The sound effects are mostly reverb with some screams spliced in. The whole thing screams direct influence from Sam Peckinpah, the man who invented a ballet of violence.
And artsy is what most of THRILLER is, thank God. The film doesn't go for the throat right away. There is a long build up until Madeleine takes her revenge. And it's not easy to take. Not only is there the previously mentioned sexual content, the film also happens to be incredibly downbeat. In many ways, it's more nihilistic than other classic revenge films like DEATH WISH. THRILLER may fail to be as disturbing as I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and is certainly not as harsh as Eric Stanze's SCRAPBOOK. Still, there are moments that are just heartbreakingly sad and you may want to make sure your prescription of anti-depressants hasn't lapsed when you sit down to watch this one.
There isn't a lot of dialogue in THRILLER. There is only enough to provide the necessary exposition. Otherwise, the images tell the story. And those images consist of sparsely populated landscapes, where everyone seems oblivious to the cruel criminal underworld. The soundtrack is more a tapestry of noise rather than a collection of musical cues. It all suggests a dream like atmosphere, a netherworld that Madeleine stepped into the moment they touched her.
Even the mutilation has subtext. It can be said that when she lost her speech, it was a sign of things to come. She was victimized by a cruel man when she was young and when she is a little older, she allows it to happen again. This time, fighting back, she has her eye plucked out (this is a graphic sequence and Vibenius allegedly stabbed the eye out of a corpse to achieve the effect). It can be said that this is further proof of her loss of innocence. It is after that where she feels she must submit to Tony's demands. But her vision becomes clear when she takes her revenge.
THRILLER is a very good revenge film but it did have a few sequences that disappointed. The action sequences needed more polishing. The victims too often just stood there waiting to be taken out. Also, while we're rooting for Madeleine throughout the film, there is a sequence where she's driving after someone and she knocks about a half dozen cars off the road. These cars quickly explode, meaning she is taking out a number of innocents in order to close onto her prey. Midway through the scene, it appears as though she is not even pursuing anyone, just knocking people off the road. This is a bit hard to take. I have a hard enough time dealing with this behavior in the STREET FIGHTER movies. But unlike Sonny Chiba, Madeleine is not supposed to be an anti-hero. We are supposed to be squarely in her corner. But a sequence like this, done solely to appease the drive-in crowd, makes her a lot less likeable.
INGMAR BERGMAN GOES TO THE GRINDHOUSE would be an accurate alternate title for THRILLER. But the title tells it all. THRILLER in that it's a wham-bang tale of revenge. A CRUEL PICTURE in that there is a lot of pain up on the screen. Nothing could match the hype of this long lost film, but it is far above most revenge films of the era. THRILLER does not disappoint.