Vinegar Syndrome: Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1973) - Reviewed

Courtesy of Vinegar Syndrome
Swedish director Bo Arne Vibenius, best known for assistant directing work for Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, made his feature film debut with the family friendly venture How Marie Met Fredrik which was well received critically but flopped commercially.  Eager to start fresh and offset the embarrassment of financial failure on the first go around, Vibenius sought to drastically reinvent himself from producing kiddie friendly fluff to hardcore adult exploitation. 
Though only having two more features to his resume, the director achieved global infamy with his explicit rape-revenge action-adventure exploitation flick Thriller: A Cruel Picture.  Despite having hardcore snippets from another shoot spliced in to liven things up, the actual movie is a quintessential example of what later became known as the Grindhouse film, a no-nonsense exploitation flick that was short on production values but high on innovation and the delivery of cheap thrills.
Starring Christina Lindberg as Madeleine, a young girl whose childhood sexual abuse renders her mute, the film follows the woman who finds herself drugged, kidnapped and forced into a life of prostitution coupled with heroin addiction by her pimp Tony (Heinz Hopf).  Worse still, Tony forges a series of hateful letters to Madeleine’s parents who jointly commit suicide upon receipt of the mailings. 

Amping up the nastiness, Tony drives a razor into one of her eyeballs after she turns down sex with a client, rendering her blinded in one eye now covered with a black patch.  While now regularly sleeping with various men at the captive hands of her violent pimp, Madeleine secretly begins self-defense and weapons training, working up to a master plan to exact vicious cold-blooded revenge on her captors who destroyed her life.
Cited by Quentin Tarantino as the ‘roughest’ grindhouse film he had ever seen as well as a point of inspiration for the Elle Driver character played by Darryl Hannah in Tarantino’s Kill Bill film series, Thriller: A Cruel Picture is one of the meanest nastiest exploitation films ever.  But for all of its filthy dirty porn inserts and extreme violence, including a longstanding rumor the infamous eye gouging scene was accomplished with a corpse, this could well be one of the most important examples of the rape-revenge subgenre ever made.  Somewhere between the Female Prisoner Scorpion films and Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45, the film for all of its atrocities committed onscreen also bears a fair amount of technical inventiveness unbecoming of the pictures violence porn roots.
Consider the film’s electronic soundtrack by Ralph Lundsten which sits nicely alongside the equally down-and-dirty score for Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, comprised of subtle beeps and woops and reverberating echoes in between a wide variety of stunning shots of slow-motion bloodletting rendered by Andreas Bellis that would make Sam Peckinpah blush.  

Mostly though this is Christina Lindberg’s film who functions as silent muse, sex object and finally hardened avenger without ever uttering a word of dialogue.  Channeling the menace of Meiko Kaji replete with a dark trench coat and a double-barreled shotgun, Lindberg’s metamorphosis from abused and battered waif to deadly femme fatale unfolding in real time is wild to watch as the film starts to amp up the action violence including one of the grittiest car chases ever committed to celluloid.

Banned outright in its country of origin and released in several heavily censored versions including alternate titles like They Call Her One Eye and Hooker’s Revenge, the film predates such “video nasty” fare as I Spit on Your Grave for its explicit and unrelenting descent into violent sexual depravity followed by the delivery of much earned comeuppances.  Initially premiering at Cannes with eye-patches handed out to patrons including giving credence to tall tales like the eye gouging scene, the film was a lightning rod of controversy almost immediately.  

An extremely crude yet honest look at sex trafficking in all of its tawdriness before shifting gears into what could be called a prototypical rape-revenge action-adventure flick, the film directed under the pseudonym Alex Fridolinski, Bo Arne Vibenius singlehandedly redefined his reputation in one fell swoop from family guy to shameless purveyor of trash.
While not quite as ridiculous as, say, Paul Grau’s Mad Foxes which might go down in history as the most absurdly offensive exploitation film, Thriller: A Cruel Picture doesn’t mince words when it comes to delivering toxic goods.  A movie that’s indefensible in theory but startlingly accomplished and kind of daring translated onscreen, the film helped usher in a whole wave of like-minded regional exploitation flicks while also giving credence to such subgenres as the Nikkatsu Violent Pinku including but not limited to Assault! Jack the Ripper. 
Though Vibenius’ career petered out after his even more pornographic final film Breaking Point, the film that got him noticed enjoyed a renewal of interest thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s film followed by a DVD premiere from Synapse Films.  Years later, the good folks at Vinegar Syndrome went a step further with their new limited 4K UHD boxed set, helping to canonize Thriller: A Cruel Picture as one of the gold standards of outlaw cinema.  

While some viewers won’t be able to think their way around those porn bits, this is among the rawest rape-revenge movies ever made with a real air of viciousness running through its cold-blooded veins that has lost none of its mean spirted power to time.  A rough and ragged bumpy-ride that feels like a rusted brass knuckle to the face, Thriller: A Cruel Picture for good or for ill remains among the very highest watermarks of global exploitation filmmaking. 

--Andrew Kotwicki