THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE: A Grindhouse-Collides-With-Arthouse Experience

Before many U.S. viewers knew this film, they knew the trailer for a variant version: They Call Her One Eye is the title for the edited-down American release version of Thriller: A Cruel Picture. Its pulse-pounding trailer promised a cavalcade of perverse sleaze and righteous vengeance and it became a staple of trailer compilations, both official and grey market. However, the feature was never officially available on VHS and had to wait until Synapse unearthed an unedited version on DVD in the early 2000’s. It delivered an experience far beyond what that infamous trailer promised.

The storyline for Thriller: A Cruel Picture is elemental in its simplicity: Frigga (Christina Lindberg) is a mute, withdrawn young woman living in the aftermath of a traumatic childhood molestation. As a young adult, she becomes the target of Tony (Heinz Hopf), a pathologically vicious pimp who kidnaps her, forces her to become addicted to heroin and makes her a prostitute. When she tries to fight back, he blinds her in one eye. Hopeless, Frigga succumbs to his degradations but when her parents are driven to an early grave by Tony’s machinations, she methodically plots her revenge. Once she completes training and gathers her weapons together, Frigga undertakes an operatic course of vengeance upon everyone who has wronged her.

That plot might sound pro-forma to anyone mildly experienced with ’70s exploitation but rest assured, you’ve never seen an exploitation flick like Thriller: A Cruel Picture. The approach of director/co-writer Bo Arne Vibenius isn’t designed to make your pulse race or appeal to your prurient interests. Instead, he goes all-out to make you feel his heroine’s alienation.

The sex is stripped of any prurient appeal and portrayed in the most clinical, alienating manner possible, complete with hardcore inserts offset by freaky synthesizers sounds on the soundtrack. The build to revenge is methodical in its slowness. When vengeance arrives, it bypasses the expected visceral catharsis of action to depict in an abstract manner that evokes the absence of feeling our heroine has come to have.

Vibenius got his training as an assistant director for Ingmar Bergman and he gives this exploitation material its own unique vibe by channeling the austere, emotionally desolate style of that cinematic master here. Thriller: A Cruel Picture has nods to Bergman’s stylistic techniques – most notably scenes where letters written by Frigga’s parents are brought to life as tormented, direct-to-camera soliloquies by the parents – and embraces a sense of stillness and deliberate pacing that give the film a haunted, introspective mood.

Even when the action and revenge elements kick in, this mood remains: Vibenius takes the kind of slow motion approach to action that you might associate with Sam Peckinpah but pushes the technique into abstraction, forcing the viewer to swim in the brutality of the revenge as each injury and death is transformed into a surreal figure study of a body surrendering to brutality.

His use of sound heightens these techniques: the wails of the injured are stretched into spectral shrieks that are drenched in echo and reverb.  As the film builds to its finale, the music forgoes the intensity and drama you expect to move in a strangely ethereal direction that suggests our heroine is shifting into some strange, blood-drenched state of grace.

Finally, the film has interesting performances that once again bring out a strange, arthouse vibe to exploitation material. Lindberg, otherwise a star of sexploitation fare, gets an opportunity to deliver a dialogue-free performance here and does an impressive job. She digs into how the character’s vulnerability gives way to devastation before she transforms into a ghostly yet lethal avenging angel. Hopf, another Bergman veteran, gives an interestingly cold and calculated performance as the pimp villain. He projects the ego you’d expect from such a character but it’s offset by a psychopathic chilliness that compliments the film’s icy style.

In short, Thriller: A Cruel Picture is the kind of film that cult movie buffs are talking about when they say “It’s an experience.” All the elements in are familiar to any exploitation film fan but the mode of delivery has its own unique mixture of confrontational avant-garde touches and eccentric elegance. If you’re into anything grindhouse, you should see it at least once.

Blu-Ray Notes (Synapse Edition): Synapse recently produced a blu-ray upgrade of this set. It looks to be the same digital master they created when they made the DVD but the bump up to high definition shows it remains a pretty solid transfer, whatever its vintage. English and Swedish mono soundtracks are included, the latter with subtitles, and both sound nice and crisp.

Extras include extensive still galleries, including one of a scene that was deleted due to lab errors, as well as trailers that include two different U.S. titles and an alternate edit of a fight scene created using trims discovered during the creation of the transfer. Even better, a free DVD of the 103-minute edited version created by Synapse is included so you get both of the company’s versions of this title in one package.

Note: between the writing of this review and the posting of it, this release has apparently been pulled from circulation by Synapse. The older DVD remains available from some outlets.

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