Monday night, after I watched Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1974), I needed to take a shower. Granted I hadn't bathed all weekend and smelled like a monkey house in mud-July, but I still probably needed one just because Thriller contains that kind of drive-in grit that leaves you a little more worse for wear after watching it.
Now, Thriller is an infamous cult film, made more infamous in recent years since Kill Bill's Elle Driver got some fashion pointers from Thriller's femme fatale heroine. In its initial release the film saw banning in its native Sweden, and its inclusion of hardcore porn footage definitely got it (both good and bad) attention everywhere. In the US, the film was cut into a more grindhouse friendly version that was 20 minutes shorter and was found under the alternate titles Hooker's Revenge and, the one most people know, They Call Her One-Eye.
A young girl (Frigga or Madeleine, depending on your language choice) was raped as a child and the trauma caused her to become mute and introverted. Having missed the bus into town for her regular therapy session, a slickster named Tony rolls up and offers her a ride which she fatefully accepts. Tony is a real lowlife, a pimp who abducts girls, gets them hooked on smack, and keeps them in line by separating them from their family and threatening their lives if they should try to run away.
Though seemingly simple, Frigga/Madeline has spirit and initially fights back by attempting to run away and severely scratching the face of her first customer. But the abuse and smack are just too overwhelming and she eventually succumbs to a life in Tony's bungalow, satisfying whatever sicko he sends her way. Following the news of the death of her parents, she begins her road to revenge by weaning herself off the drugs and taking lessons in martial arts, marksmanship, and driving. "First they took her speech...then her sight...When they were finished she used what was left of her for her own frightening kind of REVENGE!"
This truly is one of the all-time greats of exploitation, revenge cinema, equalling the likes of Ms 45 and Death Wish. Sure, it has its faults: the plotting has some sketchy details, the obvious low budget, and some bits that are dated and silly, like the one "freak" client, who is revealed to be nothing more than an old dude who likes to take pictures. But, overall, it is quite assured and tempered by an effective sense of melancholy. Plus, there is the allure of soft core starlet Christina Lindenberg, whose puppy dog face alone makes her look like a fourteen year old and amounts to a very empathetic performance.
For people who haven't seen the film, and maybe even for those who have only seen the US cut, the thing they will find most surprising about the full cut of Thriller is its more artistic tone. This is not an exploitation film by most standards; that is, you wont find the funky scoring and rollicking pace of your typical revenge flick. This isn't a furious rampage like Foxy Brown. Instead, the pacing is far more steady and languid, dare I say, "European." Even the action, which doesn't pop up until the very end, is all filmed in super slow motion shots that would make even Sam Peckinpah say, "Damn that's a really slo-mo gunshot!" Again this adds to the more surreal nature of the film, every punch and every shot is a methodically detailed action.
This was my first time seeing the Thriller cut, and my memory was quite hazy anyway because I haven't seen the movie in many, many years, not since I was a kid. The thing that really struck me as I watched it this time, was how much director Bo Vibenius reminded me of, probably my all time favorite director, Ingmar Bergman. Aside from the pacing, a lot of the composition, including scenes where the actors, in close up, would directly deliver their dialogue to the camera, like a Shakespearean aside, reminded me of Bergman. Lo and behold I read in the discs filmography section that Vibenius was an assistant director on Bergman's Persona and Hour of the Wolf. Now it all makes sense why Thriller: A Cruel Picture feels like it was directed by the bastard son of Ingmar Bergman, Jess Franco, and Jack Hill.
As far as the hardcore porn footage goes, it is actually, surprisingly, not without merit. The 70's found a lot of Euro productions making porn cuts of not only romance/sleaze films but horror and other genres. But, I don't think the porn footage in Thriller was used for titillation like it was in Emanuelle in America. The footage is mainly used in a jarring, discomforting way, displaying her degradation, like when it is used a montage of passage time with chaotic music in the background and shows the contrast between her life turning tricks and her training to escape. So, yes, I think it is used to good effect, however that doesn't mean I think the film needs the footage. I certainly don't look forward to having a gander at Dirty Sven's wrinkled ballsack every time I watch the film, and I wouldn't mind a non-porn cut option; perhaps one day someone will release the They Called Her One-Eye edition.
The DVD: Synapse... Limited Edition, 25,000 copies.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. First of all, Thriller has long held a certain notoriety in the bootleg community. (And, before you anti-bootleggers start waving your torches, Thriller was a film whose scarceness pretty much necessitated the bootlegs). That notoriety being that the available copies were of extremely low quality, usually of the poorest possible image and unsubbed.
So, considering the rough nature of the original elements, Synapse has done quite a nice job with this transfer. The age does still show and the grain is very heavy as is some wear on the print (and by wear, I mean just that, not spotting or dirt really, just some slight wavering deterioration, sometmes fair, sometimes worse depending on the scene). But, it is much better than I expected, and the autumnal colors stand out. For a film of its nature, the sharpness and contrast are in good shape. A suitable comparison would be the MGM Last House on the Left DVD, which did an excellent job presenting rough materials in the best possible way.
Sound: Dolby Mono, Swedish or English language tracks with optional English subtitles. Well, the sound quality won't win any awards, but, once again, this has more to do with the original elements and the low budget way they were recorded. So, it is weak but well presented. The film actually uses a lot of silence, and the scoring has some neat, old school abstract oscillating electronic feedback. The separate language choices offer some variations too, so it was nice they went with both tracks.
Extras: Liner Notes-- Trailers: TV Spot, Theatrical, Double Feature (on a bill with Photographers Model- dig it.), and "Thriller" trailer.-- Alternate Footage: Outtake Reel (1:07) is basic soundless extra footage. Alternate Harbor Fight (5:22) a composite made from the They Call Her One-Eye cut and some new footage. Movie in Pictures (0:39) a potentially headache inducing montage, literally going through the entire film in 39 seconds.-- Still Galleries: In Bed with Christina, some very salivating cheescake photos of Lindberg. Behind the Scenes. Advertising and Promotion. Deleted Fight Scene, the only existing record of a fight scene that was filmed but ruined by the processing lab. Production Photos.-- Filmographies for Vibenius and Lindberg.
Conclusion: If you consider yourself any kind of cult/exploitation/fringe film fan, this is a must have. Synapse have done an applaudable job with a notorious picture. Sure, personally I would like a two-disc edition with a They Call Her One-Eye/non-dong cut, but, maybe I'm a dreamer. Though not for everyone, and certainly not a film to watch with grandma in the room, this landmark cult gem has finally been rescued so fans can get their hands on a decent copy.