Thriller — A Cruel Picture August 26, 2019
Bo Arne Vibenius
1 Hr., 44 Mins.
ne of the inspirations behind Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003-2004) was Thriller — A Cruel Picture (1973), a Swedish rape-and-revenge thriller. Aside from a visual homage — an agile villain in Kill Bill, Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), dons an eye patch, just like the lead in Thriller — little compares. Whereas Kill Bill is an exercise in bombastic, frequently funny pulp filmmaking, Thriller, just like its subtitle suggests, is
unrelentingly bleak and depressing. It’s among the most harrowing exploitation movies I've seen. There isn't any discernible point to its misery. The film, which has been statically written and directed by Bo Arne Vibenius, engenders no real emotional immediacy or tension. It’s a factory line of dour plot developments, blank-faced violence, and seamy sex scenes (interludes feature hardcore footage starring body doubles) attached to nothing substantial. It's a takedown of the senses that makes you want to rinse yourself off once the closing credits have begun to roll with a hose.
The film stars Christina Lindberg, the pixie-ish glamour model, as Madeline, a 15-year-old girl living in rural Sweden. The movie, kicking off with a nasty prologue, begins just as she’s been sexually assaulted as a child — a traumatic experience which renders her mute — and starts again a little into her teen years. If Madeline experiences anything like happiness in her life, it happens off-screen.
Shortly into the first act, Madeline hitches a ride from a brute named Tony (Heinz Hopf). He's the wolf to her red riding hood. Tony, after making some small talk, kidnaps her, drugs her, and then forces her into heroin addiction and sex work. To ensure her loved ones avoid looking for her, he writes malicious letters, under Madeline’s name, to his victim's parents. This hurts them so profoundly that her father and then her mother kill themselves. Because Thriller subjects Madeline, and us, to so much psychological and emotional torture, it’s meant to be cathartic when she eventually starts using her limited freedom to get acquainted with weapons and self-defense. It’s clear what she’s planning.
We imagine the movie working — if "working" is an appropriate term for an artifact so unpleasant — if Vibenius was to invest less in squalid spectacle. The rape-and-revenge movie, which is one of the most backward, misogynistic of subgenres in its fetishization of sexual assault, can overcome appearing overly cheap, improved by even the subtlest of compassion, if it’s clear where its maker’s loyalties lie. Revenge, a French film from last year, narratively compared to Thriller and other genre forebears, like the excellent Lady Snowblood (1973) and mucky I Spit on Your Grave (1978). But because it focused on its protagonist’s point of view rather than on a twisted variation of the straight male gaze, it felt like a reclamation of a subgenre that was holistically exploitative, in spite of what the majority of its finales have tried telling us.
Vibenius is probably on Madeline’s side. But Thriller spends too much time generating gnarled sexual fantasies come to life out of what happens to her to make that immediately evident. Sequences with Tony’s clients are shot as if they’re supposed to be titillating, even though Madeline is just 15, and the “sex” isn’t consensual. This is helped in no way by the brief moments of actual onscreen penetration. Vibenius wants us to be horrified, but that there’s a libidinous edge to much of that horror undercuts whatever sort of emotional stance he has.
The movie can be visually inventive in spurts. Once Madeline begins mowing down the people who have abused her over the last few months, death scenes are presented in slow motion, providing a gravity that otherwise isn't there. There are surprisingly raw moments, early on, where Madeline’s parents voice their confusion and pain over their daughter’s disappearance and her apparent hatred of them. The scenes are evocatively shot like testimonials in an Errol Morris documentary. But brandishes of fresh style cannot soften the blows of a movie more than willing to get slimy excitement out of the perils endured by someone so defenseless. C-