Thriller – A Cruel Picture

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Bo Arne Vibenius’ Thriller – A Cruel Picture (1973) is one of the most infamous grindhouse films of the seventies and is totally deserving if its title. Thriller is a bleakly atmospheric take on the rape-revenge film that derives much of its power to shock and to move from a series of juxtapositions. These contrasts are manifest not just in the aesthetic choices Vibenius makes, but are inherent to the narrative structure itself.

In the opening scene of Thriller Vibenius establishes two things. The first is the ominous use of POV shots that ground the viewer in Frigga’s perspective. These shots occur only when Frigga’s gaze meets an external male gaze, rendering the masculine gaze as a sort of attack on her person. The second is that the assault on Frigga happens largely off screen. This choice was perhaps motivated by censorship laws in Sweden but the effect, when in comparison with the later sex scenes, creates the first complex of juxtapositions.

The off screen assault on Frigga when she’s a little girl is affecting because of the prolonged POV shot of her assailant in close-up. Once Frigga is abducted and sold into prostitution as a young adult the entire visual economy changes. These scenes of intercourse cut from the POV of her clients with Frigga in close-up to hardcore insert shots of penetration. This indicates that for Vibenius the assault that opens Thriller is meant to be an emotionally devastating moment for the audience while the later scenes play to a more fetishistic masculine gaze in which the viewer is made complicit.

The viewer’s complicity in Frigga’s forced labor as a sex worker is later challenged by Vibenius’ use of slow motion during the sequences where Frigga exacts her revenge on her captors via a shotgun blast. The fetishization of vaginal penetration is overshadowed by the penetration by shotgun shells due to the long duration of these slow-motion shots. The slow-motion assassinations also put the viewer, emotionally speaking, into Frigga’s shoes. The fantastic quality of the slow-motion effect has an expressionistic result wherein the viewer shares Frigga’s euphoric sense of retribution. These are grotesque moments to be sure, but they are no more grotesque than the pornographic insert shots of vaginal penetration that populate the middle third of Thriller.

One of the more disturbing qualities of Thriller is that the majority of the film features almost exclusively diegetic sound. When music is used in the final third of the film when Frigga plots and executes her grisly revenge it feels almost like an intrusion from another world. Yet, the hymnal qualities of the strange synth music, like the use of slow-motion, is emotionally affecting and has an expressionistic purpose. The music, drifting in from nowhere, reorients the viewer so that they share in Frigga’s subjective experience of revenge.

Thriller may be famous for its violence but its impact is almost strictly due to its superficial trappings. The look of Christina Lindberg as Frigga has echoed throughout cinema in a number of ways. Her long black coat, her wardrobe coordinated eye patches, and stone faced expression have been imitated time and again. From Ms. 45 (1981) to Kill Bill (2003) Frigga’s look and style has been a staple of the grindhouse lexicon and that if its admirers.