As a child, Swedish farm girl Madeleine (Christina Lindberg) was traumatised by a sexual assault that left her mute ever since. Her bad luck continues fifteen years later when she accepts a lift from smooth-talking Tony (Heinz Hopf), who promptly imprisons her in his bachelor pad, gets her hooked on heroin and forces her into prostitution. When Madeleine rebels by scratching her first client’s face, Tony gouges her left eye out with a scalpel. Nicknamed “the pirate”, the eye-patch sporting Madeleine endures months of sexual degradation, only to discover Tony has forged a hateful letter to her parents prompting them both to commit suicide. She promptly invests her savings in part-time lessons from a karate instructor, a race car driver and a marksman, mastering each before going on to wage a one-woman war against her abusers.
Known on the mid-Seventies grindhouse circuit as They Call Her One-Eye and Hooker’s Revenge, this hardcore porn/action/horror movie remains infamous for its excesses. Star Christina Lindberg (pronounced Lind-berry) appeared in many jaunty softcore romps like Maid in Sweden (1971) as well as a couple of Japanese “pinky violence” titles including the superlative Sex & Fury (1973), but Thriller: A Cruel Picture made her something of an exploitation film icon, aside from inspiring the Elle Driver character played by Darryl Hannah in Quentin Tarantino’s own “roarin’ rampage of revenge”, Kill Bill (2003).
For all its extreme violence and hardcore sex, the film is not so much a thrill ride as a bleak, borderline existential fable. Lindberg’s (alternately referred to as Frigga and “One-Eye” in the English dub) is someone who achieves a form of transcendence after enduring such extreme cruelty and meting out an equally extreme form of vengeance. Stark, autumnal colours impart a mood of melancholy and despair, reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman for whom writer-producer-director Bo Arne Vibenius served as an assistant director on Persona (1966) and Hour of the Wolf (1967). This mood is underlined by the soundtrack which is largely silent except when punctuated by bursts of atonal electronic wailing that substitute as the mute girl’s cries of despair.
Christina Lindberg was a most unusual sex star. Undoubtedly attractive but with her pneumatic physique married to a uniquely doll-like, ethereal manner, quite unlike the genre’s usual vacuous vixens. Without a single line of dialogue, Lindberg conveys all of Madeleine/One-Eye’s pain and suffering, rage and venom through sheer physicality alone. It is a remarkable feat, one she found hard to top and subsequently moved on to a career in journalism, although she supposedly resurrected One-Eye for a cameo in a Swedish movie called Sex, Lies and Videotape (2000), not to be confused with the Steven Soderbergh film. Co-star Heinz Hopf, with whom Lindberg earlier appeared in The Depraved (1971), is the epitome of oily evil, especially while wearing a glaring Seventies sports jacket. No matter how vicious Tony’s actions, he always behaves as if he is being utterly reasonable, patient and practical, which somehow makes him even more odious. The supporting players often deliver their lines straight to camera in a profoundly unsettling and affecting manner, often evoking the silent cinema of G.W. Pabst or Victor Sjøstrom.
The infamous eye-gouging scene is filmed in horrific close-up and looks realistic enough to justify those claims that Vibenius used a real corpse. However, the hardcore sex sequences risk reducing Madeleine/One-Eye’s plight to mere meat on meat. Many argue otherwise. At times, especially when aided by the breathy score, these scenes do coalesce into some kind of sado-erotic nightmare but pornography (and not sex scenes - it is important to draw that distinction), by virtue of its very explicitness, is devoid of any emotional content beyond titillation. By taking the heroine’s sexual suffering out of context, the film reduces viewers to voyeurs, not empathisers.
Those less sympathetic to Vibenius’ aims may find the sheer numbing cruelty of the first act to be almost darkly comical. It is also somewhat absurd that Tony would permit Madeleine/One-Eye free time to learn sharp shooting, martial arts, race car driving and become such an all-round badass. The action scenes are sparse but unsettling. In particular, One-Eye’s attack on two cops becomes a ballet of brutality. Vibenius use of super slow-motion violence seems less like an attempt to evoke Sam Peckinpah’s visceral flair than part of an aural and visual strategy to convey the world as Madeleine/One-Eye now sees it: a cyclical, slow-motion nightmare.