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Plot: Xi Li-Ya vows to wreak havoc on One-Eyed for killing her father.

The Return Of the Shelia (希莉娅归来) is the second part - more of a continuation rather than a true sequel - of Mad Shelia: Virgin Road (瘋狂希莉婭) (2016) from a year before. Since it came from the same eight-month shooting as the original there isn’t much, if any, difference between the two. Instead of having bigger set pieces, wilder chases, and more explosive action The Return Of the Shelia is… well, more of the same. It’s the second half of the story that should have been part of the first, but for some unfathomable reason never was. Mad Shelia (2016) didn’t end on a cliffhanger; it abruptly ended in the middle of the story and called it a day. Fu Xiao finally gets to do something in the movie bearing her name, and Lu Lei at long last manifested that he was not nearly the hack his early work might make him out as. All of which a long way of saying that The Return Of the Shelia is not only the epic conclusion to the not-so-epic Mad Shelia mini-saga, but probably Mainland China’s most enduring webmovie classic of the past several years.

The Far East has always had a rich and storied history in exploitation filmmaking. Once budgets in Hong Kong dwindled a cotton industry sprung up in Taiwan, and Malaysia. Japan, Thailand, and Indonesia themselves all had regional exploitation industries that spawned a veritable slew of classics across genres themselves. Mainland China, with its government-mandated censorship and the restrictive laws enforced by the Film Bureau, lagged behind for a long time for exactly those reasons. As far as we’re aware the wangluo da dianying (网路大电影) or webmovie is a fairly recent phenomenon, one that grew parallel with streaming services and their need for content. The 2010s heralded an exploitation resurgence of sorts as now movies were produced fast and cheap for streaming services and delivered straight to the customer without any middleman. With box office returns no longer a concern this meant that every niche imaginable could be catered to as long as the movies in question were beholden to the law. Where the West relies on DIY and underground filmmaking the East is, once again, ahead of the curve – pioneering a practice that hasn’t caught on in the West yet.

After escaping an all-out assault from roving gangs in the desert Mad Shelia (Fu Xiao), reformed bounty hunter Bo En (Gu Quan), and madly babbling vagrant Shadiang (Li Da) continue their journey to Oil City. Meanwhile, as the smoke clears and the chaos of the assault subsides, it dawns upon Ore City ruler Fei Biao (Tian Jin Xi-Ge) and the Peach Blossom brothers Red Peach (Yue Han) and Spade (Wang Jia-Qiang) from Island Country that Chang Mao (Shi Xiao-Fei) and his Wild One gang have taken to chasing Mad Shelia for their own gain. The two parties decide that perhaps they’re better off working with instead of against each other. All three parties run into One-Eyed (Li Yan) and his armed forces. He suggests that all gangs put their vendettas and territorial disputes aside, and form an alliance in pursuit of their common goal: Mad Shelia. The Wild One gang takes the lead, and the newly forged union runs into an ambush. A clash follows and One-Eyed executes all of his former allies in cold blood. After an extended chase and the inevitable explosive confrontation that follows Mad Shelia, Bo En, and Shadiang emerge victorious. Once arrived in Oil City capital the Duchess (Na Duo) says that the title of Duke should rightly go to Bo En. He, however, passes the title onto virtuous Shadiang believing him to restore justice and order in the city. Shadiang meanwhile is happy he finally gets to enjoy the company of the Duchess, and the two dimwitted but comely court maidens (Wang Yi and Wang Ru) he so long pined after.

As this is just the second half of material shot during the same eight-month period that birthed Mad Shelia (2016) the same critiques apply. A production like this would have benefitted tremendously from live pyrotechnics and old school prosthetic/practical effects. There’s an almost Eurociné and Neil Breen quality to some of the shoot-outs, the wounds, and the props. You don’t truly appreciate the level of care and attention to detail that went into the weapon replicas that Peter Jackson manually produced for his horror comedy debut Bad Taste (1987) until you see what they use here. The rare prosthetic effect used for bodily carnage is uniformly and universally cheap, and thankfully the camera never dwells on them long enough. While the usage of digital effects is understandable from an economic point of view it still doesn’t change that most of them usually have an adverse effect instead. The few explosions that do occur would have been so much better with actual pyrotechnics, and the firefights feel stilted and miss the gravitas, the weight, and the impact they need to impress. Vehicular damage, smoke, fire, and just about everything that cost yuans is done digitally. The slow-motion chases are legendary by this point, and you know a movie is in trouble when Angel Warriors (2013) and Ameera (2014) become the better options.

Not that Lu Lei hasn’t redeemed himself since the Mad Shelia days but it remains a sore point. This could have been so much bigger and better. Everything just looks one or two several paygrades below what it should’ve probably been. Fu Xiao does her best with what little writer Yu Huan-Huan gives her. The action direction from Lei Zhen-Dong is, well, non-existent – and it’s no surprise he has never worked again. Few hand-to-hand sequences occur, and when they do they possess no sense of weight or scale. The “welcome to my private warehouse” scene is a direct abridged re-creation of the corresponding scene in the Mexico segment from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). The poster art is misleading in that it makes The Return Of the Shelia looks much larger than it actually is. Not that it’s the first time that an exploitation movie is guilty of that particular offense, the genre is littered with larger-than-life promises, misleading poster art, and deceiving promo trailers across several decades. The thing is that China normally does this kind of thing far better. The HK actioners that are Mad Shelia’s most logical precursors also often were cheap affairs, but they always had that something. Outside of the novelty factor Mad Shelia has very little going for it, except Fu Xiao. And it’s unfortunate that she has so little to do here. This is very much an instance of Nemesis 2: Nebula (1995) and Nemesis 3: Time Lapse / Prey Harder (1996) all over again. Mad Shelia could’ve been something – but apparently that wasn’t in the cards.

And what did Lu Lei do after the excursion into Mongolia that was Mad Shelia? Well, he directed the Fox-Spirit trilogy. First, he did A Fox-Spirit Story (2017) or a budget re-enactment of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) and followed it up with the two-part A Fox's Story (2019) mini-saga. While that was a counterfeit version of Tsui Hark’s big budget fantasy wuxia The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia (2017) it too was guilty of the same sins as Mad Shelia and its sequel. For hitherto undisclosed reasons A Fox's Story (2019) too was awkwardly cut into two chapters. And just like Mad Shelia (2016) they don’t make a lick of sense if you happen to see them out of order. A constant in Lu Lei’s recent endeavors is Fu Xiao, and his later works give her far more to work with. She’s far better in A Fox-Spirit Story (2017) and A Fox's Story (2019) than she’s here. While The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia (2017) has its own problems, A Fox's Story (2019) is an almost scene-per-scene re-enactment of the Tsui Hark production, and it’s admirable in the sense that somebody saw it fit to imitate it on such a minuscule budget. It’s the sign of the times possibly. There’s nothing that Mainland China can’t imitate on a fraction of the budget and with none of the talent. If Mad Shelia and The Return Of the Shelia are testament to anything, it’s that exploitation is alive and kicking in 21st century China. Here’s hoping we get a no-budget Disney Star Wars (2015-2019) imitation soon.

Plot: trauma transforms demure small-town girl into gun-toting angel of death.

Bo Arne Vibenius assistant – and second unit directed under Ingmar Bergman and Gunnar Hellström. He would direct only three movies, two of which were steeped in infamy and banned in his native Sweden. One of these movies was Thriller – En Grym Film (released in North America as either Thriller: A Cruel Picture, or alternatively They Call Her One-Eye and Hooker’s Revenge, depending on the cut – just Thriller hereafter). After Hur Marie träffade Fredrik (1969) failed to perform at the box office Vibenius deduced that the only way to quickly recoup the incurred losses was to film what he would later describe as a, "a commercial-as-hell crap-film" in and around Stockholm. He managed to book not one, but two, of the country’s most eligible sexploitation starlets and devised one of the most nihilistic exercises in exploitation the world had ever seen.

Thriller is profoundly ugly, both in the interior and the exterior. It never aspires to anything else but to indulge its most repulsive, degenerate, and misanthropic inclinations. It does not deign from the inclusion of hardcore porn inserts, nor from visiting an ungodly amount of wanton cruelty and untethered depravity upon its main actress. That it ends in a bloody rampage of slow-motion shoot-outs and chop sockey karate in schintzy warehouses seems only right. At a minimum, Thriller is everything that Karate Girl (1973) was not – and then some. Only Rape Me (2000) almost 30 years later would come close as a functional contemporary equivalent.

If there was an antecedent for Thriller that would probably be The Last House on the Left (1972), itself a grindhouse perversion of Ingmar Bergman's seminal The Virgin Spring (1960). While Wes Craven’s low-budget shocker would go on to spawn imitations primarily in Italy the rape revenge subgenre wouldn’t gain traction until Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978) some six years later.

Perhaps even more interesting is how Thriller and Karate Girl (1973) were released the same year from opposite ends of the world, both geographically and culturally. Turkey’s most popular export to the world around the time was probably actor, director, producer, and martial artist Cüneyt Arkın and for Filiz Akin it was an anomaly in her otherwise very respectable +120 title filmography. Thriller truly stands alone in how it gets straight to point, and pulls absolutely no punches about its intentions whatsoever. This about the farthest from more humane examples of the form as Abel Ferrara’s Ms .45 (1981) and Cirio H. Santiago’s Naked Vengeance (1985) as you could possibly get. Only Nico Mastorakis’ masterclass in depravity Island of Death (1976) would come close to matching Thriller’s singular commitment to the blackest of nihilism, perversion, and degradation. Allegedly Thriller was screened at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival in France, although we weren’t able to find any historical data substantiating that claim. More likely it was sold to international distributors at the festival market. Back at home Thriller was banned, and only premiered a year later, in 1974.

At age 9 quiet and introverted Madeleine (Pamela Pethö-Galantai) was molested in a Stockholm municipal park by an old man, the experience rendering her mute. 10 years later Madeleine (Christina Lindberg) lives with her supportive parents (Per-Axel Arosenius, and Gunnel Wadner) where she spents her time petting bunnies at the farm and selling milk to the locals. When she’s not helping out on the family farm Madeleine attends school and speech therapy in the city. One day she misses her bus to a doctor’s appointment, and a suave man in a fancy sportscar drives up. He introduces himself as Tony (Heinz Hopf) and offers her a ride to wherever she was going in the city. Tony woos Madeleine by taking her to an expensive restaurant and wining and dining her. Being a simple farmgirl Madeleine is unaware that Tony has spiked her drink, and soon she wakes up disoriented in his apartment. To have her remain docile and compliant Tony keeps her a near-constant drugged haze. Realizing that she’s imprisoned and dependent on the heroin that Tony feeds her Madeleine is resigned to her fate in his prostitution racket. Her willingness to service clients for money and heroin doesn’t stop Madeleine from attempting several escapes. In return Tony first takes to humiliating and degrading her in the worst ways possible, and when that doesn’t have the desired effect he leaves her parents vicious, hate-filled writs. In a desperate last-ditch effort to escape Madeleine manages to reach town. There she learns that her parents have committed suicide over her plight before collapsing from sheer exhaustion.

When she comes to Tony is not happy with her. He takes a scalpel to her face and gouges out her eye. Madeleine, disfigured and forced to wear an eyepatch, is called The Pirate, and continues to service clients. She befriends Sally (Solveig Andersson) and the two quickly bond over their shared experience of bondage and servitude in the brothel. With funds amassing Madeleine starts planning an elaborate revenge scheme. She buys a car and start taking driving lessons, learning about firearms, explosives, and martial arts. As the days turn into weeks Madeleine becomes something of a ghost at the brothel. Her mind not with the clients, her body becoming stronger. She quietly bides her time waiting for all different pieces to fall into place. When she returns home one day and discovers that Sally, her only friend through her hellish ordeal, has been murdered Madeleine realizes that now is the time to spring her long-desired (and much over-due) revenge plan into action. As Tony learns about Madeleine’s intense training regime he immediately orders two hitmen to eliminate his rogue asset. Things come to a violent and bloody head when Madeleine, now sporting a trenchcoat and wielding a sawn-off shotgun, exacts her vengeance. In short order the two hitmen, each and every last man that wronged her – and finally… Tony will pay. And the price is blood. For all the pain, humiliation, and degradation he has visited upon her.

All the signs in Christina Lindberg’s career trajectory pointed towards her eventual appearance in cruddy, and frankly indefensible, exploitation fodder as this. Dog Days (1970) was a coming of age drama with a mean Darwinistic streak that more or less defined her early filmography in quite a few ways. Exponerad (1971) and the Cannon co-produced Maid In Sweden (1971) established Lindberg as a softcore starlet and both served as little more than a showcase for la Lindberg’s famous hourglass figure. Before Thriller Lindberg made appearances in two Joe Sarno movies prior to turning up in a trio of Wolf C. Hartwig sex comedies and two Japanese pinky violence movies in 1973. Thriller is Lindberg’s most (in)famous film, largely because it functions as the culmination of just about every regressive inclination in her early filmography. While none of Lindberg’s movies up to that point had been graphic, or explicit, Vibenius had the audacity to use the cadaver of a recent suicide victim for the famous and graphic ocular mutilation scene. Thriller has a unsavory reputation that it completely and utterly deserves. It is cheap, sleazy, and cartoonish in its gratuitous vileness. It also subjects Christina Lindberg to a seemingly unending barrage of simulated depravities, assorted indignities, and just about every deviant kink in the sexploitation playbook. Thriller makes la Lindberg’s earlier output look like a breezy Gloria Guida sex romp.

Thriller is a strange beast indeed. The first half - or Madeleine’s descent into destitution, perversion, and prostitution - pretty much plays out like grimy drive-in sexploitation of the day. It’s the usual barrage of humiliation, sadism, and depredation, spiced up with hardcore inserts performed by anonymous performers. To create a sense of cohesion Vibenius intercuts reaction shots from Lindberg with body doubles where and when appropriate or needed. The second half is far more interesting as Thriller suddenly explodes with slow-motion shootouts straight out of Sam Pekinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969). In retrospect Karate Girl (1973) has become more famous in recent years, although Thriller has the added bonus of uniformly awful hand-to-hand combat and chop sockey sequences despite Lindberg’s eight-week training regime. In mainstream popular culture Quentin Tarantino paid tribute to Thriller in the form of Elle Driver in his two-part Kill Bill (2003-2004) saga, which combined the plot of the two Lady Snowblood (1973-1974) movies with a revenge tale out of an Italian spaghetti western, while the second episode was a meditative 1970s grindhouse counterculture roadmovie. Tarantino, after all, is arthouse cinema for those who have no interest in cinema, Western or beyond.

It’s as if Bo Arne Vibenius set out to make Sweden’s most desirable softsex stars, well, ugly. Christina Lindberg was a lot of things and, while not a good actress by any stretch of the imagination, she at least could always be counted upon to disrobe whenever the script required. Whether it was the deeply cynical and absurdly funny Dog Days (1970) (where she had an absolute minimum of dialogue) to the surrealist Exponerad (1971) that probably went on to inspire the Gloria Guida romp The Minor (1974) and the coming of age sexploitation of Maid In Sweden (1971) Christina always managed to enliven up whichever production she was in. Lindberg looked positively stunning and radiant in her earlier features but looks even more drowsy and dead-eyed than usual here. As if she would like to be anywhere else but here. The same goes for Solveig Andersson. Solveig for her part was a long way from her turn in Eva (1969) and she too looks way past her prime at the best of times. Which is quite the feat because some four years earlier Torgny Wickman had launched her as the embodiment of Swedish lust. Two of Nordporn’s biggest stars, rightly famous for their expansive bröst and röv, find themselves reduced to objects to be brutalized, defiled, violated – and callously thrown aside. Thriller is indeed a cruel picture, and it’s the sort of thing you wish upon nobody, especially not Christina Lindberg or Solveig Andersson. Lindberg went where Marie Liljedahl did not, and for once the sensationalist tagline of the American prints ("the movie that has no limits of evil!") was completely accurate. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore and, by all accounts, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing…