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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…

Plot: martial arts instructor investigates the disappearance of her brother.

That Cirio H. Santiago would try his hand at blaxploitation should surprise no one. He after all was the man behind Terror Is A Man (1959), as well as the first partially colored Filipino gothic horror with The Blood Drinkers (1964) and its sequel Blood Of the Vampires (1966) (both with Amalia Fuentes). By the mid-seventies two things were big in drive-ins across America and grindhouses on New York’s 42nd street: blaxploitation and martial arts imports from the Far East. Santiago commenced establishing a footing in North America by co-producing The Big Doll House (1971), The Big Bird Cage (1972), and The Hot Box (1972) with and for Roger Corman. That in turn would give him the leverage to launch his own features through Corman’s distribution network. Before Naked Fist (1981) and Angelfist (1993) there was Jean Bell and TNT Jackson, or the first of Santiago’s loose trilogy of topless kickboxing movies. Everything has a beginning, and Cirio H. Santiago kicked open all the doors with mad energy.

Never one not to be with the times TNT Jackson (released back home as Dynamite Wong and TNT Jackson and, understandably, abbreviated for the international market) is the perfect response to Hong Kong martial arts capers as The Tournament (1974) (with Angela Mao Ying) and Sister Street Fighter (1974) (with Etsuko Shihomi). Santiago would often play up his stars with (fabricated and very much non-existent) martial arts championship titles, and with the granddaddy of them all it’s no different. That Santiago teamed up with Roger Corman for North American distribution was a deal made in exploitation heaven. No wonder then that TNT Jackson has stood the test of time. By comparison Naked Fist (1981) and Angelfist (1993) are more obscure. Santiago always had a talent for female-centric action and while Jean Bell hardly was a full-blooded action star she’s given plenty of opportunity to show off her chops.

Martial arts instructor Diana Jackson (Jean Bell, as Jeanne Bell) has traveled to Hong Kong to investigate the mysterious disappearance of her brother Stag. Landing in one of the seedier districts Jackson is almost immediately accosted by a bunch of street thugs. Jackson is able to hold her own but is picked up by Elaine (Pat Anderson) who just happens to be passing with her limo. Back in the city Diana seeks out the Joe’s Haven pub. There she quickly befriends retired martial arts instructor Joe (Augusto Valdes Pangan Sr., as Chiquito) and learns that her brother had fallen foul with the local drug cartel run by the American Sid (Ken Metcalfe, as Ken Metcalf). Diana crosses paths with Charlie (Stan Shaw) and sparks fly between the two. Ming (Joe Mari Avellana) warns Sid of the obvious danger Diana poses to their operation, especially now that Charlie’s enchanted with her. Elaine expresses her reservations about the way recent shipments have been handled. As Diana continues her investigation and deliveries are intercepted a senior cartel partner (Joonee Gamboa, as John Gamble) decides Jackson’s too much of a threat, and has his goons intercept her. Meanwhile Elaine reveals that she’s a deep undercover narcotics operative and that Sid ordered Charlie to kill Stag. Upon learning that the man she has been sleeping with is responsible for her brother’s senseless slaying TNT is forced to live up to her nickname and explodes in a blind rage…

At a brisk 72 minutes TNT Jackson does not have the luxury of fucking around, and it doesn’t. The plot, minimal as it is, is feeble even by lowly Santiago standards. The action choreography is laughable and bad and laughably bad at that. Nobody was expecting TNT Jackson to measure itself with Hong Kong or the average Robert Clouse epic, but even Death Promise (1977) had better action choreography. The routines are slow and brawlish with constant dancing around and no sense of pace, rhythm, or gravitas. No amount of rapid-fire editing can hide that Jean Bell had no background in martial arts. There were no less than 4 (!!) martial arts instructors on hand during production, but not one among them could apparently decently choreograph a single fight. Stan Shaw acquits himself with well enough but he was no Jim Kelly or Jim Brown, to say the least. The screenplay was a co-written by Santiago regular Ken Metcalfe and Richard Miller. Who’s Miller, you wonder? He was the gunshop owner in The Terminator (1984). Where Naked Fist (1981) and Angelfist (1993) took their time to tie up loose ends, TNT Jackson doesn’t bother with such trivialities, or with much else for that matter.

The star (inasmuch as such a thing is possible with Santiago) was Playboy Playmate of the Month (October, 1969) Jean Bell. Bell worked with everybody from Martin Scorcese to Terence Young and Lee Frost and shared the screen with blaxploitation superstars as Jim Kelly, Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, and D’Urville Martin. She can be seen in Mean Streets (1973) and The Klansman (1974) as well as blaxploitation crime/martial arts drive-in romps as Cleopatra Jones (1973), Policewomen (1974), Three the Hard Way (1974), The Muthers (1976), and Disco 9000 (1977). Bell was no Pam Grier or Tamara Dobson but she was able to hold her own well enough regardless. Pat Anderson was in Bonnie's Kids (1972). Ken Metcalfe and Joe Mari Avellana were Santiago regulars. Metcalfe frequently worked with Eddie Romero and Bobby A. Suarez. He can be seen in Naked Fist (1981), Enter the Ninja (1981), Stryker (1983), Savage Justice (1988), and Angelfist (1993). Avellana was, among many others, in Wheels of Fire (1985), Silk (1986), and Silk II (1989). In short, there’s a lot of familiar faces here and for a Filipino production this looks decidedly American. Blaxploitation was the ticket and Santiago managed to capture the decade’s grindhouse drive-in zeitgeist. TNT Jackson is as lean, mean, and grimy as they come – and it never makes any excuses for what it is.

While Europe was mesmerized by the Italian gothic horror revival, the giallo explosion, Spanish fantaterrors, and Scandinavian sexploitation America experienced sweeping societal changes in the economic recession and collapse following the postwar boom. Social progressive values that sprung up in the previous decade grew stronger. Civil rights, women’s liberation, environmentalism, and anti-war protests erupted everywhere. No wonder then that urban revenge tales and underdog vigilante heroes became fixtures in cinema, mainstream and otherwise. On the one hand there were the biker counterculture flicks following Easy Rider (1969), LSD cinema in the wake of The Trip (1967), and gritty actioners on the model of either Dirty Harry (1971) or Death Wish (1974). The black community had their own cinematic heroes in the form of Melvin Van Peebles in Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), Richard Roundtree as Shaft (1971), and Pam Grier as Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). Bruce Lee had brought kung fu to North America with Enter the Dragon (1973) and following his untimely death Hong Kong imports were everywhere. Downtrodden and impoverished commoners fighting back against feudal oppressors was something that resonated across cultures. Martial arts was the language of the oppressed and disenfranchised demographics/communities (typically either African-American or Latino) embraced it wholeheartedly. In other words, TNT Jackson benefitted tremendously from the decade’s social upheaval and, retroactively, is very much a product of its time.

Seeing as how TNT Jackson almost immediately followed Foxy Brown (1974) there’s a degree of overlap between the two, intentional or otherwise. As said earlier, Bell was no Pam Grier or Tamara Dobson yet thankfully TNT Jackson is a cut above, say, the average Serafim Karalexis chop sockey joint or poverty row revenge action as Road Of Death (1973). It speaks to the viability of a concept that Cirio H. Santiago would return to the same well over the ensuing decades and twice with Caucasian women in the starring roles. Were Jillian Kesner and Catya Sassoon better actresses? That’s debatable. Like Bell, Kesner was an exploitation veteran and Sassoon was famous mostly thanks due to her hair stylist/business tycoon father. Of the three Kesner was the better fighter and Bell could genuinely act. The talents (while considerable) of the late Sassoon lay elsewhere, fighting and acting generally not being among them. Quentin Tarantino kinda-sorta paid tribute to it with his Kill Bill (2003-2004) (in truth more of a Hong Kong valentine) and it certainly was ripe for the exploiting. Which raises the only real question left: when is Rene Perez going to remake this with Stormi Maya, Alanna Forte, or Elonda Seawood?