5. Lady Snowblood (Toshiya Fujita, 1973)
If you’ve ever seen a story about a child being raised to be a ruthless assassin, you can credit Toshiya Fujita’s forgotten classic “Lady Snowblood,” which tells the story of young Yuki (Meiko Kaji). Born in a prison, her mother dies in childbirth but makes sure she’s raised to become a killing machine, looking to avenge the deaths of her father and brother, who were killed by a group of criminals.
It’s a pretty straightforward revenge story, but “Lady Snowblood” really defined the visual and narrative cues of the subgenre – that entire battle in the snow between The Bride and O-Ren Ishii in “Kill Bill Vol. 1” is a direct homage to its aesthetics. Fujita’s film is based on Kazuo Koike’s manga and even had a sequel in 1974, “Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance.”
4. Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967)
Lee Marvin was getting the damn money he was owed in John Boorman’s thriller “Point Blank,” released in 1967, a film that defined many staples of revenge stories told in Western cinema. Marvin plays Walker, a criminal who’s left for dead by his partner, but returns many years later, leaving a bloody trail in his wake. His only desire? The fair share of the profits from the sting in which he was “killed.”
As he found that the man who almost murdered him, Mal Reese (John Vernon), has since also stolen his wife, Lynne (Sharon Acker), we come to understand the primordial rage that drives this criminal antihero. It’s not really about a payoff or restitution – it’s about wreaking bloody violence upon people who’ve taken his life from him even as he was still breathing.
3. The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci, 1968)
This Spaghetti Western by genre maestro Sergio Corbucci is impossible to resist. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Silence, a mute gunman hired by a widow, Pauline (Vonetta McGee) to wreak revenge for her dead husband. His foil? Bounty hunter Loco, played by none other than the great Klaus Kinski.
If that’s not enough to get you hooked, “The Great Silence” is widely considered, by genre connoisseurs, one of the best Spaghetti Westerns ever made, a stunningly shot and intensely emotional epic that plays against the genre’s stark black-and-white, good-vs-evil contrast with a morally bankrupt revenge story for the ages.
2. Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier, 2013)
The most recent film on this list, “Blue Ruin” brings the fresh and undeniable talent of writer-director Jeremy Saulnier to the revenge thriller. The film starts as Dwight (Macon Blair) learns his parents’ killer is being released from prison – and he then plots his revenge. But “Blue Ruin” goes much further than that into the story, examining the lies and consequences of Dwight’s act and what motivated it.
It’s quite a brutal, not very hopeful film. As it grapples with the frailties and dumb simplicity of the very concept of revenge, “Blue Ruin” topples and deconstructs every one of the other films on this list. Couple that with Saulnier’s effectively somber direction and Blair’s complete commitment to the lead role, and you’ve got a fantastic film on your hands.
1. The Virgin Spring (Ingmar Bergman, 1960)
While it won him the first of his three Best Foreign Language Film statuettes at the Oscars, “The Virgin Spring” remains one of Ingmar Bergman’s lesser-seen films – which is a shame, since it’s a chilling revenge thriller as much as it is the director’s usual profound philosophical meditation on humanist themes.
A stunning Max von Sydow plays Töre, the patriarch of a family shaken by tragedy when their youngest daughter, only 14, is raped and killed after her sister invokes a pagan curse. When the young girl’s killers end up seeking shelter at the family’s lodge some time later, they plan and enact a brutal act of vengeance.
Bergman’s confrontation of Christian charity against the primordial urge for revenge is as haunting as anything else the master filmmaker has ever done.