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Film Review: Tesis (1996)

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Angela (Ana Torrent), is a grad student writing her thesis on violent video. She gets in contact with Chema (Fele Martinez), a long haired horror geek who takes her home and introduces her to his collection of gore tapes. He plays her a mondo movie calle ‘Fresh Blood’, which shows a dead body having its brain removed. Angela’s professor has access to the university’s private video library, and he promises to have a look through the archives to locate the most gruesome and p*rnographic films to help her in her studies. After browsing the shelves in the enormous deserted library, he plays one of the videos in a closed-off screening room… Angela later finds him dead in his seat, presumably of a chronic asthma attack. But what on earth was he watching that could cause him to keel over like that? Angela removes the tape from the machine and watches it at home. She’s hesitant at first, making sure she plays it with the contrast level turned down to a minimum so that she doesn’t have to see what’s happening on screen; but the sounds of a woman’s tortured cries are enough to convince her that the contents of the tape are far from pretty, and could in fact be a genuine snuff film. She shows the tape to her horror geek buddy, Chema, and he confirms it is real. The tape depicts a young woman tied to a chair being beaten and butchered with a circular saw by a man wearing a balaclava. Chema recognises the victim as a girl who disappeared from the campus two years previously. This odd couple then take it upon themselves to investigate…


Directed by Alejandro Amenabar
Starring: Ana Torrent, Fele Martinez
Original title: Tesis

After this superb initial set-up, the film descends into a silly thriller in which the sleuths are followed by the murderers who made the tape. And with only two possible culprits at hand, the film flits between the suspects, back and forth, and ruins any chances of having a surprise ending. As a whole, Tesis is not really gritty or graphic enough for my liking. It’s way too clean-cut and streamlined to truly disturb its audience. It serves as really nothing more than a calling card for director Amenabar, who predictably went on to such mainstream tosh as the Turn of The Screw rip-off, The Others, and the Penelope Cruz vehicle, Open Your Eyes. And like those later films, Thesis has a distinctive ‘play-it-safe’ vibe about it, as though the filmmakers were trying to secure an international hit at any cost, and were absolutely dead-set against including anything in the film that may have ruined its chances of sending the director on to a career in Hollywood. The snuff thriller was done much better – and more plausibly – in Anthony Waller’s superb Mute Witness (1994), and just like Amenabar, Waller also went on to a career in Hollywood, and delivered the lacklustre sequel, An American Werewolf In Paris, of which the less spoken about the better.

Angela’s character is a bit wishy-washy; she’s supposed to be writing a thesis on video violence, but acts as though she’s never seen a horror movie in her life. She has a sort of doe-eyed innocence about her, more suited to watching Disney movies than fictional mondo vids like ‘Fresh Blood’. If she ever saw Men Behind The Sun or Snuff 102 she’d shit her own guts out. Chema is better as a character, the horror geek whose jaded sensibilities allows him to identify the poor butchered girl, meaning he can watch the tape over and over like a detached criminologist, as a way of piecing together the clues needed to track down the culprits. But even he is annoyingly obnoxious at times. His abnormal facial hair is annoying too; like a piece of shredded wheat pathetically trying to mimic Fidel Castro. And with his grungy plaid shirt and long hair and glasses, he looks like fellow horror geek, Mark Borchardt, from the excellent documentary American Movie: The Making of North Western, which incidentally, was made around the same time as Thesis.

The film’s plus points are quite subtle; the first half hour or so has a gripping build-up, but soon fizzles out. There is also an underlying theme present concerning the scoptophiliac nature of moviegoers and of human nature in general: The opening scene sees Angela arriving at the station on a train. The conductor announces that a man has committed suicide by throwing himself in front of the train, and urges passengers not to look at the track as they leave. While she walks on the platform, Angela seems troubled; she doesn’t want to look at the dead body on the track, but at the same time she can’t help herself – the desire to look and feast her eyes on the tragedy is too great for her… Later on, there’s the scene where Chema watches the tape at his apartment – While Chema stares unflinchingly at the screen in an almost clinically detached manner, Angela stands at the back of the room with her hands covering her eyes. But while she’s doing this, she can’t help but take a horrified peek through the gaps of her fingers. By standing as far away from the screen as possible, she hopes to distance herself, both physically and emotionally, from the shocking imagery, but of course this doesn’t work, and those images are burned into her memory forever. An idea many horror fans will be able to relate to.

Tesis (1996)

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