Thesis (1996)

Author: Wes R.
Submitted by: Wes R.   Date : 2008-06-29 13:10

Directed by: Alejandro Amenabar
Written by: Alejandro Amenabar and Mateo Gil
Starring: Ana Torrent, Fele Martinez, and Eduardo Noriega

Reviewed by: Wes R.

“Oh my God!”
“That’s what you wanted. Don’t get squeamish now. Everything you see is real.
Executions, beatings, hangings… Great stuff!”

Ever since the release of Snuff, B-Movie filmmakers and their mainstream Hollywood counterparts have been fascinated by the idea of actual snuff films. That is, films whose sole purpose is to show an actual torture, mutilation, or murder of an actual human being. To count all the films that have been made on the subject since then would take far too much time. Some notables include Effects, Video Violence, My Little Eye, Last House on Dead End Street, 8MM, and most recently, Untraceable and The Poughkeepsie Tapes. In 1997, director Alejandro Amenabar made a name for himself with the popular Spanish thriller, Open Your Eyes (which was later remade in America as Vanilla Sky with Tom Cruise and Cameron Crowe). One year prior, Alejandro directed what many say is still his best film; The snuff film horror thriller Thesis.

Angela is a young film student looking to have Professor Figueroa direct her thesis on violence on film. In conducting research, she befriends a horror and porn movie buff, Chema, who shows her some of his “Fresh Blood” videos (which are obviously meant to stand in for Faces of Death type of fare. She is revolted, but compelled to continue working on her video violence thesis. Professor Figueroa obtains a violent videotape from the school’s archives for her research, and after screening it for himself, dies of an apparent asthmatic episode. What could he have seen that affected him so greatly as to cause his death? Taking the videotape of what the professor watched moments before he died, Angela discovers that it depicts a hysterical woman being beaten, tortured, murdered, and dismembered. Chema, ever the gore fan, is naturally interested in the tape, and together, they both work to figure out who the victim was, where the tape was shot, and who was responsible for her murder. Soon, more characters are introduced who only deepen the mystery, and cause us to question the motives of everyone we’ve already met in the film before.

I really enjoyed Thesis. The filmmakers managed to transcend the unpleasant material and craft a truly memorable and suspenseful horror thriller. It flows well, and the numerous twists, turns, and twists upon twists keep us interested in finding out once and for all who is responsible for the tape and how involved anyone else might have been. I loved how many twists there were. This film truly kept me guessing. Literally anyone in the film could have plausibly been involved in the snuff film ring, and yet, there was also evidence suggesting otherwise. The real answers at the end aren’t all that surprising, but what works with the film is the journey we take to the revelations. We’re strung along perfectly. The story plays out very much in line with the giallo sub-genre. We’re never really given a boogeyman to fear, yet the existence of the tape itself serves as a villain. The fact that human beings could do such horrible things to another, film it, and profit from it, is truly too terrifying and outrageous than many of us would want to believe. The film toys with the sometimes natural human curiosity of morbid things, by opening on a subway accident in which a man has leaped to his death in front of a train. Angela passes by and tries her best to get a glimpse of the scene, though later in the film is completely revolted by watching the videos depicting real death.

If there’s one minor fault of the film, it’s that I think it goes on just a tad too long. Clocking in at right around two hours exactly, I think they could’ve easily trimmed around 20 minutes or so from the film and lost next to nothing. Not to say that the film is in any way excessive, because we’re given plenty of great character moments. I just think that thrillers like this work better with a tighter, more focused pace. It’s not a deal breaker to me, but I think some viewers may grow tired of all the turns and may even be inclined to turn the film off after one major revelation (which is then followed by another 30 minutes of film). Taking out a sub-plot or two wouldn’t wreck the film at all. It would only strengthen it. But again, this is a relatively minor qualm. The film is strong and entertaining, as-is. The fact that anyone in the film could be responsible also adds an element of distrust. Who can Angela trust? Who are we betting on to save her if she’s in trouble, if we ourselves aren’t sure who’s who and what’s what?

The cast is great, but take note… the film was made entirely in the Spanish language. I’ve run across many movie fans with whom subtitles and “having to read” during a film is a problem, so I felt that it is worth mentioning here. The story flows so well, though, that I didn’t mind the constant subtitles. I was thoroughly engaged in the story’s countless clues and red herrings from the opening credits onward. Back to the cast, though… the Chema character was probably my favorite. He was quite entertaining, although he doesn’t really do horror fans any favors among those who think we’re all deranged or weird. I think many fans will identify with him, though. He looks like a cross between Johnny Depp and John Carpenter (during his early years), he wears t-shirts depicting Cannibal Holocaust and other horror movies, and even has posters for films like Shocker, Phantasm, and Night Breed pinned to the walls of his house. You want to see him get the girl, but then again… Is he somehow in on the snuff ring? Watch the movie and find out!

For such grim and dark subject matter, the film doesn’t have a great deal of blood itself, but I think given the tone, what we have is adequate. The body count is relatively low, but again, despite the giallo feeling, this isn’t a body count type of film at all. This isn’t a film that aims to shock its viewers. It aims to thrill them, utilizing the unpleasant subject matter of snuff films as a deadly serious backdrop to the proceedings. It aims to manipulate us, to take us along on its suspenseful ride. Alejandro manages to pull off more than a couple of tense moments. It’s clear that he’s studied some of the very best horror and suspense filmmakers, and it really shows through in his work here. With the film being so low key and serious, it’s easy to see how it got lost in the shuffle of Scream’s great success. No doubt, a foreign thriller such as this would’ve had a very difficult time finding American distribution in theaters or on video when all the craze suddenly reverted to pop slashers once again. In fact, it’s really amazing that a film such as this came out when it did. It would be much more at home now, in the era of more “extreme” horror such as Saw and Hostel. Being made and released in early 1996, it was decidedly ahead of its time.

Thesis doesn’t really get mentioned too much these days, with thrillers like Hostel and My Little Eye aggressively taking the front seat as most horror fans’ snuff-themed favorites, but it’s one very much deserving of your discovery. It’s very competently made, and shows that when he wants to be, Alejandro Amenabar is a filmmaker that would likely make Dario Argento and Alfred Hitchcock both quite proud. Thesis keeps you guessing, it keeps you involved, and best of all... it keeps you entertained. With the previous DVD release now long out of print, this one is getting harder and harder to track down (making it almost as elusive as the existence of the supposed snuff films on which its based). Put forth the effort and seek out this little-known 90s flick. For all the wannabe thrillers and Hollywood fluff that we’re subjected to year after year, Thesis is a foreign gem that does not disappoint! Buy it!

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