Focus On : Tesis
Apart from an older generation (and fans of period dramas) to whom the word may conjure images of powdered tobacco being snorted from ornate tin boxes, for the rest of us, especially the cine-literate, the word is associated with death, in particular the (alleged) real on-screen murder of another human being for the purpose of titillating the audience for whom the material was filmed, with profit as a possible motive. The debate over “snuff” continues unabated – the main topic usually being to do with its existence (the “there’s no actual proof” versus “if human beings are capable, it must exist somewhere” argument), but even its definition will often be contested (for instance there are some who would like to include in that definition the selling of material that includes actual footage of humans being killed accidentally or political executions, which would make, for example, the Faces of Death series “snuff”).
It’s almost an urban legend, the cinematic equivalent of Bigfoot, belief is fuelled more by faith and hypothesis than any emergent hard evidence. Its origins are allegedly born in the 60′s, courtesy of a rumour that Charles Manson and his “family” filmed themselves murdering victims and buried this footage (never found), which became the subject of high-profile tabloid rumours, leading naturally to it becoming fodder for exploitation moguls like Allan Shackleton to cash-in on, with the likes of Snuff (1976). Snuff apparently started life as a piss-poor slasher that would have been almost un-saleable, but with the buzzwords being bandied about by the media, Shackleton saw the potential in re-issuing it with the altered title, removed the end credits and added the now infamous tagline: “Made in South America – where life is cheap!”. It was a shrewd move financially, as the concept is one that both tantalises with the possibility of salacious, taboo content and also courts natural controversy, which is great free press – just look at how well Snuff did out of the “Video Nasties” panic in the UK; it had all but been forgotten, but since the short-sighted people involved with that little fiasco declared it banned, they instead only managed to give it publicity and a resurrection, pretty much like every movie on that list which for the hardcore horrorhounds of the day was like a shopping list of “must-sees”.
Since then there has been the occasional decent or half-decent attempt to make a film with snuff as a subject, like Paul Schrader’s Hardcore (1979) which touches on it briefly or Mute Witness (1994), which despite a few silly contrivances manages to be a neat little thriller. But more often than not it’s the idea behind low budget sleazefests which simply use it as a quick gimmick for exploitation purposes, like Fatal Frames (1996) or Snuff 102 (2007). This approach has even been perpetuated (alongside the most spurious aspects of the snuff myth) by big budget garbage like Joel Schumacher’s shameful 8MM (1999) which clunks terribly and betrays jaw-dropping lack of complexity or depth, deliberately churning out every possible stereotype and exploitation trick it can so that it plays to a wider audience out for a little titillation and to tut afterwards, including the same uninformed, conservative audience who would likely have supported the “Video Nasties” censorship based on this kind of trite misinformation.
This is why, for horror fans, “snuff” is a perpetually hot topic for a very good reason: at the heart of it are the same arguments that are generally levelled at the horror genre by those on the outside, those who see it as a corrupting influence, but also by fans themselves who are willing to probe their own feelings as horror continues to evolve. It’s about the relationship between horrific images and the viewer, of sex and violence, of the perverse desire innate in all of us to break boundaries and witness the taboo. Many come to horror and seek to test their limits, to push outwards and perhaps beyond previously drawn boundaries, and that goes both for fans and filmmakers alike. Is there a line, should there be one? When does testing limits of acceptance go from rebellion and experimentation to prurience? They’re questions which have been asked of horror probably since the beginning, and the idea of “snuff”, of someone going from watching faked violence to real may have seemed remote at one time but now with the possibilities offered by the internet, and with even mainstream horror films like Captivity (2007) courting this idea, baiting the critics with the new wave of (erroneously named) “torture porn” flicks or perhaps even closer to the bone of this issue movies like the execrable August Underground series, which are basically faux-snuff, make the issue all the more relevant.
All of which, by way of being a woefully brief and incomplete history of “snuff” and yet a very long-winded preamble to a review, is necessary, because it must be understood outright how complex and thorny an issue this is and how easy any film dealing with it can immediately fall at the first hurdle. What makes Alejandro Amenábar’s Tesis (Thesis) all the more impressive is that it not only navigates these pitfalls with ease but for a low-budget picture it doesn’t resort to mining the cheaper tricks of its competitors (though nor does it become preachy or pretend to have all the answers), whilst remaining throughout a taught and intelligent thriller. The plot revolves around Ángela (Ana Torrent), a film student who is writing her thesis on violence in movies. She enlists the help of fellow student Chema (Fele Martínez) who, being a collector of horror, exploitation and porn films is the class black sheep. The two make an unlikely pairing – Ángela comes from a well-to-do middle class family and has a squeamish aversion to violence and viscera, but is also secretly drawn to it through morbid curiosity. Chema, by contrast, is a loner at school and at home and has an appetite for pushing the boundaries and watching with relish the most bloody and horrific images he can obtain, something he is proud of. The duo’s lives and perceptions are shaken to their foundations, however, when Ángela, through the course of her investigation, accidentally stumbles upon a VHS cassette which shows a young woman who is bound and being brutally tortured and mutilated by an unknown tormentor, until she is finally murdered and her body dismembered, all for the benefit of the electric eye of the rolling camera, and the voyeur who will ultimately buy the tape. The worst is yet to come, though, as Chema realises that he knew the girl in question, she was one of their fellow students who disappeared some time ago, the ex-girlfriend of the popular, handsome Bosco (Eduardo Noriega, who genre fans may recognise from his menacing turn as Jacinto in Guillermo del Toro’s ghost story The Devil’s Backbone). It means that the tape was filmed somewhere locally, possibly by someone they know, and distributed by someone within their college…and that person may know them and want the tape back.
Where it rises above its brethren is in the mature, intelligent treatment of the subject matter and avoids the lurid, easy routes that it could easily have taken, with a definite less-is-more sensibility in some cases that make it more effective, never more capably demonstrated than in one scene where Ángela is torn between her desire to see what’s on the tape and her fear of it, and as a test turns off her TV screen and plays just the sound, and so the viewer too only hears what’s going on – a blank screen, the static hiss of dead air suddenly filled with a variety of very realistic and bloodcurdling screams of pain that leave everything to our imagination, which also cleverly puts the audience in Ángela’s shoes. This is also the kind of contradictory, complex duality that’s at work in all of the characters and becomes more apparent as the film wears on, shades of grey where at first glance they may appear black and white (and of course representing the murky debates that surround the themes of the movie). Take the meeting of Ángela and Chema, for example, where Amenábar cleverly juxtaposes a point-of-view shot from each of the characters studying the other, each is listening to music on their Walkmans (Walkmen? Well, probably moot since they’d be iPods these days), both in total contrast to the other, with Chema looking every inch the prototypical horror fanboy outsider and listening to heavy metal whilst Ángela is pert and middle-class, pretty but “ordinary” and she’s listening to something classical. Even the way their notes are arranged is meant to show the difference. But as the film continues the stereotypes are broken down – Ángela is morbidly drawn to the violence that society says are taboo, that outwardly she abhors but cannot help but be curious about and even find perversely erotic; Chema, who openly embraces this from the outset, and seems to enjoy his role as the outsider secretly wants to be accepted, it can be seen in his attraction to Ángela but more poignantly in how we find that he secretly follows her and films her, observes the way she is at home, not necessarily in a “Peeping Tom” way but because it’s the type of life to which he feels excluded and thinks he can maybe find the answer through the method of intake he finds information most readily digestible – through the camera lens and the screen.
Amenábar even uses the film school set-up to address the state of Spanish cinema at the time through the two different professors – the “old school” Figueroa and the younger Castro who fiercely argues the more commercial and competitive side of cinema, believing it should be run as a business and not as art if it’s to survive (and whether deliberate or not, he aptly looks a lot like James Cameron). This isn’t gratuitous or unnecessary, as it’s both integral to the plot thematically but it’s also related to the film we’re watching and how Amenábar straddles the line between commercial and independent, and yet it doesn’t preach one way or the other and presents them evenly with room for interpretation and thought, like most of the issues Tesis raises and ultimately is to its credit.
Just in terms of the film itself, Amenábar’s movie is a success, as it’s a great thriller, with a plot that runs like a Swiss pocket watch in the way it deals out its set pieces and revelatory twists and turns, the pacing is pretty much perfect and works all in the favour of continually building suspense that will have the viewer on tenterhooks. It’s helped too by the fact that the actors’ performances are also uniformly superb and really sell their characters, with very little being said about them through exposition they still appear largely three-dimensional and believable, which goes a long way to making you care for their fates and therefore making any scene where they may be in peril all the more tense for the emotional investment. Even at such a young age (he was in his early twenties), Amenábar’s direction is confident and assured, striking a delicate but satisfying balance between a Hollywood-style big budget picture and its independent roots, which allow it to take chances and not dumb anything down. The one time the balance is lost is in the closing moments of the epilogue which, unlike the rest of the film, feels a little heavy-handed, like its making sure those slow on the uptake will have got the message. In the end though, that is more than forgiveable and somewhat nitpicking.
All-in-all Tesis is an excellent, must-see film for any fan of the genre, it remains leagues ahead of any other film that has trodden similar waters, working perfectly well as a great example of a suspense movie that will leave you breathless but with plenty of food for thought afterwards, should you fancy a nibble.
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