Thesis (1996)

Rating: B-

Dir: Alejandro Amenábar
Star: Ana Torrent, Fele Martínez, Eduardo Noriega, Xabier Elorriaga
a.k.a. Tesis

The topic of “snuff” movies is always one which has fascinated film-makers in the horror/thriller genre. There’s a bit of a double standard involved. You get to depict brutal violence, usually against women, while making disapproving noises about it. “Isn’t it terrible that people will watch this kind of thing in our society? And here it is again!” This film does have the grace to acknowledge itself, going full meta at the end with a TV station broadcasting one such snuff tape. They solemnly pronounce, “Unpleasant as it is to show these images, we think they are of interest to all. The crude violence speaks for itself.” It’s basically what the film has been doing for the previous 121 minutes. 

It begins with media student Ángela (Amenábar), who is working on her thesis about “Audiovisual violence and the family”. Seeking extreme material she befriends horror fan Chema (Martinez). She then finds her professor dead of an asthma attack in a viewing room and takes the tape he was watching. It turns out to be a snuff movie, depicting the murder of a student who vanished two years previously. She and Chema investigate, and the evidence initially seems to point toward another student, Bosco (Noriega), who is wielding the same model of camera used to shoot the video. How deep does the conspiracy go though, and in how much risk are our intrepid pair putting themselves, as they get closer to the truth?

The first hour of this is very good, working that line I mentioned about depicting violence while condemning it. Ángela is initially repulsed emphatically by it. But her hypocrisy is made apparent in a conversation with her new professor (Elorriaga), who is big on the commercial side of cinema. He talks about the (apparently sad) state of the Spanish film industry in the mid-nineties: “The American industry’s out there trampling on you, and there’s only one way to compete: give the public what it wants.” In contrast, Chema is cheerily open about his tastes (he sports a Cannibal Holocaust T-shirt, while his apartment is decorated with posters for the likes of Suspiria), and it’s refreshing to see a horror fan not depicted as a total weirdo. Slob, sure: just not a serial killer. [Hello, Brian Patrick Miller, Fearcon attendee…]

While initially fascinating, it doesn’t manage to sustain itself. As the running time extends, the story has to fall back on rather tired thriller tropes, including throwing suspicion on just about everyone by disclosing unsavoury elements about their characters. It all becomes implausible e.g. the snuff creator suddenly forgetting how to tie up a victim, and feels contrived. Considering how credible it was in the first half, that has to be considered something of a disappointment. If Hitchcock had made a movie on the topic of snuff movies, it might have gone down similar lines to this. Though I suspect it would probably have been better written.