31 Days to Scare ~ Tesis

The Facts:

Synopsis: Ángela is a young student at a film school in Madrid who finds a snuff movie in which a young girl is tortured and killed. Soon she discovers that the girl was a former student at her school…and her killer is closer than she thinks…

Stars: Ana Torrent, Fele Martínez and Eduardo Noriega

Director: Alejandro Amenábar

Rated: R

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: What is the fascination that some people have with the mythology of snuff films?  Ever since pictures could be put on film it seems that there is always someone that needs to see more, wants to view pain…it’s pretty disturbing stuff.  For decades, well-worn VHS tapes have been passed around underground railroad-style to cinephiles that claim to show actual people being murdered.  The popular Faces of Death films are the closest we’ve come to seeing these types of films released commercially.  I, for one, have zero interest in seeing anything remotely close to death onscreen…squirming even at movies that feature animals being killed for religious purposes. 

Snuff films were the subject of two late 90’s movies (there probably were more) and both films are noteworthy in their wallowing in some pretty icky material.  1999’s 8MM was a US film starring Nicolas Cage that David Fincher was originally supposed to direct.  After he left the project Joel Schumacher took over and the resulting picture was a sleazy affair that was more odiously offensive than scary. 

When the Spanish film Tesis was released in 1996 it became something of a phenomenon in Spain…winning seven Goya Awards (the Spanish equivalent to our Oscar) including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.  The only award it didn’t win was Best Actress…and rightfully so…but more on that later.

Tesis is a scary film, no doubt, but it derives its thrills from letting us merely hear the violence that is happening but only rarely see it.  For a film that involves a video where a girl is tortured and eventually dismembered via chainsaw, it’s not too gory and the blood flows slowly.  There’s a casual nature to how the film evolves…adding maybe a little too much padding to its bloated running time.  There are too many moments meant to ratchet up the tension that unfortunately let the air out of the scene due to some clumsy camera work and an even clumsier performance by our lead actress…but (again) more on her later.

It’s hard to view the 1996 film from our tech savvy perspective now because so much of the technology our characters use in the film seems out of the Stone Age.  VHS players, chunky phones, pagers, and the like elicit some guffaws when you consider how far we’ve come in the last two decades.  How much of the twists the film holds would hold up were it made now…I think a totally different film would have emerged utilizing the internet to its advantage.

Director Amenábar is noteworthy here for directing Nicole Kidman in the chilly/creepy The Others and that same attention to what scares you is present in this early film.  There are a few moments that made me wish I wasn’t watching it in such a dark basement by myself.  I instinctively pulled the blanket I was sitting under practically over my head when the lights zapped out on our actors at one point.  A truly scary finale should send you to bed with several lights on and a flashlight under your bed for good measure.

If the movie lags it’s not due to Amenábar’s direction or script but in his casting of Torrent as our leading lady.  Bland and nearly comatose for most of the film, she’s every horror film’s worst nightmare in that she can’t find any middle ground to operate on.  She’s so spineless that she can’t make any decision for herself and she’s too independent to let anyone talk any sense into her.  Torrent doesn’t ruin the film by any stretch of the imagination but one wonders what would have happened if Amenábar had cast someone with a bit more spunk in the role.  That way, when we see something that is actually scaring her…we can understand just how terrified she must be.  As it is, you get the impression that a wrinkled pair of slacks would scare her if the light caught them just right.

As with films like Julia’s Eyes, The Uninvited Guest, and The Orphanage, Tesis fits in nicely with the high-class ranks of Spanish horror.  It for sure has its moments that will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up…but it also has a decent story at its core.   It’s a miracle the film was never remade for the US…but I’m sure that the dismal failure of 8MM made it less desirable for movie studios.

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