Though it is thought of as a necessity in a horror movie or a “thriller,” there is no real reason, apart from a lack of creativity, why characters must act in an unintelligent manner in order to find themselves in threatening situations, thus providing thrills for the audience. It’s more insulting than anything else and implies that the filmmakers don’t really like the characters, are only out to manipulate the viewer through cheap ploys, and never consider whether or not we can identify with the people on screen, rather than just mock them and howl at their ineptitude and stupidity. One shouldn’t mistake liking a character with identifying with them, however, as long as it is possible to see yourself in their shoes, you don’t have to live by their moral standards.
Alejandro Amenábar has made three films with this notion in mind, Tesis, Abre Los Ojos, and The Others. In the case of Abre Los Ojos (remade semi-successfully as Vanilla Sky), the main character is a selfish, immature, silver spoon fed pretty boy, who finds himself caught in either a horrible nightmare or a horrible reality. We are never asked to identify with him, but it is not difficult to get wrapped up in his paranoia and fear, and to experience it along with him, even if you have no desire to live his life. The Others is more of a traditional ghost story, approximating equal parts Henry James and M. Night Shyamalan to give us a haughty woman projecting her own fear onto the two children she looks after. Tesis follows a woman who knowingly meddles in something she doesn’t understand and constantly makes decisions that put her in danger. But we don’t scoff at her behavior, because we are curious at what she might discover ourselves.
Amenábar knows what he’s doing and often leads us down a path seems familiar. He continuously aims towards the predictable scare tactics, so much so that I kept expecting it. It is obvious he is quite familiar with the traditional clichés and would like to play towards expectations and avert them. Chase scenes that would typically end in a simple misunderstanding (especially when occurring in the first 35 minutes of the film), i.e. “even though I don’t know you, I followed you for five minutes because you dropped this,” pose a real threat and are played out as actual menace.
A woman, Angela, doing her thesis on the effect of violent television and movies on society, with the help of a nerdy gorehound named Chema, discovers a snuff film ring, and attempts to follow a trail which will reveal who is behind it. This seems like typical stuff, but what’s unique is the way that Amenábar shows affection for certain characters. Chema is easily the most accurately portrayed horror fan I’ve seen on screen. He looks and acts exactly like American Movie’s Mark Borchardt. He knows things about technical equipment that those of his ilk would. He’s aware of his own geekiness in a refreshing fashion. He’s always thinking in an extremely logical way. He uses self deprecating humor about his sex appeal (or lack thereof) and his non-chalant attitude to Angela being butchered, as she keeps going further in her investigation, talking about it as if it were an accepted fact, is refreshing. When she shows further interest in a tape that killed someone close to her, he says, “You’re a real sadist. So you’d probably fuck even me.”
Tesis seems to predate all of the ideas from the film version of Ringu, but it came out a year after the book was released. Those who have been overloaded with the endless remakes and sequels to the Japanese film may feel a little worn out by this plot. There are a lot of similar elements (as well as to Mute Witness, especially in the look of the main character, who has the same facial features and mannerisms as well as the way she holds her body), except that Amenábar shows more smarts than Hideo Nakata and his imitators do by not frontloading his film with scares and cheap shocks, and spreading out his surprises. This also allows for Amenábar to use social commentary and throw in satire from time to time.
One of Angela’s professors looks just like James Cameron and he give a speech to a class which sounds like Amenábar’s speech to all prospective Spanish film students (there is little in the way of a Spanish film market, and this being Amenábar’s first feature, he would like to create one), trying to show them that they can do original work and not rely on Hollywood and its formulas. Spoiler: You might note the curiously similar to Oscar statues on this professor’s desk, which is an even further indictment of exploitation films, considering the plot development.
The largest of the problems I have with Hollywood style thrillers is the way that the main character will spend an inordinate amount of time by themselves with the killer, and usually with all of the different suspects (as is true with Tesis) giving them ample opportunity to be offed in a timely and convenient manner, but because of the plot machinations and the screenwriter’s needs to keep turning the movie over on itself every 5-10 minutes, the villain never gets around to it. The unfortunate part is, the less sensical the elements of the story are, the more likely I am to not mind this timeworn Scooby Dooism. Tesis seems fairly logical most of the time, so when things like this come up, it is more distracting. The less a film is based on coincidence and contrivance, the more glaring the lapses are.
That’s not to say that there aren’t more glaring problems with Tesis. Sloppiness sneaks its way in. There’s a scene where a camera is supposedly recording an interview but it’s quite apparent that there’s no tape inside the camera. In the second hour, the movie settles for changing the identity of the killer every five minutes, and flip flops back and forth so much, as we get one character accusation after another, that you may feel a bit jerked around. And the final explanation is not particularly satisfying nor seems to be motivated by character, rather, just a need to tie up the plot.
But the final scene is extremely clever and reveals more of what Amenábar was trying to get at, which is an indictment of the public eating up graphic violence and treating it as entertainment. To be perfectly honest, it is a slightly hypocritical scene, seeing as he plays Tesis for cheap slasher thrills at many points.
This review refers to the Spanish R2 PAL 2 Disc of Tesis, released by Sigepaq.
The video is soft, especially in the opening segments, with minimal color definition. Everything has a murky purplish tint to it. However, it is a lot sharper than any version you can find, especially the disastrous R1 which was non-anamorphic, improperly letterboxed, had imbedded subtitles, and looked to be sourced from an EP VHS. It’s important to keep in mind the low budget this was probably shot within, and so I doubt the image would get that much sharper than it appears here.
Within the subtitles, there are an abundance of spelling mistakes and confusing word contractions that serve as a distraction (D’you, y’know, etc.). The words are also very small, and sometimes hard to read as they are not spaced very well. That said, I didn’t have that hard a time understanding what was being said. Also, the titles are almost illegible over the opening credits which spool out over the first few minutes. The color of the font used is the same, and you may find yourself rewinding to catch what was said.
The Spanish 5.1 track is extremely atmospheric, especially in the snuff sequences and a scene at a club where the music really pumps in the back two speakers. The sound use is one of Amenábar’s weapons, listen especially to one of the early scenes where Chema and Angela are sitting at tables across from each other, both listening to their walkmans. She’s listening to classical and reading her notes, while he listens to heavy metal while going over his. The cutting back and forth between the music and points of view to establish moods and character is masterful.
Disc 1 has a great menu designed around the snuff film angle. There is a commentary (in Spanish, no English subtitles), an intro by Amenábar (no English), deleted scenes, an option to watch the film accompanied by storyboards (a white rabbit style feature where whenever a videotape appears in the top right corner, you have to press enter on your remote to see the boards) and filmographies. I was able to watch the deleted scenes, as some don’t need titles to be understood. One of them, where Angela throws one of her suitors over a balcony seems forced and unbelievable. Another that was rightly left out have been left, as it is a little wacky, where Chema, bored after watching a porno (or maybe this is his way of flirting) makes goofy faces over a sleeping Angela, sticking out his tongue in a self-mocking “horror” fashion. But I liked the way the deleted scenes were set up in the menu as they showed you a still of the scene that came before it and after, so you have a frame of reference. The video quality of the deleted is material is pretty poor, non-anamorphic widescreen, with lots of color fluctuation and burned in timecode.
There is a second disc, which has trailers, a featurette, an image gallery, and a short film made by Amenábar, but none have English subtitles.
This is a surprisingly gripping thriller with ample originality and made with significant skill, even if it falls into some predictable traps. This is a superb presentation of the film, especially the sound mix and extras.