What’s It About In A Nutshell?
A student risks becoming the lead actor in a snuff movie, when her macabre curiosity puts her on a killer’s trail. This low budget Spanish thriller garnered seven Goyas.
In a Bigger Nutshell….
In 1996 at the Complutense University of Madrid, Angela is studying “Audiovisual Violence” for her Thesis. To gather appropriate material for her project she enlists the help of both her professor, who has access to the university’s private library of elicit material, and class weirdo Chema, a known collector of hardcore gore and gash movies. When Angela stumbles across her professor dead in front of a lecture theatre screen, it’s clear that whatever he found in the university archives was gruesome enough to give him a heart attack; but instead of reporting his death, she steals the tapes and contacts Chema. Reviewing the tapes together they are shocked to find graphic footage of a missing student from their university being tortured and killed in a garage. The unlikely due begin an investigation which points directly to fellow film student, Bosco, a spoilt rich kid and former friend of the deceased who just happens to be a dab hand at operating a XT-500 camera, a recorder with a digital zoom which they deduce must be the model used by the killer (it’s 1996 remember, so digital zoom was state of the art!). Complicating matters, Bosco, seems to be pursuing Angela for other reasons, although it’s unsure if he has sex, or something more sinister, on his mind.
Why Is It So Awesome?
If this movie was an academic paper, in nature as well as name, it’s hypothesis would be: “as human beings we enjoy watching acts of violence, torture and death… so shouldn’t we just admit it?”
Right from the opening scene, when the protagonist Angela is forced to disembark from the Madrid metro because of a suicide on the line, the director sets out his stall. “Don’t look down at the track”, implores the rail worker responsible for breaking the news, “the guy was ripped in half”. Whilst most of the passengers file out of the station in an orderly fashion, Angela however can’t help veering towards the edge of the platform, where a crowd has gathered, for a look at the mangled body… but just as she strains her neck for a view, she is pulled away by the rail worker and told to move along. A nice touch. She – and we – will have to wait for our fill of blood and guts. (This frustrated curiosity put me in mind of Humbert Humbert in the novel Lolita and how he blamed a truncated sexual experience as a young boy, for his continuing obsession over prepubescent girls as an adult. As with Nabakov’s character, Angela’s morbid desire is heightened).
Most of what I love about this film is the playing with the theme, and the enjoyable contrast between Chema, the oddball, who admits that he loves some good ol’ sex and violence, and almost everyone else, including Angela, who deny they enjoy this kinda stuff, but can’t help watching all the same. Whether it’s the soon-to-be-dead professor, who seems secretly pleased that he can justify raiding the library’s X-rated stash because it’s for a student’s thesis, or the new head of department declaring “give the public what they want” to a crowded lecture theatre of would-be film directors, or the old men and other assorted patients in the public hospital glued to the gruesome TV News, the theme is constantly explored. At the same time of course the director is gloating that the very act of us choosing to watch his horror movie proves his hypothesis… the clever git.
On top of the darker thrills of the movie (which are sadly not as sustained as I would have liked… see “Gripes and Grievances” below), there are some great bits of understated humour. Chema is at the heart of all of them, either with his Sheldon-honest dialogue, or other assorted antics… the moment he tries to jack a door with a knife, before realising it’s already open, was a personal fave (an oldie but a goodie!).
On top of everything the director want us to enjoy, the film appealed to me in a way he couldn’t have predicted… via the comical fashion sense and customs of 1996 Madrid. You have to dig the nation-wide fetish for blue denim, the nonchalant smoking at work, and – in the case of one shop assistant – the most ridiculous rat tail ever to be seen on screen.
The Star Performer
Whilst I was tempted to give this to Eduardo Noriego for his unnervingly creepy portrayal of Bosco (it’s hard to say what’s scarier, the idea of being tied to a chair and tortured to death, or simply his rapist’s stare boring into you from underneath those fearsome Spanish eyebrows), but it’s hard to imagine this film without Fele Martinez’s foul-mouthed and painfully direct Chema. The character bears all the classic traits of the socially inept, sex-starved and unhygienic weirdo at University that you were scared to hang out with, even though you thought they were pretty funny, and the interactions between him and Angela give the story its human aspect and humour.
The scenes that should have had me digging my nails into my girlfriend’s hand and burying my head in her shoulder, whilst she stroked my hair and told me “it’s all right, it’s only make believe” were unfortunately quite disappointing. Which means the best scenes for my money were the ones of Angela and Chema reviewing snuff footage at Chema’s freakily decorated dead grandma’s apartment. “Joder, esta es muy fuerte,” says Chema, casually tucking into some potato chips, whilst the screams ring out and Angela hides her face behind her hands.
Angela asks how come Chema has let him view his well-guarded collection of hardcore horror flicks…
Chema: Por que estás muy buena.
Chema: Olvidalo. No es mérito tuyo.
It doesn’t translate well though sadly…
Anyone in the mood for a quirky European thriller with a b-movie vibe
With your girlfriend. Then at the end of the movie go and get your camcorder, a knife from the kitchen and try out your most menacing look. Later she’ll agree that was a hilarious joke.
Gripes and Grievances
The film suffers quite a bit on the credibility front at times, with some contrived dialogue and some pretty damn implausible decisions / behaviour, from Angela in particular. Perhaps the most incredulous moment of the film though is when we discover that Angela, played by a 30-year-old Ana Torrent (who if anything looks older!), lives with her parents still. Madre mia, it’s time to move out Angela.
Those relatively minor points aside, my major gripe with the film is that it isn’t anywhere near graphic enough. Nor does it make the most of one or two situations that could have been horrifyingly scary… but instead were just a little bit uncomfortable (at one point Angela is told she is going to die quickly without being tortured… wtf call yourself a horror writer Senor Amenabar!). I agree with the director’s decision to not show too much of the original snuff movie to the audience (just a few jets of blood here and there!), allowing us to imagine the worst to a soundtrack of screams and pleas for mercy… but later in the film he needs to make us see at least some of what we’ve been imagining / dreading / looking forward to for this to really succeed as a horror/thriller movie.
Original Title: Tesis
Director: Alejandro Amenabar (a year later he directed my favourite ever Spanish movie, but more on that another time!)
Runtime: 126 min
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What Did You Think?
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