Tesis, I was told was a rawer, more dangerous and potent film than the films Amenabar followed it with. A real horror film in the good old tradition. However, I wasn't overly impressed with 'Abres Los Ojos' (Open Your Eyes) and the subsequent 'The Others', so my hopes were far from sky high. Removed of their fancy wrapping, I found them to be interesting but ultimately average genre fare. Take away the weak identity philosophising of the former, and the star power of Nicole Kidman in the latter and you're left with a decent thriller and a workmanlike supernatural spook-show. Entertaining in the moment, but hardly the stuff of nightmares. Tesis is no different, a routine modern day horror in the guise of a clumsy and not to mention hypocritical study of audio-visual violence. Pretty girls fall down, sinister music permeates, people investigate strange noises. All the tell-tale signs are here. But nowhere are we invited to explore and submerge ourselves in the murky waters of what we're viewing; the camera is never turned onto us. Violence is featured, but never investigated or probed. So, Amenabar is no Michael Haneke, David Cronenberg or Krystzof Kieslowki, but the worst thing is, he's barely a cut-price Hitchcock, Argento or Craven.
Opening with the beguiling Ana Torrent being ushered off a train because of a death on the rails, the film has much early promise. Jarringly angular and pryingly studious, the camera manoeuvres work up a sense of genuine tension through the lack of explanation. Combined with the cold modern architecture and narrative ambiguity, this opening serves as a perfect metaphor for what the film should have been like: Clinical, unflinching and brave enough to ignore the gruesome extremes of the genre in favour of a portrayal more disturbing than disgusting. Horror that feeds off human emotion and responses, rather than the lowest common denominator of the unpleasant gut reaction. And for a while, the film succeeds in its clandestine nature towards the two main threads of the film: The unfolding conspiratorial plot, and the underlying moral foundations.
For an end of year project, Torrent begins a thesis on the effects of audio-visual violence on the viewer, and befriends a student renowned for his interest in all that's morbid, including an impressive collection of snuff movies. As she delves deeper into this world (thankfully in a style not as ludicrous as Joel Schumacher's neon-a-thon numskull 8MM), one particularly tape, discovered in a hidden passage of a video vault, causes both the death of a teacher and the increasing endangerment of anyone who comes into contact with it. When viewed, its contents are simply a woman beaten and killed in a solitary room, but a tell-tale edit in the mix arouses suspicions that this underground industry may operate uncomfortably close to home. Cue chases through darkened corridors, shifting alliances and elaborately staged nail-biting sequences.
The formulaic nature of Tesis is a real shame because the film is very well made and acted. The shifting between the claustrophobic corners of the college and the jilting exposure of the surrounding neighbourhood make for an effective contrast. Torrent and Noriega bring a suitable mix of ambivalence and enigmatic allure to both of their performances, and the whole enterprise pits them in a number of stylish set-pieces. However, what could have been a potent mixture of theology and thrills fails to handle both virtues evenly and ultimately both are neglected in the strive to be a cut above the post-Scream school of horror filmmaking. When what's needed is a jolt of excitement and white-knuckle suspense, Tesis pads the tale with some thematic or character-based insight which would be good if it went anywhere, or did anything novel or interesting with it. Then, when gravitas and purpose is required, the half-baked mystery swamps anything resembling intelligent comment. And finally, the conclusion degenerates the taut build-up into the realms of histrionic but unfulfilling mediocrity, at the last minute forgetting the real saving grace of the movie: The reliance on the old film adage of never revealing too much. Well, Tesis shows and tells it all, and collapses. The intended poignancy of the coda just makes the frustrating waste more alarming.
Just like the bafflingly idolised likes of Fukasuka's Battle Royale and Guillermo Del Toro's The Devil's Backbone, Tesis seems to have excited an apparently hibernating horror audience that is waiting in the wings to snap up the latest thing to surpass, however meagerly, the miserly state of most horror these days, and shout big impressive words in its general direction. Ignore their baying ways, the next Tetsuo has not yet arrived.