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Tesis (Thesis) (1996)
DVD Released: 2/8/2011
All Ratings out of
Review by Mike Long, Posted on 2/8/2011; Updated 11/17/2014
You may not be aware of this, but in certain movie criticism circles, horror movies are seen as the bastard step-child of cinema. (Hold on, can one be a bastard step-child?) Horror movies get little respect and are seen as appealing to the most basic filmgoers. But, if this is true, why do so many directors start out in horror? Directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Brian DePalma, Sam Raimi, and Peter Jackson went for scares in their first forays into filmmaking, and then moved onto other things. (Thanks to the Scream films, Wes Craven is the rare director who stuck with horror and had mainstream success.) This sort of career path happens all over the world, and a shining example is Spanish Director Alejandro Amenabar.
Tesis takes place in the School of Mass Communication in Madrid. Angela (Ana Torrent) is a student here, and she's doing a thesis on media violence. She discusses this with Professor Figueroa (Miguel Picazo), and asks him to try and find some examples of on-screen violence for her. Figueroa visits the archives looking for movies, and discovers a hidden room full of videotapes. Knowing that he has a reputation for liking violence and pornography, Angela approaches classmate Chema (Fele Martinez) and asks him for help. Chema is the untrusting type, but he reluctantly agrees to let Angela watch some of his movies. The following day, Angela discovers that Figueroa has died while watching a videotape, which she takes. Afraid to view it, she takes the tape to Chema, who discovers that it's a snuff film which shows a woman being murdered. Even worse, Chema recognizes the girl as a former student at the school. Angela and Chema begin to investigate and some of the clues point to Bosco (Eduardo Noriega), a handsome and popular student. As Angela gets closer to the murders, she finds that she doesn't know who she can trust.
Tesis marked the feature film debut for Alejandro Amenabar and the film was an immediate success in Spain, winning 7 Goya Awards (which, as I understand it, are like the Spanish Oscars). The movie also received positive word-of-mouth in America. His next film, Abre los Ojos (which also starred Martinez and Noriega), was also a success (although, it was shut out at the Goya Awards, despite having received 10 nominations). Tom Cruise, of all people, apparently became a huge Alejandro fan, because Abre los Ojos was remade as Vanilla Sky, and Cruise produced Amenabar's next movie, The Others. The Others was a critical success in the U.S., but (maybe) more importantly, it grossed nearly $100 million. While the movie was a joint venture, it maintained a European feel and had enough "gothic" for two movies. (The Others was spoofed in Scary Movie 3. You know you've arrived when a this happens.) But, despite this success, Amenabar remained in Europe and turned his attention to drama. There don't appear to be any future plans for him to return to making thrillers.
And that's a crime, because the man knows how to make a good suspense film. Looking at Tesis, Abre los Ojos, and The Others, one can clearly see Amenabar grow as a filmmaker, but the talent was already evident in Tesis. Watching the film 15 years after its initial release, my only real complaint with the movie is that it's a bit too long. But, on the flipside, Amenabar must be applauded for trying to fill the movie with detail.
Much like a Hitchcock or DePalma film, Tesis is a character-driven thriller which shows how dangerous relationships and coincidences can be, as Angela finds herself caught between Chema and Bosco. The movie makes a great statement about how appearances can be deceiving. Chema, with his long hair and grotesque t-shirts, comes across as anti-social. His love for violent horror films and pornography certain doesn't help the situation. And yet, he's very docile. Bosco is handsome and suave, and clearly comes from money. But, there are clues which could connect him to the killings. Just like Angela, we aren't sure who to trust, and the movie exploits this. (Amenabar is also apparently making statements about Spanish cinema, but those were lost on me.) The most striking element of the film is how the snuff movie is handled. For the longest time, we only hear it, as opposed to seeing it, and the blood-curdling screams are very chilling. Despite the fact that Tesis is about media violence, there's very little of that here, but the few violent scenes are very effective.
With the rare exception, foreign films rarely get much recognition in the U.S., no matter how much they deserve them. Yet, I still advocate for Tesis and I hope that with this new DVD release, more people can discover the film. Save for its statements about Spanish cinema, the movie isn't "too European" and is easily accessible. (If you can get past the teachers smoking in class!) Thrilling and well-made, Tesis is proof that horror can be scary and classy at the same time.
Tesis makes us want to know more about Angela's sister on DVD courtesy of Bayview Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. For this review, I compared this new release with a Spanish import DVD and learned that there's probably no perfect version of Tesis out there. Compared to the Spanish release, Bayview's DVD is very dark. And while it seems very artistic to have everything bathed in shadow, some scenes are too dark. The image on this new release is much sharper than the import DVD, which showed annoying jagged lines. However, this new disc looks like it may have been mastered from a theatrical print, as there are black dots and some minor scratches. The image shows a notable amount of grain as well. The DVD carries the Spanish audio track in a Dolby 2-channel mix. This track provides clear audio and sound effects. While the speakers are always audible, the track is flat, showing only a few stereo effects. There is a unmistakable "pop" in the track near the beginning of the film.
The Tesis DVD contains a few extras. "The Making of Tesis" (25 minutes) opens with a montage of clips from the film, but then gives way to a generous amount of on-set footage and interviews with the cast and filmmakers. Amenabar describes his experiences on the production, noting the challenges of this being his first feature film. Much more so than an American featurette would do, this piece really examines Amenabar's directing style and the work which he put into the movie. The DVD contains six DELETED SCENES which run about 7 minutes. These are all very brief. One reveals a moment with Angela which is shown later in the film and more effective that way. Another shows Angela supposedly injuring Bosco, but it doesn't really work. The final extra is a reel of STORYBOARDS which runs about 9 minutes and covers four scenes.
On December 9, 2014, Tanelorn Films and Bayview Entertainment brought Tesis to Blu-ray Disc. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 15 Mbps. The image is sharp and clear, showing a fine amount of grain and no notable defects from the source materials. This is definitely an improvement over the DVD release. The picture is much brighter and shows an impressive clarity. The colors look good and realistic. The depth is good, but the picture does get a bit soft at times. Despite the presence of the grain, this is the best that I've seen this film look. The Disc carries a LPCM 2.0 audio track which runs at 48 kHz and a constant 1.9 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. This is a serviceable track which doesn't show any hissing or popping. The sound effects and score don't overpower the dialogue and we get a few notable stereo effects. After watching hundreds of bad movies which have good technical specs, it's nice to see one of my obscure favorites looking better than ever.
The Tesis Blu-ray Disc contains several extras. There is a DIRECTOR'S INTRODUCTION (1 minute) in which Amenabar wishes us well while standing in front of someone's Oscar and Golden Globe. "Touching Death" (42 minutes) is a brand-new documentary which focuses on Amenabar. Shot in January of this year, the filmmaker talks about how he got into movies and his experiencing making shorts. He then focuses on the making of Tesis, giving details about the casting and the production. "The Making of Tesis" (23 minutes) is an archival featurette from 1996. Here, we get clips from the movie and comments from Torrent, Martinez, Noriega, and some of the crew. The remainder of the piece delivers a nice amount of on-set footage, showing Amenabar at work and some key scenes being shot. The Disc contains four DELETED SCENES which run about 7 minutes. There are some interesting moments here, but no new characters or subplots. The final extra is a series of STORYBOARDS for three scenes.
Review by Mike Long. Copyright 2011/2014