Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar is best known for directing The Others, 2001’s blockbuster ghost story starring Nicole Kidman, and Open Your Eyes, the Spanish film that inspired Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky. He also won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2004 with The Sea Inside. Amenábar has got a brief and varied filmography, but I’d argue that his best film is the one Western audiences might be the least familiar with: his debut Tesis.
When Sinister was released a few years ago, a lot of critics described it as a found footage movie about the guy who actually finds the footage. Tesis is coming from the same place in that it uses found footage as a catalyst for a story rather than an aesthetic approach. Instead of a true crime writer discovering a crate of sinister Super-8 films, Tesis follows Ángela (Ana Torrent), a university student writing a thesis on snuff films who comes to obtain a VHS copy of the real thing. As she digs deeper into the tape’s origin, she discovers that the victim in the film is an ex-student who mysteriously disappeared from campus and that the people responsible may be much closer to home than she initially suspected.
Amenábar wrote, along with Mateo Gil, and directed Tesis while he himself was a film student and shot it on location at the university campus where he studied. Following years of being told to “write what you know,” making films about cinephiles or struggling filmmakers can be a pitfall for many debut directors because, more often than not, that stuff just doesn’t make for very exciting or original drama. Amenábar manages to make it work by operating within the strict framework of an investigative horror film. These movies, which have their origin in the Italian giallo pictures, are usually populated by nosy news reporters, crime writers or amateur sleuths, so the transition to university student doing research for a thesis is rather seamless. The mundane, relatable setting of a college campus goes a long way to make the film’s darker moments all the more disturbing too. We’re used to seeing the discovery of an underground network of snuff films play out amongst seedy, rain-slicked alleyways or sleazy backrooms (as in Joel Schumacher’s 8mm, for instance) but to have it hidden behind the squeaky-clean facade of academia makes it far more insidious. It also makes sense.
Tesis was made in the mid-90s when laserdisc was a luxury for those who could afford it and DVD a mere blip on the horizon. For over a decade, videotapes were the preferred format for hungry cinephiles and cult aficionados. Plus, thanks to the video nasties boom of the 80s, the hunger for depraved, realistic and disturbing horror movies had become less underground and more mainstream. All over the world, movie nerds were huddled in dorm rooms on college campuses, exchanging copies of Faces of Death and Cannibal Holocaust between one another and trying to convince themselves that what they were watching was depicting real death, torture and execution. As we now know, they weren’t, but Amenábar and Gil pose the question: what if it was real?
Ángela enlists a film-student called Chema (Fele Martinez) to help her solve the mystery of the tape. Chema, with his long hair, bum-fluff beard, reading glasses, and consistent wardrobe of ripped jeans and metal t-shirts, is the quintessential depiction of a film student in cinema. The pair’s amateur detective skills are a lot of fun, and Amenábar and Gil playfully mine the technology of the time for clues in the mystery. It might be pure nostalgia or techno-fetishism speaking here, but the fact that the quality of the digital zoom on a Sony XT 500 camera ends up being a key plot point just makes me all warm and fuzzy inside. That kind of specificity is what makes Tesis work as a plausible mystery. Amenábar has thought this shit out and plots it extremely well.
This is a twisty and gripping film, and for much of the running time you really don’t know where it’s all heading. The genre has taught us to be suspicious of everyone and Amenábar plays that card to his advantage by making Ángela, really, the only reliable character. As fans of The Others will know, he’s also a filmmaker of great restraint and is more interested in crafting suspense rather than shocks. The snuff film that is so central to the movie is first introduced through sound with Amenábar relying on Torrent’s horrified face to fill in the blanks. He’s also good at using space and environment for tension; so much so that the biggest scare in the final act doesn’t come from an act of violence but from recognizing a goddamn garage wall, of all things. Unlike Sinister, there’s no supernatural underpinnings and the grounded, human threat leads to a far more satisfying pay-off than anything not of this world.
As far as debut movies go, Tesis is as assured and confident, without being showy, as anything I’ve seen. The film picked up seven Goya awards (Spain’s equivalent of the Oscars) and transformed its young filmmaker into something of a wunderkind overnight. Horror is an especially tricky genre to make a mark with and though Amenábar keeps coming back to it throughout his career (as recently as last year’s critically panned Regression), he really got it right the first time. If psychological trauma is more your thing over excessive violence, Tesis is a tape well worth tucking into.