Thesis (1996)
Vanguard Films
Cast: Ana Torrent, Miguel Picazo, Fele Martinez

During the latter half of the 90s, we’ve seen a definite decline in the number of great thrillers coming out of Europe. Also, we haven’t had the kind of auteurs from that part of the world like we had in the 80s. Argento’s recent films have been disappointments. Michele Soavi hasn’t made a movie since 1994. Alex de la Iglesia has moved into the realm of black comedy. It’s beginning to look a little grim for fans of Eurothrillers. But, someone has arrived to restore our faith. His name is Alejandro Amenabar. His two films, "Thesis" and "Open Your Eyes" (1997) have wowed fans in his native Spain, swept the Goya Awards (the Spanish Oscars) and made him a celebrity.
Now, his films are finding their way to America and indie outfit Vanguard Films has just released "Thesis" on DVD so that we can discover what the rest of the world is clamoring about.

"Thesis" focuses on Angela (Ana Torrent) who is a student at the School of Mass Communications. Angela is doing her thesis on media violence and society. She asks her advisor Professor Figueroa (Miguel Picazo) to help her find the kind of film that couldn’t be shown on television due to its violent content. Figueroa agrees to help her and searches the school’s archives for the material. He finds a tape, but he dies while watching it. Angela finds Figueroa’s body and takes the tape home. She enlists the help of fellow student Chema (Fele Martinez), who is seen as an outcast due to his love of violent films. They watch the tape together and discover that it is a snuff film. They recognize the girl who is being tortured on the tape as a student who disappeared two years ago. Angela and Chema set out to discover the murderer responsible for the tape, not realizing the danger that they are putting themselves in.

"Thesis" is an amazing suspense thriller. The plot is fairly straight-forward and gives way to many twists and turns as Angela and Chema search for the origin of the snuff film. Amenabar and co-writer Mateo Gil give us just enough information to keep us guessing as Angela discovers more clues as to who the killer is. I’ve spoken before about how we approach movies with cultural baggage. The brilliance of "Thesis" is how this is used against us. We’ve seen movies like this before and we know exactly what’s going to happen. Except in this case, we don’t. Amenabar turns the tables on us and we would have been better off if we hadn’t tried to be so smart and guess who the killer is.

There are only four real suspects in the film, so Amenabar uses the two-hour running time of the film to create setpieces where Angela is in jeopardy. There is an amazing scene where Angela and Chema are in a dark tunnel and must find there way through it using only matches for light. As each match is struck, we are convinced that someone or something is going to materialize in the tunnel with them. Amenabar stretches this scene out, wringing an incredible amount of suspense from it.

Amenabar has been compared to John Carpenter, mainly because, like Carpenter, Amenabar composes the scores for his films. But for me, that’s where the similarities end. I think it would be a fair assessment to compare him to Brian DePalma or Dario Argento. Amenabar’s films are well shot, but not so stylish as to draw attention away from the story. With just two films, he has proven himself to be quite a master of suspense. And while "Thesis" has a linear storyline, his follow-up film "Open Your Eyes" (Which is not available on DVD at this time. That’s right Artisan, I’m looking at you.) proves that Amenabar can compete with the likes of Tarantino when it comes to radical storylines. (Tom Cruise has purchased the rights to "Open Your Eyes" and hopes to remake the film in the U.S. My advice is to catch the original.) Amenabar proves himself to be a team player when it comes to casting. Fele Martinez and Eduardo Noriega were the two male leads in "Open Your Eyes", and they appear together in "Thesis." Martinez proves himself to be a chameleon as the long-haired Chema, looking nothing like his character in "Open Your Eyes." Chema is someone who has decided to shut out the world and doesn’t know what to do when Angela comes into his life, and Martinez plays this role with aplomb. Noriega’s character isn’t that much different from his role in "Open Your Eyes", but as he is one of the suspects in "Thesis", he proves that he does well when playing a potentially sinister character. Ana Torrent is excellent as Angela, as she has to go from a curious student to someone running for her life.

"Thesis" is making its American home video debut from Vanguard Films and has been released simultaneously on VHS and DVD.
The pre-release specifications for the DVD listed the video format as <$PS,fullframe>/<$OpenMatte,open matte>, but the film is actually <$PS,letterboxed>. The film is presented at 1.5:1 according to my measurements. (There is no aspect ratio listed on the DVD case.) There is a very small black bar at the top of the screen and a wider one at the bottom. I do not know the original shooting aspect ratio of the film. The framing appears to be accurate as there is no warping of the frame. Also, no visual information appears to be missing from the top or bottom of the screen and there is no <$PS,pan & scan> effect during the film.

As for the picture itself, the video is somewhat dark. The picture is clear, but there are some obvious problems with the source print. Scratches are visible and there is some graininess to the film. Still, it doesn’t look that different from your average European film that has been transferred to DVD. Amenabar has shot the film using natural lighting for the most part and most of the colors appear true on this transfer.

The audio on "Thesis" is a <$DD,Dolby Digital> 2-channel surround, although, once again, this isn’t listed on the DVD case. The audio works quite well in the film. The dialogue is always clear and the sudden shock sound effects are just loud enough to make you jump, but not deafen you. There is some surround sound action during the film and this adds a nice touch.

There are no extra features on the DVD, but one nice touch are the subtitles. The film is in Spanish with English subtitles. The subtitles are in white and they are below the frame at the bottom of the screen, making them very easy to read. The subtitles are very humorous at times, as they were obviously translated by someone from England. Note the constant use of "bloody hell" and terms such as "arse."

With the aforementioned demise of the European thriller, it’s great when a film like "Thesis" not only makes it to our shores, but shows up on DVD as well. This is a superior thriller and is much better than most American films that I’ve seen lately. The movie offers a great story and some solid performances, and it will leave you guessing until the end. There’s no need to do any further research on this, "Thesis" is the movie to see.