‘Thesis’ Is a Brilliant Spanish Horror Film That Hates You For Watching It


The Big Picture

  • iolence in media is a natural part of being human, rooted in our primal instincts and the desire for emotional catharsis.
  • Film like Alejandro Amenábar’s Thesis explore humanity’s fascination with violence and its moral implications, challenging our enjoyment of violent media.
  • The film uses the concept of snuff films to criticize the capitalist society’s demand for violence and its potential to contribute to real-life violence.

Do you enjoy violent media? Find it cathartic to see a masked slasher slice and dice their way through a group of screaming teenagers in the latest horror blockbuster? Or do you get hooked on every new Netflix true-crime documentary that details the horrific details of a brutal murder? If the answer is yes, don’t be ashamed — you’re far from alone. Since our cave-dwelling ancestors discovered the power of performance and storytelling, humanity has explored the concepts of death and destruction through art, experiencing the limits of pain, pleasure, survival, and sadism vicariously through the macabre tales we tell. Violence has been a part of the human condition since the dawn of time, our world having been built on the backs of conquerors and warlords, murderers, and pillagers. It’s a terrifying thought, but have you considered that our thirst for vicarious violence is a natural part of being human? 1996’s Thesis, directed by Alejandro Amenábar and winner of 1997’s “Best Picture” Goya award, is a film that asks this question.

Yes, we may think we’ve evolved and matured as a species, developing our cultural understandings of each other, trying to say no to warfare when we clash, and denouncing violence as “barbaric,” a residue of our less-developed ancestors. But there’s still something inside of us that calls out and begs for the catharsis of conflict and bloodshed. Even if we don’t engage in these horrifying acts ourselves, we can’t help but be attracted to the thought of them: the age-old tale of morbid curiosity. This is why we love violent cinema, action flicks, and horror films. But to gaze into this darker side of ourselves and question this morbid thirst for violence is a scary thing indeed, and Thesis — a brilliant, underrated Spanish horror film of the 90s — explores this philosophical conundrum beautifully.

What Is ‘Thesis’ About?

Image via Las Producciones del Escorpión

Amenábar, director of the beloved 2000s horror film The Others with Nicole Kidman, debuted his filmmaking at only 21 years of age with Thesis, a fact that’s all the more impressive when you consider how the film explores such profound and perplexing topics. Thesis both presents a morbid tale full of violence and simultaneously denounces its very existence, attacking our barbaric, deeply troubling need to satisfy the urge for bloodshed through media while being a violent piece of media in itself. The film is both a part of the more sadistic side of the film industry and a critique of it, as well as a critique of the moral implications of living in an unchecked capitalist society that can turn literally anything into supply and demand, the “anything” of the film being snuff pornography. Yes, the film goes there, and despite handling its depiction of unspeakable violence tastefully, leaving the most extreme sexual violence off-screen, it’s still an extremely hard watch.

The film tells the tale of a university student called Angela (Ana Torrent), who’s finishing her major in media studies. Angela is in the process of writing her thesis as a critique of violent media and pornography, such as gore movies, mondo documentaries, and porno flicks. She thinks that these pieces of film are inherently bad for being disturbing reflections of the violent, perverted urges of their viewers. She fears that the sort of people who watch this sort of cinema could be disturbed or even dangerous, and she approaches the topic of her thesis with heavy bias because of that. In order to do some first-hand research on the topic of her project, Angela asks a classmate of hers, a grunge punk named Chema (Fele Martínez) who’s known for owning the school’s largest collection of hardcore porn and gore videotapes, to show her some films. Angela visits Chema’s home to watch the tapes with him and, despite initially being creeped out by the morbid prankster, develops a love/hate relationship with him as they debate the virtues of media violence, as well as each other’s hypocrisy for their stance on the matter.

During her research, Angela eventually stumbles upon a mysterious videotape found within the depths of a hidden chamber in her campus’ library. She decides to share the discovery with Chema, and to the pair’s horror, the tape is a snuff porn tape, showing the brutal torture and assault of a girl at the hands of a ski-mask-wearing figure. Perhaps the worst part of all is that they recognize the girl: She’s a student who disappeared from university grounds two years earlier, and the pair now find themselves in possession of the sole evidence of her unspeakably sadistic murder. Not only that, the tape was but one of many others, each with a foreboding detail in common: The tapes all had a different girl’s name on them.

Not being able to go to the police due to the illegal means through which they acquired the tape and the clear implication of the university itself, Angela and Chema must put their ideological differences aside and embark on a covert citizen’s investigation to see if they can catch the killer (or killers). Soon, the pair find themselves falling down a rabbit hole of sadism, perversion, and passion as they discover an underground ring of snuff pornography production destined for the black market. They become personally involved with the prime suspects through what starts as infiltration, and Angela finds herself torn between Chema and the man who most likely seems to be the killer.

We have to ask ourselves: Why do we enjoy violent media? Some would say that, in the modern world, humanity has distanced itself from the looming doors of death. Relatively, we live longer, more comfortably, and more distanced from the threat of violence than ever before, desensitized to it as we mostly experience it through the safety of a TV screen. Perhaps because of this, we find a certain excitement and humbling realization through on-screen hyperviolence, a poetic irony of feeling more alive and cathartic through the characters’ deaths and suffering. After all, the whole point of media is to experience emotions vicariously through stories and characters, and what are stronger emotions than true terror? Extreme pain? And the ultimate emotional climax: Death?

Thesis closely relates this pursuit of emotional climax through on-screen violence with the pursuit of sexual satisfaction through pornography. Both are sides of the same coin — connecting to primal, intense emotions through media, reaching a climax, a petite morte, a vicarious “little death.” Those of us who enjoy a gore-filled horror film from time to time find excitement in that adrenaline-filled closeness to death and destruction we get to experience through the movie, almost like a rollercoaster ride. We create a demand for this medium, and our capitalist world is happy to fill that need. For a price, of course. And it is this very idea, this concept of “filmmakers” simply satisfying the urges and desires of society, that Thesis directly ties to the very existence snuff porn. The one difference between snuff and standard pornography is that society wears its sexuality on its sleeve, whereas our darker urges lie hidden in our subconscious, much like the snuff tapes are hidden in a secret chamber at the back of a library, a storage space for the collective knowledge and culture of a civilization.

In our capitalist society, every rock has a ripple, every demand will find its supplier, and each celebration of violence, whether fictional or not, can play a part in the creation of real violence for profit. The film ends on a hostile note: You are a part of this cycle. Don’t consider yourself morally superior like Angela initially did. You, the audience, are here watching a horror film about serial murderers, and you’re enjoying the morbidity of it all, the cathartic closeness to the victim’s pain and suffering you feel. It’s a similar hostile morality to that of Michael Haneke‘s Funny Games, where the film asks “This is what you wanted, wasn’t it? Ask, and ye shall receive! You’re a part of this!” Thesis’ haunting ending drives this point home wonderfully: After the investigation is named the “snuff girls” case and officially solved, a crowd of zombified TV viewers sits glued to their screens watching a news report on the events of the film with gleeful anticipation, hoping to see a clip, however small, of the infamous “snuff girls” videotape.

The Real-World Context Behind ‘Thesis’

Characters from the Spanish horror film Thesis
Image via Las Producciones del Escorpión

At this point, a small tidbit of Spanish historical context is helpful: Thesis was made in the wake of a brutal, highly televised triple homicide of three teenage girls, called the “Alcásser Girls” case. This case became a central talking point for Spanish pop culture at the time, mainly due to the extreme morbidity of it all. Perhaps the biggest fuel for this fire was the disgusting media coverage that the case received. As detailed in the Netflix documentary The Alcásser Murders, Spanish late-night TV engaged in a horrific romanticization of the case, treating it like a topical noir story and surrounding it with showmanship and conspiracy. One of the major conspiracies was that the girls were murdered to create high-society snuff pornography, a conspiracy that spread like wildfire in the general consciousness and led to all sorts of wild retellings of the case. After a while, the Alcásser Girls case has gone down in Spanish history as more legend than tragedy, with a morbid interest in the graphic details and an infatuation with the killers. So, we must ask ourselves: Do we as a society create these monsters? This marketplace for snuff? Or is it just … human nature?

That’s perhaps the scariest question of all: Are we just naturally infatuated by violence and death? A remnant in our minds from the age of barbarians? Hell, who’s to say we’re not those same barbarians we always were, and we’re simply trying to hide it under a mirage of civility? Angela as a character reflects this. She rejects violent media, condemns it, and wants to create her thesis as a protest against it, but she herself proves to be a hypocrite in the film’s opening scene: On her way to class via subway, Angela’s cart is forced to stop due to a man throwing himself on the train tracks. The conductor repeatedly shouts to the passengers as they get off the train, “Don’t look! It’s horrible! It’s a bloodbath” And so what does Angela do? She looks, of course — morbid curiosity.

Later in the film, Angela even begins to have erotic dreams about the man she suspects to be the killer, finding a sort of sexual fantasy in the idea of being threatened by him. This is extreme, of course, but it’s a poetic reflection of the film’s main theme: There’s a beast inside of all of us, and it only needs an outlet. We can choose to find that outlet, or we can try to outgrow the need for one. Do you look at the train tracks while trying not to, like Angela? Or do you live like Chema, embrace your morbidity, and accept that it’s part of your nature? Or do you simply try to be better and walk away?

Thesis is available to rent via Apple TV in the U.S.

Watch It on Apple TV


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