SOUNDS LIKE HORROR: Alejandro Amenábar's Thesis on Audio-Visual Violence

By Russell, Dominique | Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview
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SOUNDS LIKE HORROR: Alejandro Amenábar's Thesis on Audio-Visual Violence


Russell, Dominique, Canadian Journal of Film Studies


Résumé: Une analyse rigoureuse de la trame sonore de Tesis d'Alejandro Amenádar dévoile le fonctionnement du film à l'intérieur des conventions du cinéma d'horreur et élucide son interpellation des spectateurs féminins et masculins. Malgré certains éléments novateurs, Tesis maintient une division rigide entre les sexes et réaffirme la hiérarchie traditionnelle entre l'image et le son.

Alejandro Amenábar's Tests ([Thesis] Spain, 1996) is well titled. A horror thriller, it also functions meta-textually as a statement about audio-visual violence, Spanish cinema and its relationship to Hollywood and commerce. Tesis tells the story of Angela (Ana Torrent) who, while researching her thesis on audio-visual violence, comes across a ring of snuff filmmakers at her university (the Facultad de las Ciencias de la Informacion at the Complutense in Madrid where the film was shot1) including Professor Castro (Xavier Elorriaga), the beautiful pijo2 Bosco (Eduardo Noriega) and quite possibly her accomplice Chema (Felez Martinez), a gore and porn aficionado who lives alone in a spooky apartment in Madrid.

The film has been read in terms of its exploration of questions of genre, gender and national identity. For Leora Lev, the film is about the predatory nature of the eye: "security cameras, video recorders, electronic eyes, instruments that invade private, personal space with a voyeuristic impetus that ultimately kills." Placing her reading within a Spanish perspective, she claims that the film suggests that "Francois! surveillance may be a thing of the past, but an inquisitorial, fratricidal fervor is still fed by this network of spying mechanisms embedded within the very architecture of the new, technologically savvy, consumerist Spain."3 The casting of Ana Torrent, the little girl from Victor Erice's El espintu de la colmena ([The Spirit of the Beehive] Spain, 1973), whose eyes were to mark Spanish cinema, adds an intertextual emphasis on the gaze.4 According to Cristina Buckley, Torrent further " recall [s] for the contemporary Spanish audience the cinematic and political adherents of its predecessor."5 The famous actor's presence seems to set Amenàbar's film against Erice's, as a new standard in Spanish cinema, one where the inspiration in U.S. monster movies is not elided and poeticized, and where commerce presides alongside (over?) art.6 Certainly, parallels can be drawn between the two films. Both have as an inspiration and intertext the horror genre. Erice plays with the genre from another era: the Universal Studio monster, Boris Karloff's Frankenstein, drawn in as a polysemic metaphor; Amenábar's inspiration is primarily Hanibal Lecter and more recent examples of the horror genre.

Their difference is felt most pointedly in the use of sound: where Erice's art film is nearly silent, Amenábar's is densely packed with noise, music and dialogue, with loud music serving the "startle effect."7 Both, however, use dissonance and ethereal sounds to create ambiguity and to disorient the spectator.8 Yet there is no mistaking Amenábar's score for introspection: his is designed to set the heart racing. If Erice wanted to show the slow, metaphorical death by silence of the losing side after the Spanish civil war, Amenábar is fascinated by the quick, screaming, spectacular deaths perpetuated by society's winners.

One might say they are inspired by two contrary versions of monstrousness and its meanings. The Frankenstein monster is the lonely outsider to Dracula's sexy conqueror, and Amenábar picks the vampiric aristocrat to Erice's proletarian living dead. Both are culled via Hollywood from American popular culture, though Amenábar's monster serves a much less metaphorical function. Bosco is a postmodern Bosch, as Leora Lev points out, smashing and slashing the female body to grotesque (im)perfection. While it might be tempting to trace a Spanish connection through Felipe II's love of the Flemish master, as Lev does, it may be more important to keep in mind Jeffrey Dahmer's reduction of "what was once a vital living person to a piece of sculpture,"9 as well as films like Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer (USA, 1986, John McNaughton) that conflate sexual possession with videotaping and murder.

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