Color, 1999, 104m. / Directed by Mateo Gil / Starring Eduardo Noriega, Jordi Mollŕ, Natalia Verbeke / Sogepaq (Spain R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) / DD5.1

"I feel as if I'm observing my life without really living it," ponders young crossword designer and frustrated novelist Simón (Noriega). Stuck in a dead end job for a newspaper in Seville and content with the innocuous presence of his roommate, Sapo ("Toad") (Mollŕ), he soon finds his dissatisfaction changing dramatically when an eerie voice leaves a message on his answering machine to place the word "Adversary" in his Sunday crossword puzzle. A series of messages and notes begins to accumulate, all tying in with the current Holy Week in Seville, a Catholic ritual involving parades and celebrations at all of the major churches. Unfortunately a diabolical force seems to be at work, releasing nerve gas from a statue of Christ and leaving Simón's friend, Father Andre (Pedro Alvarez-Ossorio), dead from a hallucinogenic overdose in a grotesque parody of the pieta. Simón consults Maria (Verbeke), a reporter at his paper, concerning possible links to an international group of religious terrorists known as the Sacred Truth. Even worse, Simón recognizes a symbol from the nerve gas attack as the same logo his roommate left on his computer. Sapo denies any involvement, but Simón's suspicions mount when he uncovers an ancient drawing featuring the same symbol, accompanied by a representation of Satan himself as a toad...

While American thrillers like Arlington Road and Single White Female routinely explore those nagging suspicions that those close to you might actually be your worst enemy, Nadie Conoce a Nadie ("Nobody Knows Anyone") manages a fresh spin on the material by placing its story against the picturesque and gothic backdrop of Seville's Holy Week. The use of religious iconography and the entire city as a huge game board provides some unique visual chills, and the story takes some very unpredictable turns in the second half which raise the stakes considerably. Writer/director Mateo Gil, a longtime collaborator of Alejandro Amenábar, has obviously been studying his Hitchcock and Val Lewton, particularly a rousing sequence in which a convocation of black hooded figures in the streets turns into a sinister game of laser tag! Amenábar also co-wrote the script and provided the excellent music score, while the group's regular leading man, Noriega, does an excellent job as usual. Sogepaq's DVD is just as outstanding as their previous job on Open Your Eyes. The scope transfer looks colorful and razor sharp without any blemishes, while the optional English or Spanish subtitles are well written and placed in the lower letterbox band. The 5.1 audio is mostly confined to the music score (also isolated in 5.1 on a separate audio track) and a few well placed explosions. Extras include the theatrical trailer, an 18 minute short film by Gil entitled “Allanamiento de Morada” (also starring Noriega and co-written and scored by Amenábar), and a 17 minute behind the scenes featurette which takes the novel step of also covering the creation of the film's website! These features are in Spanish only, but English speaking viewers can probably get through them without much trouble. Avoid the wretched American-issued DVD, which looks like a tenth-generation bootleg.

Color, 1995, 121 mins. / Directed by Alejandro Amenábar / Starring Ana Torrent, Fele Martínez, Eduardo Noriega, Rosa Campillo / Manga (Spain R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16x9) / DD5.1, Vanguard (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) / DD2.0

Some urban legends just refuse to die. Snuff movies, in which people are actually killed on camera (often during a sexual situation), have been the modern day boogeyman of urban streets since the 1970s. Of course, exploitation movies have been quick to hop on the bandwagon, ranging from Michael and Roberta Findlay's horrendous Snuff to glossy but inherently ludicrous mainstream product like 8MM and Mute Witness. Though it took four years to get over to America, Alejandro Amenábar's Thesis (Tesis) is, relatively speaking, the best of the snuff thriller subgenre, and this self-advertised "American style thriller" at least manages to make its subject genuinely terrifying if not even remotely credible.

Angela (Ana Torrent), a young grad student doing her thesis on audiovisual violence, employs the services of a porn and gore mongering fellow student, Chema (Fele Martínez), to show her the dark and ugly corners of the video industry. By sheer coincidence, her supervising professor happens to die from a heart attack while watching a videotape he pilfered from the school library. Angela swipes the tape, a snuff video involving a young student, Vanessa, who vanished two years ago. Chema identifies the camera used for the tape, and the pair do some investigating which leads to the charming Bosco (Eduardo Noriega), an acquaintance of Vanessa who may know more than he's telling. Angela finds herself attracted to Bosco, much to Chema's irritation. However, a nightmarish encounter in the college basement proves that there's much more to this mystery than meets the eye.

Obviously a talent to watch, Amenábar does an expert job of building characterization and suspense throughout. Credit must certainly be given when he can make a thriller running over two hours fly by in what seems like minutes, and his Polanski-inspired eye for unusual human behavior gives a lot of mileage to the hoary storyline. His follow up film, Open Your Eyes, has already garnered notices for him as the biggest Spanish export since Almodovar, and the attention is definitely justified compared to the anemic thrillers generated recently in America. Actually, Amenábar in many ways seems to be the heir apparent to the Agustin Villaronga, the gloriously depraved soul who gave the world In a Glass Cage and the more recent 99.9, a marvelous and underrated film that mirrors many of the same themes in Thesis. The gore level here is admirably restrained apart from a few blurry, nasty glimpses of the snuff tape, but European horror fans should find this approach a refreshing change of pace. Where Thesis stumbles slightly is its insistence on appealing to the international market, apparently adopting the storytelling techniques of Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct) in the process. Since there are only two real possible suspects in the film, the final hour basically flip flops back and forth between them, pretty much ruining any possibility for a surprise ending. In fact, like too many thrillers, the entire plot collapses into sheer nonsense if analyzed closely (and the last scene is extremely unlikely, even given the tasteless nature of most tabloid shows). On a cinematic and visceral level, though, Thesis is a knockout, particularly during one masterful sequence, an homage to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, in which Angela and Chema use flickering matches to navigate through a series of dark tunnels beneath the college. The performers (Amenábar regulars, as it now appears) all do an excellent job of bringing their characters to life, with Noriega in particular walking a fine line between charisma and menace.

Vanguard's DVD appears to be lifted from a British PAL source, complete with a couple of video dropouts and a nasty ruffle in the audio for a few seconds one hour into the film. The quality is watchable but looks much closer to a videotape than a DVD; in any case, it's the film that really matters, and the fact that this is available at all in the U.S. is quite miraculous. The stereo soundtrack is mostly limited to the score (effectively composed by the director) and a few ambient effects like rain and video static. The marginally letterboxed transfer includes non-removable English subtitles, usually printed in the lower widescreen band, and illegible chapter selection options. However, interested parties with multi-region access would be better off with the two-disc Spanish edition, which boasts a far more satisfying anamorphic transfer and a multitude of extras (mostly not English-friendly, alas).

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