Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 5 
10 May
2003

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Alejandro Amenabar's Tesis (Thesis, 1996) HORROR
The cultural construction of snuff
Alejandro Amenábar's Tesis (Thesis, 1996)

After showing how Tesis safely relegates to the unconscious the masochistic sexual desires of its female protagonist, Neil Jackson argues convincingly that, in Amenábar's film, "snuff not only functions as a rendition of perverse sadistic or masochistic drives, but also satisfies an inherent need to confront images of mortality."


Snuff—the cinematic progeny

In addressing the defining features of the production, distribution and consumption of the so-called "snuff movie," Alejandro Amenábar's Tesis (Thesis, Spain, 1996) faces a particularly tricky conundrum. That is, what exactly are those defining features? As an actual term of generic description, "snuff" has been attributed to Ed Sanders (member of rock band The Fugs and author of The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion) who claimed, without substantiation, that the Manson Family filmed actual murders.[1]

Subsequently, the term has been applied to all manner of visual documents, from the variety of "mondo" or "shock" documentaries available on videotape (for example, the Faces of Death series, the Death Scenes series), to the notorious feature film Snuff (1975), which helped establish the concept in the popular consciousness. Directed mostly by an uncredited Michael Findlay, Snuff began life as a cheap Argentinian feature entitled Slaughter (1971), to which Allan Shackleton (head of distrubutor Monarch Releasing Corporation) added a coda-directed by porn filmmaker Carter Stevens-in which a female cast member is seemingly murdered on camera.

However, none of these examples conform ultimately to the accepted definition of the bona fide snuff film, if such an object actually exists at all; that is, a filmed account of an actual murder, specifically commissioned, recorded and supplied for the gratification of the paying spectator(s). Julian Petley argues that, in the popular perception of snuff, "[w]hat is clearly happening...is that two completely different kinds of films are being conflated and confused with one another."[2]

Alejandro Amenabar's Tesis (Thesis, 1996)Tesis actually takes this issue on board, both through its simulation in one sequence of a mondo documentary (entitled "Fresh Blood") and, later, through its own version of the genuine article. The point isn't clear, but the film seems to express the view that there is at least some form of causal connection between the viewing of documentary footage of accidents/combat/autopsies etc, and the observation of the pre-meditated murder of an unsuspecting actor. The implications of snuff for film theory are of course manifold, but until the genuine article becomes ready and available for examination, they lie beyond the scope of this article. Indeed, one might venture that they remain beyond the realms of comprehension.

Several fictional feature films have therefore imagined a snuff "aesthetic," and the variety of interpretations is striking for the sheer diversity of formal and stylistic features on show. Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960) presented a version of snuff before the term entered into popular currency, the film's interrogation of the relationship between objectification, death and visual pleasure ensuring its centrality to feminist and psychoanalytic film theory. Snuff, despite its fearsome reputation (acquired chiefly in the wake of its notorious advertising campaign in 1975/76), ultimately functions as little more than a bad taste confidence trick.

Discussing the outraged reaction to the film upon its initial release, Kerekes and Slater point out, "[it] didn't seem to matter, the absurdity of promoting a motion picture that purported to show the actual on-screen murder of one of its crew."[3] The cutaways, multiple camera angles and unconvincing prosthetics utilised in Snuff's final sequence all signal the artifice underlying the film's (and perhaps more importantly, its advertising campaign's) central conceit. Despite the radically different forms of these two films, Eithne Johnson and Eric Schaefer seek to establish a theoretical link between them, emphasising their "connection[s] between male sadism and photography insofar as the director 'overpowers' the actress explicitly so that this action will be caught on film."[4]

Since the release of Snuff, the manifestation of snuff in a range of films has expanded the popular perception of what it might actually look like. Kerekes and Slater cite Emanuelle In America (1976), Last House On Dead End Street (1977), Hardcore (1978), Cannibal Holocaust (1979), Videodrome (1982), Special Effects (1984), Der Todesking (1989), Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990) and Man Bites Dog (1992) as fictional works central to the popular cultural construction of snuff.[5] They conclude that "[these movies] saw to it that snuff had form: It was hidden; was select; was one room and one camera; was black and white; was silent; was grainy; was colour with bad editing; was expensive. Was a commodity."[6] That virtually all of these titles emerged from beyond the major studios of Hollywood (in fact, four originated in Europe) highlights the confrontational role played by foreign, sub-cultural or "exploitation" forms in the propagation of mainstream fears.

As perhaps the ultimate derangement of both the exploitation film and what Linda Williams calls "body genres" (horror, melodrama and pornography),[7] snuff has gradually filtered into the mainstream through its visibility in "lower" cultural objects- primarily, the horror film.

The Unwatchable - attraction and repulsion

Initially, Tesis defines snuff as, quite literally, the Unwatchable. Furthermore, the snuff "film" is identified here as partly a symptom of the greater freedom enabled by access to video technology. No longer stymied by the expense of celluloid, the relative democracy and accessibility of the video image has become a major factor in the proliferation, multiplication and dissemination of snuff as a "specialised" form. Having acquired an alleged snuff tape from her accomplice and admirer Chema (Fele Martinez), the film's protagonist, Angela (Ana Torrent), dare not look at the film, instead turning down the television contrast to its absolute maximum while retaining just the sound.

The anguished screams of an unidentified victim are therefore the first recreation of genuine snuff proffered by the film, emphasising the element of prolonged torture through sound alone.

While the television viewed by Angela remains blank, the slow zooms into her face, intercut with identically timed zooms into the screen, suggest a distinct spectatorial dynamic of attraction and repulsion. Stopping the tape, her gaze remains fixed upon the blank screen, initiating the slow process of assimilation to be undertaken before the snuff image may be wholly absorbed. It is significant that, throughout the film, Angela will often listen to just the sound of the snuff video, as if the sheer aural intimacy effected by her headphones helps to establish a psychic link between voyeur and victim.

The addition of the death image itself seems to be overwhelming, with Angela's repeated aural experience of the video a self-constructed act of censorship that enables her to revisit the experience. As a marked contrast, Chema's initial response to the sounds of the victim is to mimic them, as he would those of a hapless victim in a conventional horror film.

Upon her second experience of the video, Angela again initially refuses to watch. Instead, she is subjected to a double aural assault in the form of the victim's screams and Chema's verbal description of the events onscreen. His somewhat gleeful rendition re-emphasises the attraction/repulsion theme, the admonition of "don't look" somewhat paradoxically daring Angela to enact the very opposite.

Upon her initial, momentary glance at the image, the film presents a darkly ironic jump cut from Chema stuffing his face with food to Angela hunched over a toilet bowl vomiting. This initial rite of passage into the most extreme mode of screen violence is defined in terms of consumption and regurgitation, inscribing the "gross out" factor of the snuff film and signaling the moment at which fear and hesitancy collapse as latent curiosity and uncontrollable physical abandon are given full reign.

After composing herself, Angela finally succumbs to the impulse to look as (in one of the film's key images) she peers through her fingers at the events onscreen. This image is intercut with visual fragments of the snuff narrative (blood, offal, lifeless eyes) once more establishing links between Angela's need to consume the film and the slow death agonies of the onscreen victim. Again, the aural design of snuff is given prominence despite the gradual revelation of the image, the sound of a chainsaw and the final, decisive gunshot alluding to familiar, iconic elements in popular violent cinema.

However, the intimacy and "anti-style" of the snuff aesthetic transforms such sounds from the realms of the mimetic to that of the "real," establishing a direct (rather than indexical) relationship between cinematic convention and the fear of violent death. These are not so much foregrounded sound "effects" as dull, harsh and unembellished sonic echoes of a terrible event. It is the removal of such sounds from the heightened aural experience of so much contemporary media that helps to reposition the snuff video as a blank, passive recorder of bodies in extremis.

Tesis maintains this process of revealing its version of snuff through a series of fragmented excerpts. Static medium shots of the terrified, bound, female victim are located within what appears to be a garage interior. The onscreen events comprise the administering of prolonged psychological and physical torture.

The film therefore reiterates the notion of snuff as a rendition of slow, painful death in which the sadistic pleasures lie not in the moment of mortal departure for the victim, but in their gradual psychological and bodily breakdown. The perpetrator is a grim variation on the masked boogeyman, his disguise at once concealing his true identity while fulfilling a perverse generic requirement of the horror film. Any generic convention of pursuit and, by extension, "suspense" is instantly eliminated by the snuff film through its immediate presentation of the victim trussed and helpless. Therefore, snuff is identified as a "pure" distillation of violent death in film, eliminating all extraneous narrative elements while focusing almost exclusively on the extended struggle, screams and pain of the victim.

A rape of the senses

The one constant that unifies most cinematic recreations of snuff is the linkage of the image with aberrant or violent sexuality. This manifests chiefly as sado-masochistic sex or rape, often combining the two in the enactment of attacks upon predominantly female victims. Once more, however, these elements find variation according to the narrative space within which they reside. Indeed, snuff has become so intimately bound with notions of extreme pornography and female exploitation that its appearance in other fictional forms is inevitably presented in these terms.

As Johnson and Schaefer point out, "[T]he snuff film remains an ominous presence in the polemics of traditional foes of pornography and anti-pornography feminists. In the absence of an 'original' snuff text, the disciplinary thrust of the anti-porn narrative demands simulations that can be taken to instantiate the trajectory from sex to death that allegedly characterizes the pornographic."[8]

Therefore, snuff has been defined chiefly as not just a visual document of murder, but as a visual document of sexual murder. This seems to affirm the oppressive structures of the perceived phallocentric imagery of pornography as derided by its opponents. Tesis confronts this issue by placing a female protagonist at its narrative centre. It is through Angela that the film channels its attitudes towards the snuff phenomenon, a decision that itself raises a range of fascinating tensions.

From the opening sequence, her desires are defined in terms of voyeurism; after being forced to alight an underground train after a suicide on the track, she is distinguished from the mass of physical conformity by walking apart from it, toward the site of human bodily destruction on the rails. While such accident scenes are the mainstay of "mondo" documentaries, this opening incident manages to link the everyday reality of urban suicide with the voyeuristic impulse that draws the viewer toward violent or horrific entertainments. The words of the railway official ("don't look at the track") serve to echo the protective instincts of the censorious, a function he fulfills by pulling Angela back from the track just as she is about to stare death in the face.

Angela's fascination for snuff is linked tantalisingly to her own sexuality. Her attraction to another fellow student, Bosco (Eduardo Noriega), bears a distinctly masochistic edge and their relationship throws up fascinating parallels to the structures of snuff defined by the film. In one of their earliest meetings, Bosco converses with Angela in the form of a video interview, echoing the perpetrator/victim dynamic of the snuff film.

In what is eventually revealed as dream sequence (another convention of many horror film narratives), the notion of her masochism is amplified by the moment at which she licks her own blood from the knife held to her throat by Bosco. While the film vigorously pursues Angela's self-torture through image consumption, the link to her masochistic sexual urges remains safely confined to her unconscious expressions of desire. Therefore, snuff is further defined as an extension (or rather, a termination) of lives that are enacted according to the constraints and demands of a moving image culture.

This is underlined by the moment that Angela is seen caressing the television screen upon which an image of Bosco is being transmitted. His ultimate unmasking as the perpetrator of the snuff film Angela has studied reveals another level to her masochistic tendencies.

Essentially, her thesis research has been founded upon the visual enactment of Bosco's own perversion, suggesting that she has forged her own unconscious link between her physical attraction to him and her hesitant fascination with the visual document he has produced. Her ultimate abduction and appearance in Bosco's final snuff film is therefore the logical culmination of her dual fascination- female subject transformed into object as she confronts the locus of her perverse desires in the most terrifying, direct way possible.

Alejandro Amenabar's Tesis (Thesis, 1996)As a young film student, Angela also embodies a presumed line between voyeuristic pleasure and scholarly objectivity. Although her own research project (entitled "Audio Visual Violence") often seems hopelessly vague, she repeatedly invokes academic interest ("it's for my thesis") in order to justify her attraction to the macabre. Furthermore, the very emphasis in this title on "audio" strengthens the sense of Angela's own receptivity to the aural patterns of violent assault and murder. Chema is posited as her antithesis, an almost stereotypical evocation of the horror film fan-boy. He wears thick glasses, has lank greasy hair, lives in an apartment adorned with horror film memorabilia (and soiled underwear) and keeps his video collection lovingly catalogued in a locked shelving unit.

However, Tesis is keen to draw distinct parallels between the aficionado's collection and the academic archive, each containing violent cinematic documents that are consumed in order to fulfill very specific pursuits and desires (ie, a fan-oriented, supposedly uncritical, "unthinking" indulgence on the one hand, and a certain "academic" objectivity on the other). Either way, the fascination with snuff is defined as a furtive, secret act. As Angela and Chema's investigations develop, snuff is revealed as a form that resides literally in underground passages, hidden away beneath the university's official collection of visual records. This hints at an institutional complicity in the snuff mythos, its own official documents of death and violence a mere "respectable" variation upon those sought by Angela.

Moreover, as the film's director, Amenábar is wholly cognisant of his own complicity in the production of hideous imagery for consumption within popular culture. This is achieved most tellingly by a brief, reflexive sequence in which Angela uses an electrical store's database to ascertain who might have bought the camera she believes was used to create the snuff video- one of the names on the list is Alejandro Amenábar.

Going public

The notion of snuff as a secret, hidden "pleasure" is wholly inverted by the film's ironic climax. Having acquired the snuff tape, a television news programme condemns the sickness of its creator and defines his acts as the culmination of a deluded pursuit of "love, torture, death and money." But of course, such is the stuff of prime time television and the decision is taken to transmit the snuff film in the guise of public interest. Identifying Bosco's string of victims as "the snuff girls," the programme immediately defines their existence purely in terms of their ghastly fate and transforms their recorded death into grotesque public spectacle.

The film seems to argue that such a transmission is merely the culmination of an ever more salacious preoccupation with the sensational, by both broadcaster and audience. If this is really "giving the public what it wants" (as Angela's thesis supervisor suggests earlier in the film), then snuff not only functions as a rendition of perverse sadistic or masochistic drives, but also satisfies an inherent need to confront images of mortality.

Of course, Angela and Chema have already come to terms with their own fascination by this stage, and their final act is not to view the transmission itself but to look upon the zombified hospital patients who are gazing passively at their television screens. This rather crude metaphor for the audience at large provides a nihilistic coda, but leaves the film stranded as far as resolving its own fascination with snuff is concerned.

In a final visual joke, the film concludes with a written warning, advising viewers of the horrific content of the snuff video they are about to see. Angela and Chema now avert their gaze, but as elevator doors shut in their faces and the broadcast begins, they are merely fleeing the wider socio-cultural implications of the visual document they have been instrumental in exposing.

Neil Jackson

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More on Amenábar's Tesis...
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About the author

Neil Jackson recently obtained his PhD from the University of Westminster, UK. He has contributed to the Critical Guides To Contemporary North American Directors/British Irish Directors (Wallflower Press) and the Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken Movie Top Tens (Creation Books). He has also contributed to Post Script, Video Watchdog and is a regular columnist on the website Kamera.co.uk.


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Footnotes

1. David Kerekes and David Slater, Killing For Culture: An Illustrated History Of The Death Film From Mondo To Snuff (London: Creation Books, 1995), 7.return to text

2. Julian Petley, "'Snuffed Out': Nightmares In A Trading Standards Officer's Brain." In Unruly Pleasures: The Cult Film And Its Critics, ed Xavier Mendik and Graham Harper (Guildford: FAB Press, 2000), 214.return to text

3. Kerekes and Slater, 21.return to text

4. Eithne Johnson and Eric Schaefer, "Soft Core/Hard Gore: Snuff as a Crisis In Meaning." The Journal Of Film And Video 45.2-3 (1993): 40-59.return to text

5. Kerekes and Slater, 11-67.return to text

6. Ibid, 43.return to text

7. Linda Williams, "Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess." Film Quarterly 44.4 (1991).return to text

8. Johnson and Schaefer.return to text

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