Dubbed by Netflix audience as “the scariest horror film ever”, VERONICA has almost too much to live up to. Whether that statement is true or not, Paco Plaza delivers an entertaining film with just a couple of letdowns throughout.
As eerie as it may sound for some, it has been already more than a decade that REC was released in theatres around the world and gave a chill or two down the spine to quite some people. The found footage horror film à la THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT premiered at the 64th Venice International Film Festival out of competition gaining its directors – Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza – praise and recognition. From there on, we had three sequels (the last two signed single-handedly by Plaza and Balagueró respectively) and an American remake in 2008. That was a wrap for the REC franchise. A horror aficionado, Plaza didn’t abandon the genre and returned to the limelight with VERONICA (2017), screened as part of the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. The film was selected to be part of the 5th edition of the Edinburgh Spanish Film Festival.
As the REC plot started and escalated quickly in a rather claustrophobic building in Barcelona, VERONICA shares a similar setting as most of the film unfolds inside Verónica’s apartment in Madrid where she lives with her mother and her younger siblings. Her father died recently leaving her mother to work long hours to support her family. At home, all the chores fall on Verónica’s shoulders, a 15-years-old skinny girl (Sandra Escacena) obsessed with occult arts. One day, she brings an Ouija board to school to perform a séance with her friends in the hope of being able to reach out to her deceased father. Something must have gone wrong as the girls accidentally summon a dark spirit who decides to follow Verónica. In the next three days, all kinds of nightmares and paranormal occurrences torment Verónica leading to a frenzy and fatal night.
Loosely based on a true story that took place in 1991, VERONICA is at first presented as a faithful account of what happened the night of July 13th as seen through the eyes of the detective who arrived at the apartment and then filed the report. Building on the frantic rhythm given by the desperate call Verónica makes to the police and the officers running against time to reach her location, Paco masterfully cuts the tension at its climax and hooks the audience on the main body of the film basically acting like a big chunk of a flashback. In the blink of an eye, we suddenly jump into the domesticity of Verónica and her sibling’s life. With her mother away from home to work in a cafè until late at night, it is only natural she sleeps in every morning leaving her older daughter to play the maternal role too early in life. Family balance is broken already as the children suffer their mother’s absence and Verónica cannot help but hold a grudge and long for her lost father.
Although we can commend Paco’s attempt to come up not only with a clever retelling of Estefania Gutierrez Lazaro’s story but also with a credible portrayal of the emotional strain suffered by a girl dealing with the responsibility to take care of her siblings, the director is probably juggling with one ball too many. Why on the day of the solar eclipse a teacher should feel compelled to entertain her class with such an amusing story as some human sacrifices staged by ancient cultures to summon dark spirits if later on there is nothing but a thin line linking the sun and the eclipse to Verónica herself? Was it really necessary to throw in a disturbing character such as Sister Death – the elder blind nun wandering around the Catholic school the protagonist goes to – only to see her creepily popping up apparently knowing everything about the séance and trying to perform some kind of exorcism? The problem with some horror films lies in an overabundance of peculiarities as if the main element of the plot is not scary, not unsettling enough and you feel the urge to fret and find something more.
Suggesting that evil finds its way to have the best of you and that, in the end, it would be impossible to set the two apart, VERONICA seems too scared to follow down that path and to tackle with the general malaise of being alone when fighting our demons. Satisfied with just scratching at the surface, the film still offers a linear plot, a sense of unease throughout, a no-fuss direction by Plaza and a couple of interesting visuals. Expect no jump scares though but that should not be a bad thing, right?