‘Veronica’: Film Review

Courtesy of TIFF
Bruna Gonzalez, Sandra Escacena, Claudia Placer and Ivan Chavero in 'Veronica.'
Thick on chills, thin on psychology.

Making its international bow at TIFF next month, Paco Plaza’s ‘Veronica’ puts a supernatural spin on a real-life Spanish case from the 1990s.

As one half of the directing tandem responsible for the Spanish [REC] horror franchise, Paco Plaza has a reputation to maintain. [REC] 3: Genesis, which he helmed solo, was essentially comedy-slasher fare, making Veronica his first feature-length excursion into more psychological, Conjuring-style horror — and, aided by some great child performances, plenty of stylistic chutzpah and a strong sense of place, he makes it work, despite the project’s overall lack of finesse.

Veronica’s forthcoming TIFF appearance and likely positive buzz among the horror fraternity — the bloggers of Spain, for starters, are over the moon that such Emily Rose creepiness might be unspooling in their own backyard — should guarantee a degree of international interest for this latest cinematic riff on how adolescents are really just little monsters in disguise.

The credits take place over an impressively chilling sequence involving a terrified call to the cops. Onscreen titles proudly announce that what we’re going to see is based on a real-life story that took place in 1992, when a teenage girl in a south Madrid barrio flirted with our old friend Ouija and was briefly hospitalized and died. (Though it’s apparently based on the police report of the case, the script plays fast and loose with the facts.)

Veronica (Sandra Escacena, debuting and carrying practically the whole weight of the film on her young back) is a student at a religious school; her father is dead, her mother (Ana Torrent, famously the little girl from Victor Erice’s classic The Spirit of the Beehive, Spain’s definitive children-in-trouble movie and the final girl in Alejandro Amenabar’s debut Thesis) works long hours in a bar. So Veronica, who is presented from the outset as a dutiful, responsible young woman and not an accident waiting to happen, is effectively bringing up her younger siblings — Lucia (Bruna Gonzalez), Irene (Claudia Placer) and her tough-but-cute, bespectacled 5-year-old brother Antonito (Ivan Chavero) — whilst also being ripe for possession.

Veronica and her pals Rosa (Angela Fabian) and Diana (Carla Campra) buy an occult mag and get out the Ouija board to contact Diana’s boyfriend, who died in a motorcycle crash. But they accidentally dial the wrong Ouija number and end up making contact with Veronica’s father instead. Standard horror tropes pile up — the glass breaking on the board, the objects which take on a life of their own and red stuff coming out of Veronica’s mouth (in a nicely homely Spanish touch, the red stuff is the healthy portion of meatballs she’s having for dinner). Entertainingly but superfluously, there is even a blind, ciggie-puffing (and possibly dead) nun called Sister Narciso (Consuelo Trujillo) on hand to explain to Veronica with black humor the mechanisms of reversing what she’s accidentally set in motion.

Veronica keeps waking up screaming after horrible dreams about her father: The doctor tells her she has low blood pressure and asks whether she is having periods yet, which brings in a new trope — that of the seriously stained mattress. Though none of this is very new or interesting, it’s slickly done. But what is interesting is how much of this is Veronica’s imagination, and how much is "real." The killer triangle of dead father, absent mother and religious (read: “supernatural”) education have clearly made the poor girl the way she is. We do indeed feel her pain, but the script doesn’t want to go there.

The real horror in Veronica is not in the CGI visuals, or in Pablo Rosso's frantic cinematography, or in the aural bombardment of sound effects and music; it’s in the relationship between the children (who are all played with a wonderful naturalism, apparently helped along by judicious improvisation). Slowly their sister’s dark new world infects them and their innocence is destroyed, entirely plausibly: Given this pearl of a chance, the debuting Escacena seizes it with both hands, and it’s both appalling and touching to watch her psychological decline.

But Torrent is a letdown. In the only major adult role, she feels miscast, and her relationship with the kids is disappointingly one-dimensional and lacking in the tenderness which would have brought a more human touch.

Another negative is that Veronica is lacking in subtlety and truth — those little details of psychological characterization that make a film not only realistic, but shudderingly real. This is mainly down to Plaza’s wish to drive everything through at breakneck speed and his boyish enthusiasm for jump scares — while the viewer never gets to see how Veronica herself might be feeling about what is happening to her, which keeps her a little too remote.

Careful attention has been paid to the '90s period detail, which Plaza obviously knows and has a fondness for — for example, in the interiors and in the music, which features such iconic Spanish bands as Heroes del Silencio and Bunbury. Much of the film’s value is how credible all this good contextual work makes it feel.

This Veronica is not to be confused with Carlos Algara and Alejandro Martinez-Beltran’s same-name drama, which appeared recently at FrightFest.

Production companies: Apaches Entertainment, Expediente La Pelicula
Cast: Sandra Escacena, Bruna Gonzalez, Claudia Placer, Ivan Chavero, Ana Torrent, Sonia Almarcha, Maru Valdivielso, Leticia Dolera
Director: Paco Plaza
Screenwriter: Fernando Navarro
Producers: Enrique Lopez Lavigne
Executive producers: Maria Angulo, Mar Ilundain
Director of photography: Pablo Rosso
Production designer: Javier Alvarino
Costume designer: Vinyet Escobar
Editor: Marti Roca
Composer: Chucky Namanera
Casting director: Arantza Velez
Sales: Film Factory

105 minutes

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