Verónica, the latest feature-length horror film to debut on Netflix, holds its own against any of the slew of similar titles to be released in American theaters and surpasses nearly all of the competition with its solid combination of literary storytelling and adept filmmaking. Based on the only real-life incident to be witnessed and reported on by members of the Spanish corp of Policía Nacional, director Paco Plaza ([REC]) transcends the tired tropes of supernatural cinema with this unique take on the tired tale of a girl and her Ouija board. Genuinely scary, sharply intelligent, and visually engaging, Verónica is a must-watch film for any horror fan who is looking for something more than empty characters and senseless jump scares.
Based on a script by Plaza and Fernando Navarro (Toro), Verónica is set in the summer of 1991 in Madrid, Spain. The film was first released in Spain on August 25th, 2017, and it is available in the United States for the first time with English subtitles. While the story itself is as cookie-cutter as it gets these days, Plaza and Navarro take the material into territory that other directors may be too uncomfortable to explore, and the results are often downright chilling. The story of the adolescent/teenage girl who experiences an atypical coming of age under the shadow of a powerful, ancient evil has been told and retold so many times since The Exorcist that horror fans can recount the formula in their sleep. Rather than deviate from the roadmap, these talented writers instead add their flourishes to the literary qualities of their simple story in order to stand out from the rest. The result is a story that gives the viewers something to think about while their hearts race in response to what’s happening on the screen.
Verónica is fifteen when the movie takes place, and she straddles the line between adolescence and adulthood as she takes on a primary maternal role for her younger siblings (out of necessity, because her father is dead and her mother works evenings) while simultaneously clinging to her former world of stuffed animals and glow-in-the-dark wall graphics. The movie is always subtly reminding viewers of the dichotomy between the two worlds Verónica is caught between. At one point, she reaches out to her two girlfriends for help, but they’re too caught up in a trashy house party, wrapped in the arms of boys, to heed her desperate call. Verónica’s fear of growing up manifests as a particularly disturbing dream during which her younger siblings literally bite pieces out of her flesh, metaphorically representing the sacrifice she’s forced to make in order to fill her mother’s role as caregiver. Speaking of sacrifice, the film combines mythological motifs ranging from Mayan human sacrifice to Norse symbols of protection when symbolically explaining the evil presence haunting Verónica, which initially manifests as the disturbingly-uncomfortable form of her deceased father. On the surface, these storytelling elements make for visually-striking moments of cinema. When one digs deeper, their metaphorical connection to the protagonist’s tragic journey into womanhood is as thought-provoking as it is intense.
Just as the script enhances an otherwise routine example of supernatural storytelling with its thoughtful and metaphorical flourishes, the filmmaking consistently offers fresh and unique visual and auditory elements to elevate the happenings on screen. Verónica never, ever relies on the cheap contemporary horror trope of “quiet moments interrupted by loud- but ultimately pointless- jump scares.” Instead, Plaza uses space and composition to build more meaningful scares. Early on, the shots are conservative and we’re treated to close-up shots of Verónica’s face as the camera misdirects us towards non-scary reveals, such as an out-of-place little sister. But before the viewer has the chance to think, “I’ve seen this a million times!,” the scenes become more creative and more unique. In the second half, the audience is treated to a fluid, airy seance and a variety of breathtaking camera sweeps which build tension and often succeed in making us believe we haven’t been consuming this story since the seventies. Verónica’s apartment is unusually-shaped, and Plaza takes advantage of the “hollow-square” layout of the building to stage numerous opportunities for the evil entity to remain in full sight while obstructing any easy access to the children it often takes hostage. The urban environment starkly contrasts the ancient origin of Verónica’s unwanted guest and it makes for an effective and versatile setting for the film.
Plaza doesn’t just avoid the tired “quiet moment, loud moment, rinse, repeat” format of American filmmaking… he goes a step further by introducing some unusual auditory and visual cues which don’t sound scary on paper but are surprisingly effective on screen. Sometimes, Verónica, almost gets a little too silly with its choices in a way that provides subtle relief for viewers while still heightening tension through their innate weirdness. Two musical pieces which reoccur throughout some of the movie’s scary scenes are jarringly unusual. One is a softer commercial jingle… the other is the weird score of ¿Quién Puede Matar a Un Niño?, a mid-70’s Spanish horror flick playing on the family’s television. But when these songs are combined with Plaza’s strong visual storytelling, these odd musical choices end up improving the funky nature of their scenes. Visually, Consuelo Trujillo’s Hermana Muerte comes off as a little over-the-top from time to time with her foggy eyes and disregard for personal space, and the scenes where Verónica doses off while listening to some Spanish rock music and shining her flashlight at her starry ceiling to mimic the solar eclipse that kicks off the movie almost feel cheesy. But the awkwardness of some of these scenes mimic the awkwardness of a fifteen year-old girl being pulled in several uncomfortable directions, and they are ultimately fitting for the movie. The aforementioned nightmare involving children with chompers takes place in broad daylight, and its matter-of-fact portrayal of such a disturbing moment is the strongest example of Plaza’s use of visual and auditory dichotomy to effectively frighten his audience.
Sandra Escacena plays the titular character, and Verónica is her first starring performance in a feature film. Escacena is in every scene of the movie, and her freshman performance is certainly memorable. Due to the content and subject matter, the movie wouldn’t be good without a talented actress in the leading role. Escacena captures Verónica’s insecurities and budding curiosities in a natural and sympathetic manner. Most of her scenes are played opposite children who are much younger than she is, and she manages to capture Verónica’s maternal role while leading her adolescent co-stars through convincing ensemble scenes. Her moments with adults are equally compelling; and if her performance in Verónica is any indicator, Escacena has a bright future as an actress.
Verónica takes a classic story archetype- that’s been re-told to death in recent years- and redefines it through intelligent choices in screenwriting and filmmaking. The movie shows that maybe we haven’t seen everything when it comes to this genre, so long as the studios are willing to take the chance on leaving behind some of the cheap gags that are usually required in order for the Hollywood bean counters to feel confident in a picture’s box office potential. Netflix’s release model certainly relieves most of this anxiety, and Verónica is a perfect fit for the format while at its core remaining a movie that would be worth every cent of the purchase of a movie ticket.