When a film takes place during a particular time period not of the present era, you’d like to think there’s underlying thematic purpose behind the decision. And when a film that, under normal circumstances, might have remained known solely to those who live and breathe everything new in cinema suddenly gains widespread, almost unanimously positive recognition, you’d like not to be that one person, or one of few people that stands against the grain – unless you live for annoyingly contrarian ideals. While it’s fine that the time period of Spanish director Paco Plaza’s latest genre effort Veronica bears no significance aside from its being loosely based on the 1991 Vallecas case, as plenty of previous supernatural horror features have used period aesthetic purely for effect in grounding the unbound by realism to realism with claims of being based on true events, it would have been nice chewing on a little something extra to offset the film’s pound for pound averageness.
Admittedly, the Vallecas case is a strange one, and made no less tragic by its incredulity. Whether you choose to believe that Estefania Gutierrez Lazaro, her surviving family and police officers investigating the case experienced paranormal happenings or not, a teenage girl died from still unexplained circumstances, which is more than enough for your daily dose of nightmare fuel outside of the possibility of demonic possession. Like plenty of filmmakers have done before him, Plaza uses Veronica to tap into the sudden sense of loss and trauma created by these events, except transferring those feelings to the real-life Estefania’s titular cinematic replacement.
In this fictionalized version of the tale, Veronica, played by Sandra Escacena in her feature film debut, is a 15-year old girl playing primary caretaker to her three younger siblings after their father passes away and their mother takes on later hours at a local bar to support the family. The day of a solar eclipse, she and a couple of classmates quietly sneak into the school basement to conduct a séance, primarily in the hopes of contacting her father. Unfortunately, as it always goes in horror flicks, proceedings go wrong quickly when the trio summon evil spirits beyond their control which possess Veronica for what seems like a brief moment. Unfortunately, these forces won’t leave Veronica’s side, and create all sorts of havoc in their quickly intensifying hauntings.
Using personal trauma to mirror spiritual hauntings and vice versa is a familiar method of symbolism found in many a supernatural flick, and though it’s only occasionally used to decent effect here, Plaza does at least intimate towards a fascinating body horror-esque angle. With her father deceased and mother away for most hours of the day, Veronica unfortunately must assume a ‘next person up’ position well beyond her years as a teenager, needing to quickly mature for her siblings’ sake. Conversely, it’s revealed around a quarter of the way through the film that she’s yet to have her first period, and from this point onward occasionally finds markings on her body left by the demon. Though she eventually does have her first period, illustrated by one horrifying dream sequence, connecting the loss of childhood innocence and physical changes with supernatural trauma is an inherently refreshing look at a subgenre frequently using gruesome transfigurations to make its various points known.
But Plaza never fully leans in that direction, instead leaning on perfunctory possession movie beats and sequences in which cheesiness, particularly in the special effects department, undercuts the intended dread. For those who’ve followed Plaza since his [REC] days, knowing full well his capabilities in terms of genre ingenuity as well as unnerving atmosphere and aesthetic, it’s these narrative checkpoint set pieces where the film loses its luster and, given its meteoric rise in notoriety, its influence. To a less than convincing degree, Plaza relies on this multitude of paranormal occurrences like a hand-me-down crutch borrowed from by-the-numbers Hollywood productions of yesteryear, ignoring its splintering body rather than fixing its fault lines, carefully building upon the film’s initial unsettling elements for an unbearable aura of evil toward the climax and denouement, where the story can properly erupt.
It kind of does, but never entirely so that it’ll stick out in memory from other similar features. The most you can successfully do throughout the runtime is empathize with Veronica, as the screenplay makes a damn good effort of moderately depicting her pain without diminishing it and demonstrating her fortitude to suggest she won’t cave into outside forces so easily, but when the ending is made all but apparent from the first minute, you need something more than just solid character work to achieve complete investment. Ironically, that factor may be what has been compelling many to apparently stop the film before they can complete it but instituting a foundation of perturbed-ness is always necessary as the bread and butter of films such as these, considering graphic violence is difficult to force. In the final moments, we’d want Plaza to recall the tension of [REC], but instead he delivers the hollowness of Annabelle.
Technically speaking, as opposed to the latter film, Veronica is made with competence, for instance showing some decent if sometimes on-the-nose visuals; unfortunate, then, that Plaza’s prowess doesn’t always translate to the moments that matter most. It’s nice to know the film has found its audience after quietly making its way to Netflix, and I’ll have to accept that audience does not include me, as much as I’d like to be among the many who’ve hailed it as a horror classic. In 2018, horror hasn’t had the strongest of starts following up what many, including myself, thought was the best year the genre had seen in recent memory, but with movies like Hereditary, A Quiet Place and Mandy still to come, we’ve still got miles to go before we sleep – assuming you can even fall asleep after all of that, anyway.