Verónica Review (Film, 2017)
Verónica is a psychological horror film from directors Carlos Algara and Alejandro Martinez-Beltran and screenwriters Carlos Algara and Tomas Nepomuceno. It is a familiar story told with beautiful style and precise editing.
A psychologist takes on a new patient, the titular Verónica, who is referred to her by another doctor who cannot complete the treatment. The psychologist and her new patient work together in a remote home in the woods, sharing a living space between therapy sessions. Something is clearly wrong with Verónica, a young woman with horrific nightmares that lead her to sexual desire and longing when she wakes up. The problem is the psychologist cannot get her hands on Verónica's previous case files. She's starting from square one on a patient who clearly has a history of treatment, and that patient will use her knowledge to manipulate, confuse, and terrify the doctor as much as possible in our out of therapy sessions.
Verónica is a heavily stylized film. Most of the story is told in beautiful black and white cinematography teetering somewhere between Night of the Hunter and Psycho in its execution. The shared cabin is sprinkled with layers of meaning created through clever use of a few small props. The psychologist is reading a novel by Francine Rivers, a romance novelist turned Christian author. That novel is The Last Sin Eater, a historical Christian novel about a young girl with a secret sin so deep that she breaks all societal rules to try to find forgiveness and redemption. The psychologist also grows shiitake mushrooms in a shed, a species that has to be harvested from dead trees.
The layers of meaning go on from there. Some are visual references to other films--largely Hitchcock, including a really clever spin on the Psycho shower scene--while some are clear visual metaphors--the psychologist is extremely sensitive to light and always wears sunglasses outside during the day. Still others are a mix between the two, referencing classic horror iconography as an act of misdirection while the real secrets are rolled out in plain sight.
Verónica is told in two modes. Most of the film is in the present, a devious game of cat and mouse between an older, wiser doctor and a young woman who is blatantly attracted to her. It's like Rebecca told with the reverse power-dynamic. The older, naive woman is being pursued by the younger, experienced woman for a relationship both know is wrong but both secretly (or blatantly) desire. It's not an implied, high button Gothic theater moment, either; Verónica is sexually-charged in her life and cannot turn that aspect of herself off for reasons discovered in the film. There's a tremendous sense of tension and dread built from this spiraling dynamic between the two. We know that a doctor, especially a psychologist working to heal the mind, should not be reciprocating the advances of a patient, but Verónica does not shy away from conflict, controversy, and shock to get her way.
The other mode is dreams and flashbacks. Verónica's recurring nightmares might actually be memories she has repressed in her life. We see very slight variations on a single scene played out with two different actors. A young girl is playing in the woods. In the earliest iteration of this sequence, she sees a doe get shot, chained up, and dragged away by a hunter while she watches its last breaths. The location of the story and many of the visual cues remain the same, but the sequence of events and participants changes each time.
Part of the genius of Verónica is this beautiful intimacy that teeters on the brink of claustrophobia. Despite the flashbacks/dreams taking place outdoors, they are still contained within a similar environments as the treatment: a cabin in the woods, a mysterious shed, and a peaceful forest. Rooms in the psychologist's cabin are almost always filmed from the exact same angle, and seem to move closer and closer to subjects as the story progresses. There are also only four actors playing three characters in the entire film. A fifth actor is credited, but his scenes as a police officer were shot and ultimately discarded for what became a horror film about how women of different generations interact and the resulting power dynamics.
Verónica is a tense and engaging horror film, even when it it runs out of new ways of retelling a common horror story. The ending sequence is the weakest, dragged down by a twist ending not only done before but done much better in countless other films. It's a potentially satisfying ending that just doesn't commit to the style of the film that precedes it. I can only imagine how a simple change in film stock could have made this ending work in this story. Otherwise, the narrative does have a shocking ending that occurs right before the twist and style change that also would have been better. Instead, we're stuck in this weird in between place that simultaneously swings for the fences and bunts a the same time. What comes before the twist more than makes up for it, so I strongly recommend it to anyone looking for a new psychological horror film to try.
Verónica is currently streaming on Netflix and should not be confused with Veronica, a possessed child film also streaming on Netflix. You're going to have a bad time if you expect a quiet psychological horror from that one.
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