On paper, Veronica has no right to be as good as it is. The plot description is riddled with horror cliches, including the dreaded "based on a true story" text. There's even a marketing campaign for its Netflix release about how people are turning it off because it's too scary to finish (at least a dozen of those popped up shortly after the release, and more followed--it's advertising).
It's a horror film about a teenage girl, immature for her age, attending a Catholic school and caring for her siblings while her single working mother runs a bar to keep everyone afloat. The girl decides to use a Ouija board to summon the spirit of her dead father and unleashes a living hell on her family instead. Complete with creepy stern nuns, rampant hormones, mysterious cuts and bruises, and not one, not two, but three significantly younger children who are equally creepy as they are cute, and you should have, in 2018, a mess.
I'm happy to be proven wrong. Veronica is very good. Writer/director Paco Plaza and screenwriter Fernando Navarro adapt a police report about mysterious circumstances after a family played with a Ouija board into a masterclass in reinvention. The goal of Veronica is not some grand new horror icon or a franchise; the goal is terror in simplicity. It is a simple possession/haunting story told well with tremendous style.
The crux of Veronica is reflection versus distortion. The opening scene already has the police arrive to investigate what happened at the house. The last image of that sequence is a close-up of Veronica screaming out in pain in a dark room. There's no cut or title card to conveniently transition to the past. Instead, there's an immediate light shift and Veronica is revealed to be yawning when she wakes up, not screaming in pain. Only after she wakes up does the date and time appear to indicate a flashback. That one clever transition sets up one of the most stylish Catholic horror/possession films since The Exorcist.
Every major element of Veronica pairs off in literal or visual ways. Two of Veronica's younger siblings are twins--not identical, but inseparable. Veronica is caring for all her siblings, but she's usually focused on her youngest brother. Her youngest brother requires large glasses that exaggerate his eyes to cartoonish proportions, eyes that do not match as he as amblyopia (a "lazy eye"). Tins, cups, plates, foods, cleaning supplies, cupboards, furniture, bedrooms, classrooms, doorways, and windows are either presented in pairs right next to each other or feature a complimentary-sized and slightly askew reflection in the frame. If not, there's literally a mirror or other reflective surface playing with the light and perspective of the background.
The only time this rule doesn't apply is when something paranormal is happening. The film, set in 1991, leans in heavy on trendy technology for children and teenagers. One of the recurring elements of the scares is the game Simon (you know, the electronic game with four color buttons that you hit in order based on what the game tells you). A darkened room will suddenly start flashing in shades of red, blue, green, and yellow until Veronica acknowledges it. Then, there are only three light sources--a window, a flashing red light, and a flashing blue light. The pairs--red/blue, green/yellow--are abandoned to throw off balance and disorient the viewer. It's just brilliant detail work.
Veronica really swings for the fences on the evil Ouija/occult angles of the story. Veronica and her two friends--oh look, another trio--sneak into the basement of her school during a full lunar eclipse to contact the dead. They move in the exact opposite direction as the rest of the school, who all stand on the roof staring through strips of photograph negatives--reflecting and refracting on their faces--as the dark orb of the moon covers the bright orb of the sun. Veronica plays with a Ouija board when darkness overtakes light, hiding in the basement of a Catholic school when every sister who could protect her is standing in the light and turning their backs on the wicked children playing with darkness. That's just one scene.
The biblical and folklore angles on possession and the occult are heavily researched, yet presented in a natural and believable way. A teenage girl obsessed enough to own a paperback encyclopedia set about the occult would know about the rule of threes, protective iconography, and rudimentary ways of fighting back against evil. It's just that this source of evil knows all of that and more in this story.
If there is a flaw to Veronica, it is the amount of content crammed into the film. The running time is not long at all for the story--one hour and 45 minutes is quite mercifully short for a notoriously bloated genre. It just feels long at time. This screenplay packs so many narrative elements of the genre into a single cohesive story that it loses that natural three act rhythm that's expected in film.
When you reach a scene that would easily be the climax of another horror film and discover you're only 40 minutes into the film, you start to wonder what else could happen. Then the film does it again and again and again, stacking familiar references to other grand finales in the genre as mere world-building or scares that really mess with your perception of how a horror film should be structured. It's not bad; it's disorienting. So much happens so often that the quieter moments needed to build characters and nuance feel much slower than they actually are.
Veronica is scary. There is no denying that. Is it so scary that most people will be reaching for the remote and shutting it off, never to return? No. I'm willing to guess I can pinpoint the exact moment people are turning off the film--an unexpected gore sequence playing on Catholic iconography. It's mild compared to most films that lean into gore. Veronica is not the scariest film ever made, but it is good at what it sets out to do. This is a scary Catholic/possession horror that finds a new way of telling a very old story.
Veronica is currently streaming on Netflix. It is not to be confused with Verónica, a psychological horror and homage to Hitchcock, also streaming on Netflix. They are distinguished by the accent in the search menu and catalogue.
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