Paco Plaza’s Veronica plays like any number of supernatural horror possession thrillers mixed with Nightmare on Elm Street. Younger audiences less aware of those references have dubbed it the “scariest movie ever.” Older audiences a little more attuned to the various genre tropes should at least be able to agree this is a pretty well-made addition to an increasingly familiar genre.
Set over four days in Madrid in 1991, this Spanish-language film centers on Veronica, a 15-year-old girl (Sandra Escacena) who has recently lost her father. Whatever grieving she did, though, was probably short-lived since she seems to have quickly been forced into a caregiving role for her young brother (Antoñito) and two sisters (twins Lucia and Irene) while her mother works long hours at a bar to support the family.
As so endearingly played by Escacena, Veronica displays a firm, but loving hand with her siblings which makes her seem mature beyond her years, yet she’s also still a girl with braces on her teeth, boy band pictures on her walls, stuffed animals on her bed, and painted-on stars staring down from the ceiling of her bedroom. We know that deep down she just wants to be a normal 15-year-old with accessible parents and the freedom to simply spend time alone in her room listening and dancing along to her favorite songs. Veronica never actually says as much, but the look on her face when she observes a nearby neighbor’s more bucolic existence says it all for her.
[Update: Or is that neighbor actually a younger version of Veronica and instead of observing she’s actually reminiscing about better times? See the comments section for a discussion about that and whether the final one of these looking-out-the-window scenes adds a deeper sexual component to Veronica‘s coming-of-age narrative.]
At Veronica’s all-girls Catholic school, she daydreams and passes notes with friends while a teacher lectures about solar eclipses and ancient superstitions. It’s one of those classic movie situations where the characters are oblivious to the foreshadowing and thematic resonance baked into a teacher’s lesson. Later that day, while the rest of the school observes the eclipse Veronica and her friends use a Ouija board to conduct a seance. They mean to contact Veronica’s dad, but they instead unwittingly invite exactly the kind of malevolent presence their teacher was warning about. Veronica speaks in tongues. The Ouija board breaks. Her friends freak out.
So, ya know, the usual.
The rest of the film is devoted to Veronica coming to terms with what’s happening to her, first suffering disturbing nightmares before progressing to waking dreams where the monsters from her nightmares seem to be invading the real world and threatening her siblings. Ala Elm Street, she gets no help from any parent and not nearly enough help from disbelieving friends. The whole thing turns into a coming of age metaphor. One fever dream, for example, starts with a more obvious representation of Veronica’s immediate anxieties (won’t spoil what) before veering over into a depiction of her first steps into womanhood.
Plaza, previously best known for his sci-fi franchise Rec, thus pitches Veronica as a character study of a 15-year-old girl in the midst of a supernatural fight with demonic entities pretty much only she can see, a perfectly fitting narrative for a girl who had already been suffering in silence.
What makes it all so effective is Escacena gripping central performance and the believable sincerity of the actors playing her siblings. At one point, the twins roleplay and commentate on an imagined, positively insane Miss Spain contest (spoiler: Miss Madrid turns out to be a super intelligent robot). It’s mere background noise to what Veronica is doing elsewhere in the apartment, but if you listen to what they’re actually saying it’s hilarious and so positively little kid-think. Plus, Plaza’s Nosferatu-esque use of shadows does the genre proud.
What drags it down is a surprising mid-movie switch toward over-explaining everything and really, really beating home certain points we’re not trusted to remember. Plus, at times the metaphors could have used a little more subtlety and one repeated Hitchcockian camera trick involving a mirror in the mom’s restaurant turns into an unnecessary distraction.
Those are but minor complaints, though, in what I took to be a familiar, but well-executed horror thriller.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Even if this was just a coming of age drama about a likable 15-year-old girl, her three charismatic siblings, and absentee mother, it would register as watchable thanks to the strength of the performances. Add on a familiar ouija-and-possession angle with a creepy nun, spooky shadows, and ominous creaks and cracks and you get a quality movie to watch on Netflix.
CRITICAL CONSENSUS RIGHT NOW
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- If this review is somehow the first you’re hearing of Veronica and you’re now intrigued, please refrain from Googling the film or watching the trailer or even looking at its Wikipedia page. The coverage of Veronica I’ve seen all seems to spoil something the film itself works very, very hard to keep secret.
- Netflix doesn’t really do traditional “advertising” with most of its movies. That’s why Veronica dropped on the service last week without any real warning and little fanfare on Netflix’s part. They opt instead for a meritocracy where those films which find a big enough audience make it into the “Trending” and “What’s Popular” sections. The irony is that this led to many a “This amazing movie on Netflix deserves your attention even if Netflix doesn’t seem to think so” think piece, which is exactly the kind of free advertising Netflix is counting on. Veronica has now fallen into this increasingly familiar pattern, but, hey, it clearly worked on me.
So, was that Centella commercial and jingle real? Or something they made up?Credit to Gardenaunt in the comments section for pointing me to this video of the real Centella commercial/jingle: