Directed by Paco Plaza
Back when I was a teenager, in the pre-streaming days, me and my friends entertained ourselves with Ouija boards. We’d craft them out of paper, put fingers on the coin and see what it could tell us (for some reason only asking about the future, and never the past which you’d expect a spectre to know more about, but never mind). Now, were our sessions to have awoken a sleeping demon, rather than them being the product of Phil pushing the ten pence, we’d have been pretty screwed: four mid-teen boys aren’t going to be much good against a demon. But what if some of us had been younger? And female? Oh, plus the only adult we knew was cold, distant and worked nights? Well, then it’d potentially be a reasonable set up for a horror.
Many movies work of the basis that the easiest way to generate tension is to get rid of the grown-ups. Slashers, in particular, isolate kids so they can’t be protected by their usual guardians, or even the cops. Then you’ll get supernatural chillers like Annabelle Creation, which make the only people old enough to smoke complicit in whatever evil is at hand. With Veronica, the titular character (Escacena) comes from a single parent household, and is daughter to a workaholic barmaid who’s been emotionally shut off since her father died. As such, she has to pick up the slack and look after three younger siblings, including two little sisters (Gonzalez and Placer) and a bespectacled bed wetter (Chavero). Missing the parent that she barely knew, Veronica decides to try and contact dear old dad via an Ouija board, with fellow rebels, whilst the rest of the school is transfixed by a lunar eclipse. But they don’t reach him – rather they awaken a malevolent presence that wants to tear her family apart. On top of the many pressures of high school and home, this is one she really doesn’t need.
Some have compared it to The Conjuring, and the parallel is fair – it’s also got its eyes on the classics, making for a consciously retro experience. Moreover, like that franchise the focus on a family unit under threat is a means of exploring their relationships and the sorts of sacrifices we may make for those that share our blood. Veronica’s nightmares about her dad are genuinely uncomfortable and her concern for her brother and sisters supplies emotional stakes. What elevates this domestic terror, supposedly based on a true story, is director Paco Plaza (co-creator of the REC series). As per REC 3, Genesis, Plaza follows a traditional narrative style here, getting to show his skills as a visualist. There’s some snazzy stylish flourishes, particularly towards the end when the demons are getting ever close to Veronica and the twisted camera perspectives mirror her deteriorating state of mind. Some of the scare scenes look stellar too, right from the unnerving bookend sequence where the police came across the scene of the story we’ll soon see. At points, the camera work perfectly builds up the anticipation, capturing the wholly believable fear of the excellent young actors. This mostly happens when the monsters are on the periphery, with first rate framing.
Note that I say the scares scenes look stellar. Unfortunately, they don’t feel that scary. There are some powerful moments but the actual fright scenes are, without exception, far less scary than their build-up. The action sequences are brief, to the point of regularly feeling anti-climactic, and undermine the sense of forward momentum Plaza works hard to keep up. Worse, some of it is downright tropey. I’ve criticised The Conjuring for trading too much off cinematic heritage, and I’d say much the same here. You got the creepy nun , the reliance on dream scenes so characters can get attacked without being killed and the dependence on old texts to keep the story going. These are all things even casual genre fans will have seen numerous times over to the point of tedium. Were Veronica’s character more interesting, to do justice to the performance, then some of this could be overlooked. Sure, the emotional journey is rewarding. Yet for a film named after her, there’s little to make her a unique protagonist. Similarly, the villain is uncharacterised, feeling like a dull, ill-defined force until an ending that’s smart, but raises way more questions than it resolves. Still, it leaves potential room for a sequel – that is if Plaza hasn’t been snapped up by James Wan first.
Veronica is on Netflix.