Director/writer Paco Plaza latest horror film Verónica received its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival this week. The film’s short running time ensures that there are few dull moments, though a pulsating finalé does its best to make up for a lack of characterisation beyond the titular lead.
Based on a real life police report, the film opens with a frantic emergency call and response. It is June 1991. Madrid. A girl screams down the phone that there is someone in their house. Once there, the police officers discover evidence of paranormal activity and it becomes the first official officer report to corroborate evidence of the occult. It is that real-life report that Plaza uses as a starting point.
Verónica (debutant Sandra Escacena) is a teenager who is trying to cope with the death of her father. Busy with her school work, looking after her siblings full time (her mother is around but works long hours), but feeling outcast at school, Verónica is a girl mature beyond her years in many respects. However, she seeks an escape from her isolation in the form of a ouija board séance, which she plans to carry out during a solar eclipse with her school friends Rosa (Angela Fabian) and Diana (Carla Campra).
The three girls conduct the séance in a manner that ticks off very much every quintessential horror trope. The glass smashes, the lights go out, the board rips, panic ensues. It’s ticking all the right boxes but doesn’t ever feel like it’s convincing in any of it.
Indeed, throughout the film there are a number of typical plot points that serve to underline Plaza’s love of the genre, which some will see as a love letter to the genre. Many, however, will see it as a lack of ideas.
At times, it felt like there wasn’t enough time to explore the relationships between the main characters. Seemingly pivotal lead characters in the first act are largely forgotten by the end, whilst the mother changes from negligent workaholic to loving mother over the course of three days, without ever feeling like there’s a strong bond between her and her children.
Conversely, there is clearly a playful rapport between all of the children. Twin sisters Lucía and Irene (Bruna González’s and Claudia Placer respectively) have a real bond and it is in some of their natural banter that the film sparks into life. Their younger brother Antoñito inspires a lot of sympathy due to his hopelessness, which Iván Chavero portrays wonderfully. Together the results are great and the scenes they share are entirely believable.
Another positive is Plaza’s deliberate lack of use of CGI effects, which serves the film well. Black, monstrous hands appearing from out of a bed is something that is so easily done as a practical effect, but yet this seems to be something many modern directors would add in the CGI studio at a later date. The terror felt by the children is palpable.
By the conclusion of the film, I couldn’t help but wonder how much of the story had been embellished based on the police report. What we have is an isolated, depressed teenage girl who is obsessed with the occult. The police may have been called to the house, but it would be negligent to blame the occurrences on the occult based on the scant evidence available. This is clearly a girl in need of attention and mourning the loss of a father, unable to find an outlet.
In cinematic terms, that can all be forgiven with a pulsating climax that feels pacy and realistic, making any worries about the plot slightly moot. Sometimes horror is just about delivering thrills and making your audience share in the terror of the main characters. For the last fifteen minutes that’s exactly what we get.