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HELL IS SHADOW PEOPLE: PACO PLAZA’S “VERONICA” LACKS HOLY TERROR

Tuesday, March 13, 2018 | Review

BY ROCCO THOMPSON

It would seem apropos that the titular heroine of Paco Plaza’s newest film, VERONICA, shares a name with the biblical figure who offered her veil to Jesus of Nazareth as he marched toward his crucifixion. According to Church tradition, after wiping his brow with the offered garment, the holy man’s visage was mystically emblazoned upon it. Plaza’s Veronica (Sandra Escacena, in her first feature film role) encounters otherworldly power of a far more nefarious sort: its mark appearing not as a benevolent face upon a piece of cloth, but a threatening black stain upon her mattress. As a Catholic school student in post-Franco Spain, Veronica and her friends’ disconnection from the forced religiosity of that oppressive regime is implied by the Ouija board and occult magazines they carry around, a bright red “AS SEEN ON TV” sticker underlining the mainstreaming of spiritual beliefs beyond those once considered traditional in the country. When the three girls attempt to contact the dead during a solar eclipse, Veronica finds her soul blotted out (as the Sun by the Moon) by a force of untold evil. In her battle against the darkness raging inside her, we see the face of a country without faith, quickly barreling towards the 21st century with its national spirit hanging tenuously in the balance…

Actually, that’s not what VERONICA is at all. Color me disappointed. Based oh-so-loosely on the story of one Estefania Gutierrez Lazaro—who died suddenly in 1992 a few months after playing with a Ouija board—Plaza’s film seems cocked and ready to explore the secularization of his country (and possibly the loss of faith on a more personal level) and then…just doesn’t. Lest anyone think this reviewer may be reading too deeply into what’s presented here, Plaza said to Cineuropa last August:  

“There is a nod to reality: an intention to locate the film in a specific space and time, in Spain before the [1992] Olympics. It deals with the transformation from girl to woman, and I think that year the country underwent a transformation of its own, into modern times: it was a turning point as it marked the end of Post-Francoism and the beginning of a settled democracy.”

Using the lead character’s physical transformation to explore the spiritual transformation of her homeland is an astute move, the type of thematic mirroring one would expect from a director of real artistic ambition, and for much of the film’s early minutes, this approach is evident. The tension between the age of reason and the age of belief is vividly illustrated during a lesson by a nun teaching a class on the ritualistic practices of primeval peoples during eclipses. When the entire school climbs to the roof to witness the event firsthand, Veronica and her friends perform the aforementioned séance to contact her dead father. The scene that follows is borderline masterful, and the equation of a solar eclipse with the eclipse of Veronica’s soul is smart, but things turn sharply downhill in terms of narrative clarity and thematic intelligence from then on.  

Veronica attempts to return to her normal life after the séance. As her father has recently passed and her mother labors her days and nights away at the local bar, it falls to Veronica to raise her three young siblings (Bruna González, Claudia Placer, and Iván Chavero, all excellent for such young actors) while attempting to lead an average teenage existence. This is easier said than done, as in the days following her communion with the other side, she starts to see shadowy figures reflected in television screens and groping ghostly hands encircling her sisters’ necks. Veronica tries her best to dispel the lurking specter, but finds that she needs a little help from her friends (and a blind nun, charmingly nicknamed “Sister Death”) to correct her mistake.

After the flick dropped on Netflix with zero fanfare in late February, Twitter lit up, in typically hyperbolic fashion, with users calling it the “scariest movie ever.” Others claimed that they were so frightened that they couldn’t even finish it. Of course, the film-loving blogosphere and entertainment news outlets snapped that up, and suddenly VERONICA was being dubbed “the scariest movie on Netflix” and the subject of a dubiously sourced infographic claiming that only “1 in 100 viewers” could sit through it. Could VERONICA possibly be as pants-shittingly frightening as they say?

Alas, I must answer in the negative. Not only is VERONICA only kinda-sorta scary, but I doubt any discerning fan of the macabre (ie, the average Rue Morgue reader) will pop a single goose bump while watching it. Of course, over-familiarity strips away much of the fright from any horror offering, but even those whose only reference point for a film of this stripe is PARANORMAL ACTIVITY or THE EXORCIST will be thoroughly unsurprised and mostly unmoved by what transpires. Scary nuns, phantom bruises, and slamming doors certainly lose their efficacy unless undergirded by something more substantial, and that’s Plaza’s biggest sin, especially in light of his stated intentions for the film. Veronica’s burgeoning womanhood is touched upon, but other than a scene in which her deceased father appears to her, fully nude (slightly reminiscent of IT FOLLOWS brand of sexual terror) and another dream sequence in which she gets her first period, Plaza seems as uninterested in Veronica’s blossoming as he is in the ramifications of a Catholic iconography-heavy film set in the Spain of 1991.

The good? The scare-making acumen he so ably displayed in his breakthrough REC (2007) and its sequels is on display here. Though Plaza’s previous efforts sat firmly in the found-footage mold, viewers will be happy to see that his directorial hand is steady, even in a more traditionally shot and edited feature. The aforementioned eclipse scene is a small masterpiece of striking visual juxtaposition and seething panic, and its lead-up is exquisite. Cinematographer Pablo Rosso (also of REC) photographs the students’ march to their rooftop lookout from above—reminiscent of ants ascending from the bowels of a colony—to stare agape at a phenomenon both wonderful and apocalyptic. As the film progresses, the camera slo-zooms and roves through creative transitions that give the viewer the sense that something is unfolding beyond Veronica’s control. A second, late film séance scene utilizes a slowly rotating camera to awesome effect.

Unfortunately, Plaza consistently punctures tension with effects that lack style and skill. The cinematography, editing, and sound work so hard to chill the viewer with something as simple as a glass tumbler rolling down the hall on its own, before fairly ludicrous rubber monster gloves burst forth and badly rendered shadow beasts attack, breaking the spell. It’s truly a shame, and a fatal flaw that the film eventually succumbs to. When the camera and sound design are doing the heavy lifting, VERONICA soars, but Plaza’s lack of restraint brings it crashing down, time and again.

Paco Plaza’s VERONICA may have gained a notorious reputation online, but in reality, it falls majorly short of its aspirations. Viewers looking for a heady examination of womanhood and Catholic identity in a post-Nationalist Spain will come away disappointed, as will anyone hoping for a game-changing take on the possession subgenre. When Plaza takes his time and utilizes the horror director’s best friends, (ie sound design and camera movement) he builds up a head of steam that he unfortunately curtails with bad effects. So, not only does VERONICA fail to say anything of note, but it also leaves the viewer with a case of fright-flick blueballs. While this sensation may bring wistful memories of khaki pants and abortive dry-humping sessions rushing back to good Catholic viewers, VERONICA is a bland and frustrating watch for the rest of us heathens.  

Rocco Thompson
Rocco is a Chicago-based writer, editor, and programmer. An avid devotee of all things weird and outrageous, he seeks to bring attention to and recontextualize forgotten or misunderstood films through impassioned study and analysis. His heart belongs to Jason Voorhees, Lucio Fulci, and Elvira. Follow him on Instagram: @rosemarys_gayby