Many horror films are the fruit of their era, or of the age in which they’re set in. Perhaps that’s why, in recent years, many have resorted to “found footage” in order to attempt to establish a “real” basis around the fantastic element. However, it’s not always easy to really access the origin of fear, perhaps because it’s a much more atavistic and primary element, an animal instinct that connects to our darkest side – nothing to do with the jump-scare cacophony that so many offer.
If Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer) used the alienation and dehumanisation of the Japanese city to materialise the protagonist’s metamorphosis, Paco Plaza ([•REC] trilogy) uses a similar process with the landscape of a working-class Madrid neighbourhood, at a time in which Spanish society was submerged in a deep process of evolution, its atmosphere captured through meticulous attention to detail.
Veronica is set in the early 90s, when the grey routine of working-class reality couldn’t possibly be any more oppressively normal. It was in front of a block of brick flats, built by Satan himself, that Plaza decided to get off the [•REC] train, to (more or less) reconstruct the “Vallecas case”, which had made it to front-page news in 1992 – demonic possession or psychotic episode; a mixture of newspaper records and urban legend. Plaza, who probably still has a Ouija board in his parents’ attic, prefers to manoeuvre the story towards an area he’s far more familiar with: that of teenage obsession, personified in Veronica’s title character.
In many ways, Veronica is a nostalgic film, but with its nuances. While it accompanies the escalation of uncertainty and terror lived by newcomer Sandra Escacena, who delivers a fantastic, accurate and incredibly difficult portrayal, Plaza concocts a sharp social depiction of early 90s Spain. He does so through what really defines common History: pop culture. Héroes del Silencio, an 80/90s Spanish rock band, blast again and again in portable audio cassette players, opening up a portal to the impossible in the solitude of Veronica’s room. There are denim backbacks, religious schools and, of course, the ominous Ouija board. “Más Allá”, a monthly magazine on the esoteric and the paranormal, provides the literary source which, in American movies, would be found in the local library. Even the tune of TV advert for Centella, a cleaning product, is used as a song to keep fear at bay. In a time when everything had an explanation and society was concerned with the tangible – from mortgages to the devaluation of the peseta – even nuns are no longer keeping an eye on the Devil. However, while Veronica is imbued with a melancholic aftertaste, the reality it portrays is also quite dark and repressive. Despite its aura of nostalgia, it doesn’t fall into the kitsch recreation that would’ve led it to the land of vacuous aestheticism. Plaza’s perspective is strictly contemporary, and that shows in every decision behind the camera. Not only the aesthetic is recognisable: the costumes, the hairstyles, the staging and the settings all coexist in perfect symbiosis with the soundtrack, with its idiosyncrasies perfectly embodied.
Concerns and frustrations are expressed almost from the first scene, as Veronica gets dressed and makes breakfast to her three younger siblings, taking on their absent mother’s role, which would come to represent the shock that followed the breakdown of the traditional family model, and the difficulties faced by a single woman who has to sacrifice herself to carry her family forward. Slowly but surely, the feeling of suffocation caused by so many external responsibilities and pressures builds up, increasingly oppressive and complex. The children’s universe, with their colourful toys and games, is about to vanish.
In an experiment of time travel to an era where those who lived in it seem to have replaced it with the childhood of Stranger Things, and the ones that weren’t there have little chance to get to know, Plaza manages to elevate Veronica as a magnificent and stimulating example of stories that remain untold. He resourcefully uses Javier Alvariño’s (Pan’s Labyrinth, Sleep Tight) art direction, as well as a splendid multigenerational cast, which recovers Ana Torrent (The Other Boleyn Girl, Thesis) and, in addition to Escacena, discovers another two girl prodigies: Bruna González and Claudia Placer, who inspire tenderness but also introduce much needed humour, contributing to reduce the tension in some occasions, and to increase it in others, such as the unbeatable “Centella” singing scene. Filming with children isn’t easy, but Plaza does it wonderfully, unearthing some fantastic interpretations.
Without falling into the sin of appropriation, Plaza manages to use inspiration from James Wan (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring) and Dario Argento (Suspiria, Deep Red), signing a personal and genuinely Spanish horror film. It undoubtedly evokes the cinema of the 70s, and may remind you of Carlos Saura’s Raise Ravens or Michael Winner’s The Sentinel as stylistic references. Veronica’s influences can also be traced to the oppressive and truculent atmospheres of Clive Barker (Hellraiser, The Midnight Meat Train) and Tsukamoto, and their metaphors about the transformation of oneself in relation to their surroundings. Transmutation is used as a master key to understand the panic of a generation that was developing faster than it could understand, without time to adapt to the changes and challenges that lay ahead – just like Veronica herself.
Nevertheless, despite all its merits, Veronica falls slightly short. Plaza’s faithful and likely recreation establishes a compromise in which the film’s possibilities are limited when it does decide to enter the realm of the fantastic. For instance, the final act plays through with few surprises, well within the conventions of the horror genre, even resorting to elements that far inferior movies have made commonplace. Veronica could’ve been to social portrayal what Pan’s Labyrinth was to the Spanish Civil War, or what The Day Of The Beast was to the comedy of manners – the sporadic wonder-film that pushes genre boundaries. In his eagerness to deliver an accurate and lifelike reconstruction, Paco Plaza misses the opportunity to create a film that can mark a true Year Zero for Spanish horror.
Nonetheless, these setbacks don’t deter too much from the overall experience. The truth is, we know very little about what really happened in that house in Vallecas, but Paco Plaza has cunningly created an imaginative tale of psychological and effective horror story that will no doubt please horror fans. It was truly refreshing to watch a horror movie that didn’t have anything to do with cursed dolls or doors being smashed to pieces, as a hysterical woman cries out. Veronica is a highly recommended experience: very satisfying as a horror movie, and tremendously effective as a portrayal of local culture – certainly one of 2017’s essential films.
Dir: Paco Plaza
Scr: Paco Plaza, Fernando Navarro
Cast: Sandra Escacena, Bruna Gonzaléz, Claudia Placer, Iván Chavero, Ana Torrent, Consuelo Trujillo
Prd: Enrique López Lavigne, María Angulo, Mar Ilundain
DOP: Pablo Rosso
Music: Chucky Namanera
Runtime: 105 minutes
Veronica is now available on Netflix in the UK.