Director: Paco Plaza
Screenplay: Paco Plaza
Starring: Sandra Escacena, Bruna González, Claudia Placer, Iván Chavero, Ana Torrent
Runtime: 105 Minutes
There’s an unaffected menace to be mined from projects (specifically horror films) that are either being adapted from or tangentially inspired by true life events. Of course, suspension of disbelief has to be taken into account when working from stories that ground themselves in supposedly supernatural beliefs or occurrences that seem to be beyond explanation – if only because of significant gaps in the accounts of those involved in reported real-world paranormal activity.
The story of the “Vallecas Case” has become somewhat notorious in native Spain, where Estefanía Gutiérrez Lázaro died mysteriously after she used an Ouija board, because it’s one of the most prominent instances in which an actual police report filed by the onsite detective has stipulated without question that what occurred had no earthly explanation beyond the paranormal.
It’s a fascinating concept to grapple with, and as a loose adaptation of events, Verónica begins with an instantly compelling hook. Wherein a domestic disturbance call to an apartment block in Madrid quickly shows itself to be something far more unconventional. The way in which it’s shot and presented through quick cuts, the emergency services telephone recording and the panicked assent into the site of the crime is frankly unnerving.
Enough details have been changed or altered to suit a dramatic function, not just the fact that the core victims name is now Verónica (Sandra Escacena), and as with many like it the credited fact that this is “based on the police report filed by the detective in charge of the case” leaves a lot of leeway for the more creative tendencies of the filmmakers.
The subject matter that Verónica is handling feels like something that would probably work far better as a documentary than a dramatic representation of distorted facts based on a rough and problematic backstory of a 27-year-old case. The dramatic substance that has been added feels underwhelmingly conventional in execution and structure, although there are some interesting themes at play.
This is director Paco Plaza’s first feature film following his runaway success with co-director Jaume Balagueró on the Rec trilogy. What visual flourishes he does carry over from those films work. This is a well-shot film with a great eye for lighting, scene geography and an emotional focus on the heroine at the centre of it all.
Sandra Escacena playing Verónica is probably the main reason this is worth seeing. She’s an empathetic lead presence with strong range and a real understanding of the character she’s playing, while at all times paying it slightly unsettling as she grapples with the forces that appear to be entering her home and attacking her younger siblings.
The themes it does play with regarding Verónica’s burden as a young stand-in for their absent mother deals with the fears of parenthood and pedophobia in an arresting and different way. Nightmarish visions in which she’s is alternately smothered or eaten by her siblings because of her position as a provider are effectively gruesome and uncomfortable (both the young actors are very capable as well), and the way in which it integrates Verónica’s fear regarding her dad’s possible horrifying re-emergence into their lives as a haunting spectre is deliciously literal as far as metaphors go.
What lets all this good down is how conventionally and sadly unoriginal it all ends up playing out in the final stretch. The ending is easy to see coming by the observant, and a twist trope that has been worn out by this point, and it ends with a lot of loud noises and big scary visual moments that just don’t hit like they should, given the far more interesting subtext it’s been focusing on before.
Verónica isn’t quite the film that it’s been hyped up to be, especially given the director’s past work, but it's no lost cause and the cast make a lot of it work better then it needs to. The more motivating aspects of the case and the characters sadly gives way by the final act, but Plaza using the opportunity to tell a story and incorporating his own fascination with religious imagery makes it externally appealing as a project if not something more attention-grabbing.