Cinema is Truth: VERÓNICA (2017)

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VERÓNICA
Directed by Paco Plaza, written by Fernando Navarro and Paco Plaza
Reviewed by Brittany Alyse

“You aren’t alone. Someone answered your call. And now it walks with you.”

Experiencing loss is painful. Those of you who have not yet experienced it - I envy you. To those who have, we may understand where the lead of this film is coming from when she literally brings hell into her own home in the name of a lost loved one.

Verónica, our lead, is a young teenage girl, trying to balance her teenage life with her all-consuming home life. Because Verónica’s widowed mother works from morning to night at a bar, It’s up to Veró (a nickname lovingly given to her by her family) to keep her house in order. She’s a young girl who sacrifices her teenage life to basically raise her three young siblings: Lucía, Irene and Antoñito. It’s honorable, and so painfully real. What this film does that horror films so rarely do is the family aspect. You care about this family. You feel for Veró, who is very much a girl who has had to grow up too soon in order to help her mother.

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Her days are almost all the same, she wakes and gets the kids ready for school. All of the children attend a Catholic school. The film begins on eclipse day. Verónica is inside a classroom, listening to her teacher give a lecture about the myths surrounding eclipses. As the lesson drags on, her friend Rosa flicks a small note at her. She opens it, and it reads: “Do you have it?” Veró makes eye contact with Rosa and then points down to her backpack. Her friend smiles and gives her a thumbs up.

The girls duck out of the campus while the rest of the school gathers together to view the eclipse, and wait for an unexpected member of the party to join, unbeknownst to Veró, a girl named Diane. Once the other girl joins them, the three of them go down into the dark, abandoned underground of the school. Broken desks, cobwebs and various odd statues occupy the space. It’s only when they are down in the darkness that Verónica reveals what is inside her backpack: a Ouija board and a photo of her deceased father.

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Veró, Rosa and Diane have lit candles and prepared the arrangement of the board, the photograph or Veró’s father there, too. Each girl places a finger atop the glass planchette. Above the school, the children wait excitedly on the roof for the eclipse to begin. The camera passes over the crowd, all using negative film strips to safely watch the moon pass over the sun. The camera stops on an old, withering nun, her eyes a shade of ghostly white.

It’s sort of celestial, this haunting moment of light and darkness occurring while the teenage girls are conjuring the spirits. Rosa asks “Is anyone here with us?” over and over again until the glass moves. The spirit spells out the word SPY. Rosa and Diane take their fingers off the glass and argue about it, but Veró is still zoned in, her eyes shut and finger on the glass as it moves wildly across the board. Rosa asks again, “Who is it?” and the glass moves onto the picture of the sun, and burns them. Veró still doesn’t move her finger, she seems connected to the board in a way the other girls aren’t. It’s clear to Verónica that she has made contact with something, hoping it to be her father. What she gets instead is something far more frightening. Above, the sun vanishes, all light with it, and below, the glass explodes from underneath Veró’s finger. Her blood spills onto the board, the candles go out and the girls scream.

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Rosa and Diane scramble to find the flashlights, scaring one another when they do. They shine the light on the ground and discover that the board is broken in half, and Verónica is missing. Rosa panics as she finds that Verónica is stunned, her body rigid on the floor, seemingly unresponsive. Diane runs for help. Rosa kneels next to Veró, leans down and notices her mouth moving rapidly. Rosa leans down and listens to the words. After hearing them, she reels back, horrified, backing herself further away from Verónica as her body lurches upward and she emits a deep, terrifying scream.

After this encounter, Veró lands in the nurses office, where the nurse asks her typical questions: Did you eat? Yes. Are you diabetic? I don’t know. Did you take drugs? No. Are you on your period? Silence. The nurse is stunned when she realizes that Verónica has never had her period, but then brushes it off and proclaims that she must be iron deficient, and that she should eat more red meat.

When Verónica leaves school that day, Irene notices that the nun with the white eyes is looking at Veró. “Sister Death is looking at you,” Irene says. Veró stares back, unsure how the blind woman is staring right at her, and into her soul.

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From this moment on, Verónica is plagued. A series of odd occurrences begin to happen, seemingly stemming from the broken ouija board within her backpack. Her real life and dreams become infiltrated by this dark spirit that she has unleashed. She loses the support of her best friend, Rosa, who will not speak to her after the events of the eclipse. Diana won’t talk to her, either (seriously, her friends suck…). This leaves Verónica isolated, with no one but her family in her life. A heartbreaking theme throughout the film is the way Veró tries to communicate with her mother. She tries so hard to get her mother to stop and just look at her, for her mother to be as concerned as she is. But her mother doesn’t stop. She can’t. Not when she has four kids to raise. So it’s up to Verónica to do most of the mom-ing around the house, and that becomes increasingly hard when the entity begins to physically harm her siblings. Veró attempts to tell her mother about this, to no avail.

The only person she can turn to is Sister Death, otherwise known as Sister Narcisa (she prefers Sister Death, because of course she does.) Veró finds her in the basement, right where the séance happened. Sister Death warns her about the dangers of what she did, that it is not who you want to talk to, it’s who you talk to. Then Sister Death warns Veró that she will need to protect her siblings, that she is not alone and that something answered her call.

With Sister Death’s warning, Verónica finds a protection spell in the occult handbook. She draws two of them, placing them above both of her siblings beds. It doesn’t work. In fact, nothing does. Her youngest sibling, Antoñito, tells Veró that their father came to him in the middle of the night to read to him, and that he said he would be back the next day to take him where he lives. This shocks Veró, and she urgently tells him that next time their “father” comes, he needs to cover his ears and repeat her name over and over until she comes for him.

This film trades in the typical jump-scare tactic and instead creates a truly intense and ominous atmosphere. We see everything in Verónica’s lens, and it’s a film that is so unapologetically female. One morning, Verónica wakes from a violent, bloody nightmare to discover that she has started her period. She tries her hardest to scrub the blood from her mattress, but it won’t come out. Then, she lifts her mattress up and discovers that the stain has seeped into the other side of the mattress, but instead of red, the stain is black. This ignites something in Veró, something not right about it as she goes to each of her sibling’s beds and flips them up, revealing the same stained, charcoal outlines of a dark figure on the bottom of the mattresses.

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From there, Veró is determined to save herself and her family. She goes back to Sister Death, claiming that she can see the shadows like the Sister can. Sister Death shakes her head, says that she has been trying to unsee them for years now. She puts a wrinkly hand up to her face and points at her white eyes, exclaiming: “I did this to myself, you know? Back then I didn’t know you don’t need eyes to see.” Veró explains that she doesn’t know how to protect anyone from these spirits, that crosses and amulets don’t work, to which Sister Death replies that this has nothing to do with God, to leave Him out of it. The only way that Veró can make them go away is the same way they came in: they have to go back through the door she opened. “Bid them farewell. You have to right what you did wrong!” Sister Death says.

Verónica knows what she has to do then. She hunts down the manual of the ouija board and flips to the instructions that she never read. There, in a generic instruction manual is the answer she ignored in the beginning: You should never end a sèance without saying goodbye. Whatever you don’t say goodbye to, stays with you. If it doesn’t work, try again another time.

The only choice she has left is to do the séance again. Verónica tries one more time to get the help of her best friend, to re-do what they started and finish it, together. When she gets to Rosa’s house, Rosa is having none of it, asks her point blank if she remembers that day. Veró is confused. Remember what? Rosa tells Veró that she whispered something to her while she was unconscious -- Veró said she was going to die on this day. It is heart wrenching to see Veró not remember this, and to have to walk away knowing Rosa did not tell her, or try to help her. Veró wanders back to her mother’s bar, to take the children home. Scared, and not knowing what to do, she begs her mother to close the bar early, saying, “it doesn’t come when you’re around.” Her mother won’t listen to her, either. She sees no truth in her daughter’s fear. With that, Veró is defeated. She is alone. It’s so heartbreaking to watch.

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Without a soul to help her, Verónica takes her destiny into her own hands and is left with no choice but to perform the sèance again, but this time with her young siblings. It’s literally the worst decision in the world, but what other choice does she have? Veró commands the board, telling the spirit to go away, her sisters fearfully looking on but repeating Veró’s words. This leads into my favorite scene in the film: the rules suggest that the party sings a delightful melody to lead the spirit back into the door that they came from, so the entire family proceeds to sing the a melody from a popular commercial they all know and love. The camera rotates in a slow circle as the kids sing along to the song, their faces growing more petrified each time the camera comes back to them. The look on Lucía’s face in particular crushes me every single time. The amount of tension this scene holds forces you to hold your breath until the camera stops revolving.

Despite the children’s best efforts to will the spirit away, the sèance doesn’t go well. The family is forced to endure a horror-show, and it is solely up to Verónica to take control of her household and fight this thing with everything she has in her body, mind and soul.

I won’t go into detail about the ending. What I will say is that it shocked me. Not that I didn’t see it coming, but the execution of it was so frightfully exquisite. What I loved so much about this film is that it’s a concept we’ve seen done plenty of times, the equation of an ouija board paired with unsuspecting youngsters is so common in films, and going into this, I felt I was going to see what other films have tried to in the past. And I was proved wrong. Every single image, every idea, is something we’ve never seen in a film like this before.

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Not only does this film do something refreshing, but the imagery along with it is so striking. I’m so in awe of the visuals of the eclipse, the sèances, the tone of inside the home before and after the spirit attaches itself to Verónica. I lost my fucking mind at the shot of Veró charging back into the house to confront the spirit, passing the familiar painting of the wolves chasing the deer we’ve seen in the house before. But this time when she passes it, when the stakes are so high, the deer in the painting have vanished. Only the wolves are left. Just like Veró and the spirit. The comparison left me speechless.

Also, the actors in this film blew me away. Sandra Escacena owns the film and makes everything supernatural about it feel so real. I was amazed by her and all of the hard work she put in to make her character feel so authentic. The kid actors also completely charmed me. The three of them make a terrifying situation come to life as if it’s the easiest thing in the world. Bruna González, Claudia Placer and Iván Chavero, my hat is off to all of you!

Does the film have a satisfying ending? I don’t know, I’ll leave that up to you. After I finished the film, I went and read some reaction reviews and was disappointed when I saw that some people were bored by it. I sometimes think audiences both expect too little and too much of horror and genre films. A slow-burning story about darkness, family and sacrifice can be as riveting in a horror film just as much as jump scares and gore. Stories like this one are so rare to come by in the horror genre, and when they do come, I am so thankful for them.

I will say that watching as the once burned portrait of Verónica reverts back to its original state until her eyes stare back at us, before the screen cuts to black, completely affected me. I sat in silence long after the credits rolled thinking, holy fuck, what a film.