Verónica had its Midwest premiere at the Cinepocalypse genre film festival, held at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. The film's director, Paco Plaza, is mostly known for the solid [REC] series. Unlike those films, Verónica does not use the found-footage conceit, though it’s apparently (and dubiously) based on a real-world case documented by police in 1990s Madrid, Spain.
Verónica (Sandra Escacena) is a 15-year-old who essentially raises her three younger siblings (two girls and a boy) while her mother runs a local bar. During a solar eclipse, Verónica and a few friends from her religious school play with a ouija board, and end up contacting Verónica’s dead father. Something comes over Verónica, and she begins showing signs of possession. She has disturbing dreams. She starts seeing a figure lurking in the shadows, and her siblings seem aware of something, too.
I was underwhelmed by the first half of Verónica, possibly due to a personal bias against ouija boards and possession in horror films. Or perhaps The Exorcist simply casts too long a shadow; apart from that film, I’ve rarely found these tropes effective, and Verónica doesn't do enough to distinguish itself. When the girls use the ouija board, the planchette whips around violently, clearly under the influence of some force – sure, okay. When Verónica's in the throes of possession, her body arches grotesquely and she screams – yup. Got it. It’s unpleasant and creepy imagery, but we've seen this all before. I felt I was seeing a copy of a copy of this trope, and several others, in Verónica.
This is how things went until the siblings’ relationships eventually clicked into place for me. All of the non-adult performances in Verónica are stellar, especially Sandra Escacena and Ivan Chavero as Verónica’s 5-year-old brother, and their family-within-a-family dynamics felt fully realized and truthful. By the time the siblings teamed up to help Verónica battle whatever’s invaded their home, the stakes were clear and I was invested in the outcome.
As well, Verónica seemed to be building toward a thematically satisfying conclusion. The central metaphors are not hard to spot. Although Verónica is 15 years old, we learn, she has not yet menstruated. She’s quite literally “not growing up,” and being possessed by her dead father, Verónica is quite literally having trouble “letting go” of him. I had The Babadook in mind as the film progressed, and I was hopeful Verónica might resolve its thematic concerns in a similarly satisfying way.
But Verónica goes another direction I found disappointing, making last-minute insinuations that feel less like a chilling twist than a muddying of the waters. There are a few suspenseful sequences in the latter half, and the supernatural horror tropes felt less hacky as things progressed. I also enjoyed scenes involving an elderly nun at Verónica’s school who, despite being blind, can see what’s happening to the girl and offers wry advice. I may be in the minority – the film currently holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes – but despite some special achievements by the young cast, Verónica ultimately failed to register as more than a well made but largely insubstantial Ouija board flick.