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I KNOW WHAT MADRID LAST SUMMER
Director: Paco Plaza
Review: David Stephens
We truly live in the golden age of streaming now. Membership to a premium streaming channel is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity if you want to experience the latest genre releases. As regards Netflix, you need that to see recent heavily promoted offerings like “Bright” and “The Cloverfield Paradox”, and you won’t see them (legally) anywhere else at the moment. (NB: We’ll draw a generous veil over the critical reviews for those examples). It also means that lesser-promoted movies creep onto the release schedule and come as a pleasant surprise to many. One such film is “Veronica”, a Spanish horror offering directed and co-written by Paco Plaza. The filmmaker is best known as the co-director of the “Rec” movies (along with Jaume Balagueró), as well as the under-rated “Romasanta: The Werewolf Hunt”. Originally released in its home country in August 2017, it also showed that the London Film Festival and TIFF that year. Recently released to Netflix it’s actually picked up some impressive publicity in the UK due to some pleasing coverage in the British press, a new eye-catching trailer, and good-word-of-mouth. So YGROY opts for a Spanish harm-lette and goes to the movies with “Veronica”…
It’s June 1991 and the narrative starts with an audio of an emergency call that culminates in a scream of “He’s here!!” and the police scrambling to an apartment in Madrid. As the cops crash into the locked home, they encounter a scene of chaos and come to a halt as they look aghast at something occurring off-screen. Flash back to three days earlier and we meet Veronica (an excellent Sandra Escacena in her first film). The 15-year old girl wakes to clothe her younger three siblings and cook them breakfast, before taking them to the local catholic school where she also attends. Her barely-there mother (Ana played by Ana Torrent) snoozes on, exhausted by her work in a local bar, leaving her daughter to run the household and the children’s welfare. It’s a big day in Madrid as a solar eclipse is due to take place and the younger kids are excited. However Veronica is more intrigued by the occult significance of the phenomenon and sneaks off to the school basement with two friends and a Ouija board, whilst the rest of the school watches the sky from the rooftop. Needless to say the spiritual experiment goes awry as she tries to contact her dead father, and she faints whilst experiencing some kind of seizure. She recovers fully but on returning to the family apartment Veronica starts to see paranormal activity (not the film, that hadn’t come out yet) and catches a glimpse of a shadowy figure that is apparently stalking her family. What has she unleashed?
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the story is that it does (for once) have a solid foundation in a true incident. In 1991 one Estefanía Gutiérrez Lázaro happened to mess around with a Ouija board and (allegedly) provoked a paranormal presence. The events culminated in (reportedly) the one and only time that an official report filed by the Spanish corp of Policía Nacional would cite supernatural events in an incident. Not only that, but the Madrid solar eclipse also genuinely took place at the same time. Creepy, eh? Of course, there is the expected dramatic licenses taken with the level of ghoulish occurrences, but it does at least give an extra unsettling layer to the story which already feels quite grounded in reality. But whilst it isn’t quite the shocker that some British tabloids are declaring, despite the remarkable 100% it currently holds on Rotten Tomatoes, it is a damned (no pun intended) good horror with plenty to like.
The first thing to really note about “Veronica” – and it’s telling that the film is named for the single character – is that it’s not a “Boo!” kind of movie or a scare-fest as such. It’s more of a slow-burn character study with a dark paranormal influence. It’s been compared to “The Conjuring” in some circles, but that would only be true if the whole story had been told from the emotional perspective of one of the haunted characters.
The plot absolutely hinges on Veronica herself and the character is front and centre of the plot for about 97% of the film. Luckily newcomer Escacena is more than up to the task. It’s an entirely sympathetic portrayal of a young teenage girl, and the actress carries the story on her shoulders marvellously along with the scarier elements. The unfortunate isolation and unwanted responsibilities are laid out during the 3-day timescale, with wistful escapes and jealous glances at fellow teenagers. Even her so-called friends shun her after the séance, and her mother lacks any kind of empathy until the later scenes. Add a vengeful spook to the mix and it’s a surprisingly harrowing affair in parts that encompasses the concerns of young womanhood. The encounter with a familiar spectre and a brush with cannibalism only reinforce that strong element to the film. And despite the national religious beliefs of 90’s Spain and the ever-present Nuns, it also avoids the expected catholic imagery for the most part. Viking symbols are even used at one point.
CGI is smartly avoided for the most part (except for one scene) and the scares are of the subtle and unsettling variety. The most disturbing parts come from when innocent kids are in peril and a strangely disturbing dinner scene where one character is almost frozen.
There’s also that clever ambiguity that comes from character-focused stories like this, and it’s played really well here, although an “answer” of sorts is given at the climax. It might not be entirely original in its entirety, but it is structured well and becomes oddly compelling despite long event-free stretches at times. The shadow-figure performs the expected “boogey-man” duties, but you’ll probably find more goosebumps rising when Veronica gives a wide-mouthed scream (as used in the trailer and promo images), or follows a rolling tumbler glass that taps incessantly at a door. It’s low-key stuff that works best when it finds creepiness in the mundane and ordinary. Plaza emphasises this with really good visual sequences that makes the Madrid buildings look foreboding. He also makes the most of the era with things like the “Simon” electronic game (remember that?), walkie-talkies, and advert jingles all having their part to play. Watch out also for an unsettling scene which involves backward-filming and a doppelganger.
It you want to really critique it there’s not a great deal that’s especially different here, but at least it doesn’t fall into the trap of being a sensationalised and obvious take on modern day possession or an urban haunting. It’s smarter than that and has a great deal of respect for its lead character. It’s creepy and actually kind of sad, rather than soil-yourself scary. There’s a tragic inevitability about some of the events that can be traced back to the real-life case and the minor plot details woven here. Certainly not a game-changer, but it’s a solid and smart chiller with a great lead performance and plenty of disturbing details. Well worth tracking down if you’ve got access and want some good modern European horror. Those final scenes may stay with you for a while as well. You can’t go Ver-Wrong-Ica with this…
Whilst it’s not certainly not the “scariest movie ever” trumpeted by some UK papers, it is a good solid well-made horror with a great performance from first-timer Escacena. It’s a compelling character study with a dark supernatural twist, as opposed to an out-and-out scare-fest. But it does have plenty of disturbing moments, some cool visuals, and an unsettling atmosphere.
Veronica deserves a date.
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