Focus is important, arguably as important as talent and vision. You can have all the big ideas and the skill to execute them that you need, but without the ability to channel and organize your vision, the result won’t be as strong as it could be. There are many examples of movies that feel hindered by a lack of focus, and Paco Plaza’s Spanish-language horror film, Verónica, is just the latest. Plaza clearly has a story he wants to tell, and a head full of cool stuff he wants to do during the telling, but what should be another entry in the expanding library of fantastic Spanish horror movies instead falls flat for its inconsistency and shallowness, to say nothing of its adherence to one or two genre cliches that are in dire need of re-examination.
Things start off a bit on the goofy side when a group of high school girls, the titular Verónica among them, use a Ouija board during a solar eclipse. As instigating events go it’s a little silly sounding, but it at least gets the job done. Verónica, in an effort to contact her dead father, summons some kind of demonic entity that begins to make its presence known. The paranormal action is set against a coming-of-age drama, as Verónica has her first period and an estrangement from her increasingly-mature friend to deal with as well, to say nothing of having to effectively raise her three siblings in the place of their absentee mother.
While Verónica definitely wears some of the trappings of Spanish horror, it feels like it owes more to the recent style of American horror films
While Verónica definitely wears some of the trappings of Spanish horror, it feels like it owes more to the recent style of American horror films that have happened in the wake of The Conjuring or Insidious. It’s ostensibly based on a true story in which police responded to a 911 call and later reported to have witnessed a genuine paranormal event, which also allows it some period trappings. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Verónica picked up some bad habits from its American inspirations, particularly where the soundtrack is involved. Almost every scare in the film is accompanied by the kind of music stings that have been plaguing American horror for years now — sudden flares on the score that seem just a few steps beyond someone yelling “BOO!” Either that, or the music over spooky sequences feels almost deliberately overblown, robbing scenes of important tension or atmosphere. Like many recent horror films, it feels as though Verónica would be much stronger if it was exorcised of its soundtrack.
Also, like many recent mainstream horror films, things are scariest when we’re in the “ramping up” phase, when the scares come in the form of little moments that come and go unannounced by soundtrack or formal embellishments. By the end, things kick up a notch and become less frightening, because all that’s really happening is that the film has gotten louder, more frenetic, and more brazen in its imagery.
But that’s less important than the one flaw that seems to drag Verónica down, that being a crucial lack of focus. The film feels inconsistent in almost every regard, a soup of ideas with nothing to bind them effectively together. Stylistically, it ranges from experimental to deftly assembled to almost amateurish. Some shots look like the work of a seasoned pro, one with an eye for light and mood, but then we’ll cut to something that looks like it was hastily shot by an overworked B-unit director. There are flourishes of style, high-concept vignettes that the director clearly was very keen on having in the movie, but they feel less like a part of a coherent stylistic package and more of a cool idea haphazardly dropped in because it sounded neat. The whole film is also set to a synth-tastic 80s-infused soundtrack that, while often catchy, can feel at odds with everything else the film is doing. Again, an interesting stylistic element wedged in with a lack of thought or care.
Continuing this trend, Verónica, of course, has some subtext lurking under the paranormal action. There are references to Verónica’s encroaching womanhood, the end of childhood and the dawn of adolescence, and feelings that her own life has been put on hold so she can act as a surrogate mother for her family. But these dalliances with subtext or message feel too fleeting, less like an exploration of themes and more like a glance in their direction. The film presents many things it could be “about,” but never seems to settle on one.
There is a lot of talent on display in Verónica, both in front of and behind the camera. Sandra Escacena is fantastic in the title role, and Paco Plaza is clearly enthusiastic about telling this story. But the result of that passion is a disappointingly unrefined, sometimes downright clumsy film. It tries to do too much rather than focus on a core set of ideas and motifs to develop. It lacks that critical focus, that lens that talent and drive must always be put through before something great can be produced. And Verónica could have been great, with some refinement, which makes it all the more disappointing when it falls short.