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Shortly after making its Netflix debut in February, the Spanish horror movie Verónica, from 2017, got such great word of mouth on social media that a rumor started spreading that it might possibly be the scariest movie ever made. How nice such an asservation seemed: that a low-budget, little-known, international tale of the macabre supposedly based on a true story boasted more unshakable thrills and chills than, say, Psycho (1960), or Suspiria (1977). Being co-written and directed by the filmmaker behind the much-lauded, handheld REC horror films (2007-’12), such a declaration didn’t initially seem impossible. Hyperbolic, maybe. But still plausible.
Post-viewing, however, one can perhaps objectively say that Verónica is not the scariest horror movie ever made — it isn’t even the scariest film on Netflix, whose genre pickings are already slim. But it, sufficiently atmospheric and efficiently elliptical, is a persuasive thrill machine all the same, even if it isn’t an unprecedented descent into the horrific.
Verónica’s descent takes place in 1991 Madrid, where our eponymous heroine (Sandra Escacena), a skinny 15-year-old with stringy brown hair and a mouth full of braces, is attempting to get through the school year without losing her uncommon composure. Although she’s as angsty and uncomfortable in her own skin as anyone on the cusp of adulthood might be, Verónica isn’t allotted much time to wallow in her teenage miseries: Because her mom’s single and covers punishing late-night waitressing shifts, Verónica has been obliquely tasked with raising her three younger siblings, whom depend on her for just about everything.
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But the film makes it clear from the get-go that this isn’t going to be a tender, tear-jerking piece of cinematic bildungsroman: Verónica opens with a frantic phone call to the police — one which signals that an unknown someone has invaded a home — which is followed by a tense scene in which the police respond and moments later discover something gruesome off screen.
The film then jumps back a handful of days, wherein we see Verónica and her friends misguidedly decide to play with a Ouija board during a solar eclipse. All, as it goes with teen features featuring wooden tools of evil, does not go well, especially for Verónica: The rest of the movie mutedly watches as her days and nights become increasingly haunted by what’s clearly a demonic presence.
Ultimately, Verónica proves itself a serviceable, if not entirely imaginative, horror thriller, propped up by a terrific performance from the teenage Escacena and a streamlined, believably haunted climate of paranormal fear. But if you’re really to go about trying to convince everyone that you’re a premier source of theatrical shivers and then decide to put your protagonist’s name on the marquee as if what you’re presenting is just as good as the movies supporting Carrie or Rosemary, you’d ought to be better than functional.