Every once in a while, a new horror release is touted as the scariest movie EVER. Such proclamations are usually cause for eye-rolls from horror fanatics whom are incapable of re-experiencing that gut-punching high of a first viewing experience, when the genre was still uncharted territory.
Plainly speaking, the more horror movies one watches, the harder it is to get properly scared. A recent list that was doing the rounds, of 10 movies that Netflix subscribers allegedly couldn’t finish, further confirms this disconnect between hardcore horror hounds and casuals.
Among the movies considered too scary to finish are the tame found footage flick Jeruzalem (Z for zombie) and the coming-of-age drama Teeth, along with, perhaps weirdest of all, the silly, over-the-top creature feature remake Piranha, the scariest element of which is probably Jerry O’Connell.
Although not featured on that particular list, one film that’s currently being sold as the most horrifying of all time is Paco Plaza’s Verónica. In this case, however, the shrieking masses are right on the money for once. Plaza’s tale of teen possession is powerfully scary.
The well-cast Sandra Escacena is the titular character, an overworked 15-year-old (the actress is about to turn 18 herself) with too much responsibility. When she looks for a way to contact her late father, Sandra stumbles upon something evil after using a Ouija board with friends. Something takes hold of her, and only her.
Verónica, or “Veró” as her friends and family call her, is the kind of kid who’s been forced to grow up too fast but still hasn’t really grown up at all (the fact she has yet to start her period is brought up by a concerned doctor). By choosing an actual teenager for the role, Plaza ensures Veró’s youth is never in question.
The very first shot, a clever transition from the horrors of the night to the yawning beginnings of a new day, showcases the young girl’s braces. She doesn’t wear a dot of makeup throughout the movie, and her mother scolds her for covering her pretty face.
Veró is lanky, tall and uncomfortable in her body. Furthermore, she struggles to keep her life balanced. The teenager babysits her three young siblings and tries to get attention from her distracted mother, all the while trying to fit in with peers at a strict Catholic high school. It’s no wonder Veró looks for some kind of escape.
Plaza, who co-wrote the screenplay, is best known for the super-popular [REC] series. Whereas those films prioritize jump scares over escalating dread, Verónica takes a slow-burn approach, first establishing the protagonist’s identity (and how she fits into the world) before pulling the rug out from under her.
The scares begin to escalate — hitting hard and fast — when the situation gets worse for poor Veró. The final 20 minutes, in particular, are white-knuckle tense, particularly when Plaza ties the story into a real-life case that remains unsolved to this day.
Thanks to the judicious score, the frights aren’t telegraphed, either, whether it’s creepy whistling, well-placed pop songs that provide a Craft-like feel or the deathwave strains that screech louder as Veró struggles to keep her grip on reality.
Following Julia Ducournau’s Raw (France) and Joachim Trier’s Thelma (Norway), Verónica, from Spain, is another slice of Euro-horror with a female protagonist’s burgeoning maturity/sexuality at its core. Much like its predecessors, the film is sold primarily on Escacena’s emotionally raw central performance.
Aside from being a young woman struggling with her sense of self, Veró must deal with the loss of her father, and a mother whose attention she can’t seem to hold in spite of how many times she calls for it. When Veró tells her mom “I’m the one who’s alone,” it’s a painfully real moment.
There may be demons lurking around the corner, but, much like Raw and Thelma, Verónica is primarily about the maturation of a young woman. And, similar to those movies, the horror elements are emblematic of an internal struggle with which most women can relate.
The real demons are the friends who turn on Veró, the churning of changes within a body that doesn’t feel like her own, and a mother who doesn’t understand her daughter’s isolation. It’s no surprise that Veró begins and ends the movie the same way: screaming.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.