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Foreign Film Friday: Is Spanish horror Verónica really the scariest movie of all time?

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The Spanish language horror film Verónica, released late last year, was hailed ‘the scariest movie of all time’ upon its release, horrifying audiences and critics alike. But is it really frightening enough to be awarded such a title? I’m sceptical. I do not doubt that Verónica is a stylish and thoroughly engaging horror film, but ‘the scariest movie of all time’ is somewhat of a stretch. 

The movie is set in 1991 and centres around the 15-year old Verónica living in Madrid with her struggling single mother and three younger siblings; twins Lucia and Irene, and brother Antonito. Her father has long since passed away and while her mother is working all hours to provide for the family; Verónica is left to care for her young siblings. 

During a solar eclipse at school, Verónica, in an attempt to contact her father, conducts a séance with an old Ouija board and two of her friends. The séance of course does not go to plan and Verónica is left haunted by an inescapable supernatural presence that slowly but surely torments her and her siblings throughout the rest of film.

Paco Plaza (director of the critically acclaimed REC horror franchise) has turned out an effective and stylish horror in Verónica. The slow but careful pacing allows tension to be wrung out of almost every moment. Meanwhile the setting of an inner city residence block in the bustling city of Madrid is unconventional in the genre of horror, where films are too often set in remote, inaccessible locations like the typical ‘cabin in the woods’ or ‘old mansion on the outskirts of town’ that people can easily dismiss by saying ‘well I would never go there’. However, using such a familiar and unavoidable location is deeply unsettling and I guarantee will make you feel slightly uneasy.

Another thing to note, the acting is simply outstanding. Relative newcomer Sandra Escacena gives a breakout performance as the eponymous Verónica and child actor Ivan Chavero does a really remarkable job in the role of Verónica’s young brother Antonito. Their relationship in the film works really well, and in moments of peril the fate of the adorable Antonito undoubtedly becomes the audience's main concern. 

Plaza’s choice to cast newcomers in the film again furthers this sense of realism that he works to establish in the movie, as we see the otherwise unknown performers simply as nothing more than the characters they are playing. We are not reminded of previous roles or an already existing reputation in Hollywood, as is the problem with actors like Jennifer Lawrence. It is a technique made famous by the original Paranormal Activity movie in which the two leads were played by complete newcomers to Hollywood. It essentially tricked the audience into believing that what they were watching was the truth and that the characters were indeed real people.

The most frightening aspect of this film is undoubtedly the fact that it is ‘based on a true story’. The story of Verónica is said to be based on the case of Estefania Gutierrez Lazaro, who began experiecning hallucinations and seizures after conducting a seance in her school. The case is notorious as it is the first known case where a police officer reported witnessing supernatural activity in an official police report.

So many horror directors nowadays make a claim to this fact: that their film is somehow based in truth, and it is so frequently used in Hollywood that it is becoming somewhat of a gimmick. However, somehow Plaza pulls it off. His use of police reports and actual photographs from the original case  at the end of the film are deeply disturbing as we are shown photographs of the incident we have just watched play out on screen. It really does leave you questioning as to whether what you’ve just seen is the truth. 

Ultimately, Verónica is not ‘the scariest film of all time;’ to award such a title, a film needs to make me feel on the verge of walking out at any moment. Sadly, as I was able to watch Verónica all the way through without a problem, I find it hard to bestow such a title. Having said that, Plaza’s film remains an extremely well thought out and deeply unsettling horror that leaves you with a disturbing sense of uncertainty about the truth of what you have just watched. It may not be the scariest film of all time, but it’s scary nonetheless. 

Verónica is available to watch on Netflix now.

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