Finding surprising new life in the found-footage horror genre, Paco Plaza’s “[REC]” movies (the first two co-directed with Jaume Belaguero) looked like a fantasy franchise with the potential to get better and better. That is, until parts 3 and 4 disappointed sufficiently to end the series with a whimper. Released online without any advance publicity by Netflix, “Veronica” proves helmer-coscenarist Plaza certainly still has the chops to remain a player among global genre talents. But this somewhat long-winded tale of demonic invasion in a Madrid household is just a partial bounce-back: Its ideas aren’t ultimately original enough or its scares potent enough to suggest Plaza wouldn’t benefit from trying his directorial hand at someone else’s screenplay.
After a teaser opening in which police respond to a panicked call from some children (arriving to witness a scene whose horror remains off-screen for the next 90 minutes or so), we rewind 76 hours. It’s just another toilsome day for 15-year-old Vero, AKA Veronica (an impressive Sandra Escacena), who must wake her three younger siblings, feed them, escort them to and from school, and otherwise do all the parenting that their widowed, bar-employed mother (Ana Torrent) benignly neglects.
Under the circumstances, Vero is bearing up pretty well. But she’s hurt when reliable best friend Rosa (Angela Fabian) seems to have taken up with crass new girl Diana (Carla Camera), inviting the latter along to what was supposed to be a secret rendezvous — a ouija-board summoning sneaked in the Catholic school’s basement while teachers and students are off gawping at an eclipse.
This just-for-fun supernatural experiment goes a little too well, however: Amidst strange phenomena, Vero appears to go into a trance, then become “possessed.” When she wakes up later, the nuns assume it’s simply a case of fainting from low blood sugar, sending her home with twin sisters Lucia and Irene (Claudia Placer, Bruna Gonzalez) as well as littlest bro Antonito (Ivan Chavero). But things keep getting more berserk, with the family’s apartment prey to poltergeist-y disturbances. Spurned by spooked Diana and Rosa when she realizes she must hold another “seance” to end this invasion, Veronica finally turns to her wee siblings — which turns out to be a very bad idea.
Set in 1991 (though it’s not particularly clear why), “Veronica” is admirably intriguing and tight to a point. But somewhere around the midsection, when our protagonist has a long tête-à-tête with a ponderously creepy-for-no-reason blind nun dubbed Sister Death (Consuelo Trujillo), the movie begins to play its cards a mite too slowly, with insufficient reward. The eventual visual effects-laden shocks aren’t really stirring enough to compensate for the fact that we never find out why Veronica was “chosen,” or who her demonic possessor is. Closing text asserts this is all based on real-world Spanish police files — which may well be true, but is rendered somewhat worthless by the ubiquity of such claims in contemporary horror films.
Plaza is no hack; leaving behind the found-footage conventions of the “[REC]” films, he stages this modestly scaled enterprise with an elegant, straightforward polish, imbuing the family’s ordinary flat with ominous atmospherics. The young performers are all very well handled, and there’s a nice, unforced sense of detail to the fatherless nuclear unit’s slightly-dysfunctional-yet-still-functional dynamic.
The only packaging element that’s more self-conscious than naturalistic is Chucky Namanera’s score, which manages to encompass both ’80s-style synth suspense motifs and melodramatically older-school flourishes, all to good effect. But the care that goes into “Veronica’s” assembly is still ultimately let down a bit by its content: This movie just takes too long getting somewhere that isn’t different enough from umpteen other recent “haunted family” chillers in the “Conjuring” mode.