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Plot: French peasant girl encounters mysterious man in the woods

Before becoming a filmmaker Michel Mardore - the nom de plume for Michel Jean Guinamant - worked as a critic for Positif, les Cahiers du Cinéma, Les Lettres Françaises, Lui, Pariscope, Cinéma and Le Nouvel Observateur. For many years he contributed film criticism to the radio station France Inter (Le Masque et la Plume) and he’s regarded as one of the foremost film critics in the country. He also wrote a handful of novels in the sixties and seventies and worked as a photographer. Leading man Horst Buchholz was an actor that primarily worked in German television and cinema. He was a fixture in World War II movies of various stripe. Buchholz appearead in offerings as diverse as The Magnificent Seven (1960), John Sturges western take on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), Umberto Lenzi’s macaroni war epic From Hell to Victory (1979), and Roberto Benigni’s Academy Award winning historic drama La Vita è Bella (1997).

Receiving an “introducing” (or rather “for the first time on the screen”) credit was Muriel Catalá. Catalá, who played some Lolita roles in French sex comedies and coming-of-age dramas, was often cast for her dashing looks. In Michel Mardore’s World War II drama The Savior (1971) Catalá debuted in a role that Isabelle Adjani auditioned for but didn’t end up playing. Catalá and Adjani did end up working together on Faustine and the Beautiful Summer (1972), the directorial debut for Nina Companeez. The turning point for Catalá came when she appeared in the period drama the Nuns of Saint Archangel (1973) with Anne Heywood, Ornella Muti, Martine Brouchard, and Claudia Gravy. In the decade that she acted she shared the screen with Alain Delon, Brigitte Bardot, Donald Pleasence, and Sophia Loren. A good portion of her earlier roles tended to focus greatly on her physical attributes while she was actually tolerable as a comedic actress. Had Catalá been offered something different than comedies and coming-of-age dramas she probably could have acted long than she did. That isn't to say that she was the French Gloria Guida or a star-in-the-making the way Edwige Fenech, or Barbara Bouchet were. She could probably have carved out a career as a giallo babe or as a supporting actress in Italian and Spanish genre cinema. As limited as an actress as Muriel was not even she deserved to end up in the muck of exploitation quite the way she did. No wonder she quit acting.

In the summer of 1943 somewhere in the South of German occupied France young peasant girl Jeanne Lambert, who everybody simply calls Nanette (Muriel Catalá), finds a slightly injured but strapping soldier named Claude (Horst Buchholz) walking in the woods one day. He claims to be an Englishman looking to get in contact with local forces of la Résistance. Coming from a family of Pétain supporters Nanette is initially reluctant to offer help to the foreigner, but agrees to hide him out of sight in one of the more remote barns on the family farm. Her father (Roger Lumont), mother (Hélène Vallier), and brother are far too occupied with the farm to pay her any mind. Claude introduces Nanette to the intellectual arts and their conversations challenge her limited worldview. As she tends to his wounds and brings him food a bond starts to develop between the two. As time goes by Nanette finds herself increasingly drawn to the beautiful and worldly Englishman and soon she uninhibitedly enjoys being naked in his presence. She offers her body to him at various points but Claude never reciprocates her bodily affections. Some time later Nanette introduces her mysterious houseguest to monsieur Flouret (Henri Vilbert), the local councillor and a known supporter of the Allied Forces. Claude promises to whisk her away to his far-away home in Great Britain once the war has ended, so that the two can finally enjoy their lives together. Then one day Claude tells Nanette out of the blue that he’s ready to put his secret mission in motion, and with that he promptly disappears as a thief in the night leaving the young maiden with a nigh on irreparable heartbreak.

Embittered she betrays the Englishman to monsieur Monette (Michel Delahaye), a known Nazi collaborator, in an act of self-preservation and vengeance bearing consequences so far-reaching that Nanette is barely able to foresee at such tender age. One day the sounds of explosions and gunfire render the peaceful silence of the countryside. Nanette is swiftly captured by SS soldiers and without much of an explanation brought before their commanding officer. When she lays eyes upon the officer it is him, Claude; the man who she believed to be an Englishman. Claude, ever so eloquent, explains to young Nanette that she has committed two grave crimes. First, she betrayed a hero to the enemy. Second, she is now complicit with the Nazi as she assisted German forces in annihilating hidden maquisard troops and assorted Résistance fighters among the populace of her inconspicuous and sleepy farming village. As a final act of betrayal Claude orders Nanette to instruct the execution of the entire village; including her parents, and even monsieur Monette, now no longer useful to the Germans. With a gun pointed at her head Nanette is left no other choice but to indulge Claude’s sadistic bout of Faustian corruption and she’s soon reduced to a sobbering mess from all the horror.

Twenty years pass and a distinguised-looking automobile rolls into the remodeled village. A sharply-dressed businessman disgorges from the expensive vehicle and shares that he loves the quiet serenity that the region is known for. A local (Jean-Pierre Sentier) informs the man about the history of the region, how the entire village was razed to the ground during World War II and had to be rebuild, and how he inherited an old family farm quite by happenstance when he met his wife. The man introduces the suave stranger to his demure and shy wife Nanette (Danièle Ajoret), now ravaged from age and from silently brooding over that one cursed day in her youth. The three engage in respectful chit-chat over a bottle of wine until it dawns upon Nanette who this swanky gentleman is. Barely able to pour the last glass Nanette storms away leaving her husband without nary an explanation. She returns brandishing a shotgun and as Claude begs to forgive her for what he did in the past, Nanette vows to right that one immeasureably terrible wrong of her youth. “For you, Englishman!”, she utters as she coldly shoots Claude who dies in dismayed silence.

The most interesting aspect of The Savior is that an actual historical event served as the basis for Mardore’s screenplay. On 10 June 1944 a regiment of German soldiers under command of major Adolf Diekmann massacred 642 civilians in the town of Oradour-sûr-Glane, in the Haute-Vienne region of France, and subsequently razed the entire village to the ground. After the war Charles de Gaulle visited the remains of Oradour and named it a national monument. De Gaulle ordered a rebuild of the village nearby. In 1953 the new Oradour-sûr-Glane was completed with the remains of the original remaining a historical site. What exactly led to the purge has never been truly explained as it was overshadowed by the Dilice, Czechoslovakian purge of 10 June 1942. It is widely believed to be a retaliation against a Resistance bombing just two days earlier, on 8 June 1944, that killed a colleague (and personal friend) of Diekmann. The Savior might be a drama but it primarily serves as an indictment against the atrocities and the horrors of war. Nothing is more terrible and ravaging than war and how it pushes otherwise good people to become immoral monsters. The Savior makes a very strong argument.

Muriel Catalá is ravishing in her debut role as nubile peasant girl Nanette. It’s a very physical role and that it required a fair bit of nudity at least gives credence to the idea that Catalá was serious about her craft. For the longest time Catalá was cast in coming-of-age dramas and sexy comedies and she never was able to quite make it. The Savior is a tour de force for Horst Buchholz. It was screened on the Cannes film festival in 1970 with both Muriel Catalá and Buchholz attending. The Savior was prescient how culture would evolve in decades to come and how its ugly ideology would rear its head once again. It’s a frightening piece of foreshadowing if there ever was one and it has lost none of its power. The Savior is low on action and World War II is always far in the background, but the picture it paints is damning. It is a protest against the machinations of war, of the politics that profit from it and all the lives it shatters in the process. It constantly looms on the horizon. The ghosts of war always come back to haunt us. It was bold screenplay, even for the 1970s – and The Savior has lost nothing of its power or the relevance of its message. It’s as topical now as it was then. If there ever was a European equivalent to Dalton Trumbo’s Vietnam war epic Johnny Got His Gun (1971), or an antecedent for Summer of '42 (1971), Sophie's Choice (1982), or The Reader (2008), this is it.

Plot: a school girl and her friends disturb the spirits of the dead

Verónica is last year's surprise horror hit from Spain and touted as Netflix's 'scariest movie ever' in mainstream press and social media alike, deserved or not. Released domestically as La Posesión de Verónica, but abbreviated to Verónica for international release, it was released on Netflix on February 26 with little to no promotion to speak of. No other movie in recent memory was received to such widespread response – and the general hysteria surrounding Verónica will remind the more cynical among us of two movies from the mid-to-late 90s called The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Ringu (1998) that got similar reception. Verónica was nominated for 7 awards during the 2018 Goyas and screened in the Contemporary World Cinema section at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. Not bad for an rather uneventful little genre exercise that would’ve certainly languished in obscurity otherwise. Thankfully it is partially redeemed itself by introducing a young new talent by the name of Sandra Escacena to the world.

Spain has a long and rich history in horror and terror cinema that dates all the way back to the mid-to-late sixties. Directors as Paul Naschy, Jesús Franco, Amando de Ossorio, Enrique López Eguiluz, Javier Aguirre, Miguel Iglesias, and León Klimovsky reigned supreme during the exuberant seventies and remained active when interest in the genre waned in the eighties. As in the prior decades Spanish horror once again underwent a transformation and greeted the nineties in a new form. Spanish horror always took after its American inspirations but it wasn’t until the nineties that Spanish directors were really able to match their American peers. Álex de la Iglesia shot the genre back to relevance with his second directorial feature as did Alejandro Amenábar with his debut thriller Tesis (1996) a year later. Amenábar briefly flirted with Hollywood with the supernatural thriller The Others (2001) but returned to his native Spain after his Abre los Ojos (1997) was remade by Tom Cruise as Vanilla Sky (2001). Following soon in the footsteps of de la Iglesia and Amenábar were directors/screenwriters like one Jaume Balagueró.

The director of Verónica is Paco Plaza - a protégé of that other darling of Spanish horror cinema, Jaume Balagueró – with whom he co-directed [Rec] (2007) and its sequels. Balagueró was in no small part responsible for the resurgence of Spanish horror in the barren decade that was the nineties. While it was Álex de la Iglesia and his The Day Of the Beast (1995) that truly heralded a new age for Spanish terror, Balagueró made a name for himself with the supernatural thrillers The Nameless (1999) and Darkness (2002). That Plaza would eventually venture out on his own was expected – and Verónica is exactly the kind of horror feature he was destined to write/direct. Plaza knows his horror and Verónica borrows liberally from all the obvious sources. It’s well-made and probably better written than it has any reason to be, even if it tends to be on the anemic side in terms of actual horror and shocks.

Verónica (Sandra Escacena) is a 15-year-old adolescent left to care for her younger siblings, Lucía (Bruna González), Irene (Claudia Placer) and Antoñito (Iván Chavero) as her mother Ana (Ana Torrent) works late shifts in the local bar-restaurante to make ends meet. During a lesson about the upcoming solar eclipse Verónica and her friends Rosa (Ángela Fabián) and Diana (Carla Campra) decide to hold a séance. As the rest of the school is watching the eclipse outside the three girls convene at the basement to conduct their séance. Diana wants to contact the spirit of her boyfriend who died in a motorcycle accident and Verónica wants to communicate with her late father. The glass on the Ouija board immediately responds to the girls’ touch becoming too hot to touch while Verónica remains impervious to the heat. As the eclipse is complete the glass shatters leading Verónica to spill blood on the Ouija board which tears itself in half. The next moment the girls find Verónica lying unresponsive, until she suddenly lets out a scream and passes out as the lights start to flicker. When she opens her eyes she’s in the nurse’s office who shrugs off Verónica’s condition as a mere iron deficiency. At home paranormal occurences start to happen around her: claw and bite marks appear on her body, strange noises emit from empty rooms, objects move by themselves and Verónica starts to experience hallucinations, and the ghost of her late father starts appearing to her.

In school Rosa and Diana start avoiding her and in the basement Verónica runs into the ghoulish Hermana Muerte (Consuelo Trujillo) in whom she confides in about the séance she conducted. Hermana Muerte scolds Verónica for dabbling with something she can’t possibly begin to understand. The woman of God has had her own brush with the supernatural and advises the girl to close whatever gate she opened and to protect her siblings from whichever horror she unwillingly summoned. In the following days the hauntings continue as Verónica fights tooth and nail in warding off whatever malign entity she summoned from the shadows. She learned from Hermana Muerte that it is important to say properly goodbye to whatever she summoned and, in her darkest hour, Verónica and her sisters try to appease the spirits by performing a ritual. The situation at home deteriorates to such a degree that the kids’ mother Ana even rushes back to the house, and after an emergency call the police show up. Detective Samuel Romero (Chema Adeva) is assigned the case and when he reaches the Gomez homestead he finds a picture of Verónica, soon becoming too hot to touch, and the girl herself expired from what appears to be mortal fright. The case, of course, leaves the police puzzled.

Doe-eyed Sandra Escacena is the biggest surprise in Verónica. With talent to spare she embodies the titular character with every fibre of her being. Escacena has the same disarming innocuous demeanor as Tina Sáinz in 1971 and that sizzling Mediterranean sense of sensuality that legendary Spanish cult actress Soledad Miranda (or, more recently, Paz Vega) had. Escacena might very well become the next Spanish superstar if her performance here is anything to go by. Hopefully she'll be able to choose the right roles and projects in the wake of Verónica's overnight success. The sparse few scenes she shares with Ana Torrent, the star of Alejandro Amenábar’s chilling Tesis (1996) 20 years before and the prerequisite veteran of the cast, are among the strongest moments Verónica has to offer. The other child actors acquit themselves admirably considering there isn’t much meat to any of their parts and they exist largely to amplify Escacena’s role. Ángela Fabián and Carla Campra fill out their supporting parts as Verónica’s school buddies well enough but that’s the extent of their importance. Here’s hoping that Sandra Escacena turns into the next Cristina Galbó, Penélope Cruz or Ivana Baquera.

What would Spanish horror be without its sturdy reliance on Judeo-Christian symbolism and iconography? Nothing and Verónica is no different in that respect. Verónica is a Catholic schoolgirl and the nuns that run the school conform to the usual clichés. There are a multitude of crucifixes (brandished either by the nuns or by Verónica) and at one point a halo is projected onto Verónica. Hermana Muerte is probably the single best character next to Verónica herself and the ominous warnings she utters make the tension tangible. Hermana Muerte is as ghoulish, sickly and ashen as the apparitions and shadows that haunt Verónica and her siblings. Hermana Muerte’s cynical remarks help drive the point home that secularism will be punished. Dabbling in the occult for selfish reasons will get you killed. Of course Verónica is a completely different kind of possession movie than the Spanish productions that flooded the market in the wake of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). Verónica draws from a whole different set of influences but it preys on the same Judeo-Christian fears and superstitions like its ancient predecessors in decades past. Verónica is clearly for the Hong Kong ghost crowds.

One of the greatest strengths of Verónica is that it aims to be more than just a horror movie. It uses the trappings and conventions of the demon possession and haunted house subgenres to tell a completely separate and more dramatic tale. Underneath Verónica is about a current-day dysfunctional family unit wherein a hard-working mother and her children mourn the loss of their father and come together through hardship. It’s a coming-of-age story wherein Verónica’s first period coincides with the height of the hauntings and where demonic possession is a thinly-veiled metaphor for puberty. Verónica liberally borrows from Poltergeist (1982), The Craft (1996), Ringu (1998), The Eye (2002), Dark Water (2002) and Paranormal Activity (2007) among others. The framing device that bookends the main portion of the story merely exist to tie it to a story torn straight from the headlines. The basis for the screenplay was the ‘Vallecas case’ where teen Estefania Gutierrez Lazari died a ‘sudden and suspicious death’ in the Gregorio Maranon Hospital in August 1991, two months after allegedly having had a brush with the supernatural. The result of having a séance with friends interrupted by a woman of the cloth who broke the ouija board during the summoning. It’s the oldest marketing trick in the book, but one that admittedly still works. Verónica has atmosphere in spades, but its scares come across as telegraphed and obvious to anybody with a passing familiarity with the horror genre. That doesn’t make it any less effective – and like a seasoned pro Sandra Escacena owns every scene she’s in.

It stands to reason that Verónica is the single most talked about Spanish horror movie as of right now. Its cultural importance is as significant as Álex de la Iglesia and his The Day Of the Beast (1995). Whether or not its reputation as Netflix's 'scariest movie ever' is deserved is another matter entirely. Verónica is an effective but hardly riveting example of the form. As a genre piece it pushes all the right buttons and it certainly is atmospheric enough considering its low-key locales, but that alone is hardly worth more than a passing viewing. For novice viewers there’s a good chance that Verónica indeed will be the most scariest thing they’ve ever laid eyes upon. More experienced viewers will find a beautifully lensed and well-written little genre exercise to sink their teeth into. Verónica is only a horror movie if that’s all you expect it to be. It works by the genre’s conventions but at heart it’s actually a heartwrenching drama. Therein lies the strength of Paco Plaza’s directorial debut feature. Like the ghosts it portrays Verónica becomes what you want it to be.