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Plot: a young family finds that their new dwelling is haunted

Ghosts transcend cultures and timezones. Following the success of The Amityville Horror (1979) the international market was swept by American ghost movies. In the late nineties and at the dawn of the new millennium Hong Kong became the go-to place for quality ghost stories in the wake of movies like Ringu (1998), Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), Dark Water (2002) and The Eye (2002), all of which at some point or other were adapted for the American market. A decade from the Hong Kong movement the Spanish-speaking countries are experiencing a resurgence of horror cinema. Spain has a long history in terror – and horror cinema dating all the way back to the gothic horrors of the sixties, the many erotic vampire - and witchcraft movies from León Klimovsky and Jesús Franco. That is, of course, not counting the one-man industry that was Paul Naschy who rose to fame with his El Hombre Lobo werewolf movies and portrayed every classic Universal monster in the book. We Are Not Alone is the Peruvian equal of Verónica (2017). It is not nearly as scary, if it is scary at all, as it is atmospheric in the well-known Hong Kong tradition.

Apparently the horror cinema industry in Peru is just in a nascent stage at this point in time. The first domestic horror production was General Cemetery (2013) and it has since inspired other directors to follow the example. Daniel Rodríguez Risco is one of the country’s more celebrated directors having helmed various shorts and a number of feature length productions in a number of genres. Risco has won several awards in film festvivals across the globe and had a hand in writing, producing and directing some of the biggest Latin American blockbusters. As of 2016 We Are Not Alone is the only horror title in Risco’s filmography and he seems in no rush to return to the genre. We Are Not Alone is helmed with all the professionalism you’d expect of an experienced veteran of the big - and small screen. It wouldn’t at all be surprising if We Are Not Alone, toothless as it tends to be, ended up getting an American remake. Obviously there are far superior haunted house – and ghost movies. We Are Not Alone is unfortunately for the most part terribly bland.

As the manager of an important company Mateo (Marco Zunino) has been forced to move to the outskirts of Lima to meet the challenges of his job. Making the cross-country move along with him are his tween daughter Sofía (Zoe Arévalo) and second wife Mónica (Fiorella Díaz). The relationship between little Sofía and Mónica wasn’t the best to begin with and the relocation to Fundo Lazarte is the last thing two needed or were waiting for. The night that they have moved into the new place Sofía is immediately distrustful of her new surroundings and claims that monsters are hiding under her bed and that a priest should bless the house before they settle in properly. Mateo and Mónica shrug off Sofía’s strange request as childish superstition and a product of moving house against her will. It isn’t long before Mónica starts to experience the very forces that Sofía was talking about. Strange noises emit from the bowels of the residence, shadows move and inanimate objects start having a will of their own. After Mateo and Mónica discover a hidden chamber within their new home the hauntings become increasingly worse. The supernatural occurences inspire Mateo to dig into the history of Fundo Lazarte, a search that brings him to defrocked priest Padre Rafael (Lucho Cáceres). Rafael turns out to be familiar with the sordid history of the residence and fills Mateo in on the horrible crime that unfolded on the premises. According to Rafael a man named Ricardo (Paul Vega) one day murdered his wife Victoria (Jimena Lindo) and his son Gabriel (Matías Raygada). The case was never solved and the spirits of Victoria and Gabriel now haunt the dwelling. When the spirits claim a second victim in Mónica the faith of the good padre will stand the ultimate test. Will he able to withstand and cast out the evil spirits that dwell in Fundo Lazarte?

The screenplay from director Gonzalo Rodríguez Risco is written well enough but it doesn’t exactly put a spin, new or otherwise, on an old formula. In fact most plot developments are so trite and predictable that even at a very economic 75 minutes We Are Not Alone feels a bit long for its own good. It’s not so much that We Are Not Alone isn’t effective or fails to deliver on what it promises; it’s just that nothing of what it presents is particularly riveting or all that interesting. The writing is tight and perfunctory but it fails to do something, anything, with the ghost movie genre. What little scares there are, are so telegraphed and obvious that it’s far more rewarding to count the clichés and conventions that We Are Not Alone adheres to than whatever apparition or supposedly scary reveal that director Daniel Rodríguez Risco throws at the viewer. Verónica (2017) used a number of well-worn tropes and conventions too, but it at least was intelligent enough to use its tried-and-true ghost movie structure to tell an endearing, and at times compelling, coming-of-age story of an ordinary girl thrown in an extraordinary situation. Plus, it had Sandra Escacena which helped tremendously too. The only thing that We Are Not Alone has in spades is atmosphere, but it’s not nearly enough to make it stand out from the many competitors in the genre. As beautifully filmed as We Are Not Alone tends to be, it has little in the way of a pulse or distinct individual traits.

As any production from a Spanish language country We Are Not Alone lays on the Judeo-Christian rhetoric and symbolism fast and thick. There’s no cliché it doesn’t use as there are inanimate objects that move, scars on the wall that lead to a hidden room and as the haunting intensify Satanic symbols appear. The nominal hero of the piece is not the secular businessman Mateo, but defrocked priest Padre Rafael who has been experiencing a crisis of faith ever since losing his mystic / paranormal investigator father during an exorcism in Fundo Lazarte many years earlier. The featured ghost portrayed by Jimena Lindo is an apparition in the Sadako from Ringu (1998) mold. Over the course of the hauntings Mónica stops eating and sleeping ultimately giving way to a truncated homage to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) in the last fifteen minutes, including the levitating bed. We Are Not Alone liberally borrows from The Amityville Horror (1979), The Exorcist (1973), Poltergeist (1982), and Ringu (1998), to name the most prominent. It’s not that We Are Not Alone is bad because it certainly isn’t. What ultimately becomes its undoing is its slavish adherence to convention and cliché. In earlier decades South/Latin American horror was known for its exuberance and excess. We Are Not Alone has nothing of the sort. It retains the strong Judeo-Christian message that the continent is famous for, and is notoriously homogeneous otherwise.

The cast includes nobody in particular and seems to consist largely of Risco stock company – and respectable domestic television actors/actresses. Marco Zunino is the most recognizable name having played bit parts in beloved, high-profile American TV series Alias (2003) and Castle (2016). Next to Jimena Lindo as the ghost by far the strongest presence is young Zoe Arévalo. Fiorella Díaz holds her own well enough as the constantly imperiled Mónica. Much of a nonentity for the majority of the feature Díaz surprises with the possession and exorcism scenes in the third act but it’s not enough to warrant anything more than a passing recommendation. Nobody acts outright bad and Zunino, Lindo and Arévalo excepted We Are Not Alone has no outstanding performances to speak of. It’s rather emblemic for the production as a whole. Everything is solid and technically sound, but nothing in particular stands out. Peruvian horror has yet to find its footing and voice and while retaining the same cultural sensibilities of decades past We Are Not Alone probably isn’t the best the country has to offer in the genre.

Over the course of 75 minutes We Are Not Alone packs several decades’ worth of ghost – and haunted house movie conventions. The result might not exactly be spine-tingling or chilling, but it’s a professionally helmed and atmospheric little genre exercise when it fires on all cylinders. Far and few as these moments tend to be, when they do appear they more than justify the long wait. It will be interesting to see how Peruvian horror develops from here on and whether We Are Not Alone will retroactively become historically important for the same reasons. There’s no contesting that Gonzalo Rodríguez Risco is a master technician who knows what makes the genre tick. It would be interesting to see him tackle a contemporary giallo murder mystery or an erotic vampire - or witchcraft movie, although both niches seems to have died out. We Are Not Alone might not be as crazy and surreal as any of the classic Latin American genre offerings, but that doesn’t stop it from being very atmospheric and effective. Hopefully Peru will soon be carving out it’s own niche on the international horror cinema map.

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.