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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.

Plot: Italian model inherits Waldrick Castle in Germany, creepy relatives included

Malenka (released in English language territories as Fangs Of the Living Dead) was a Spanish-Italian co-production that was significant for being one of the first vampire films to emerge in Spain under the repressive regime of Generalísimo Francisco Franco. Allegedly inspired by The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) it was the first foray into horror for director Amando de Ossorio. De Ossorio was only preceded by Jacinto Molina Álvarez (Paul Naschy to the English-speaking world) and his The Mark Of the Wolfman (1968) that proved that horror could be a viable genre in Spain. It's rather interesting that the Philippines, a Spanish colony, arrived at the vampire film earlier with Gerardo de Leon's The Blood Drinkers (1964) and Blood Of the Vampires (1966), both with Amalia Fuentes in the starring role. For the time Fangs Of the Living Dead at least attempted to push the envelope.

The primary selling point for Fangs Of the Living Dead is poorly dubbed Swedish star Anita Ekberg. Ekberg debuted in Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953), with her star rising thanks to appearances in War and Peace (1956), Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and Boccaccio ’70 (1962). However by 1968 her career had taken a steep turn for the worse, and Ekberg would be making a living appearing in mostly Mediterreanean (Italian and Spanish) exploitation productions of dubious merit. Fangs Of the Living Dead was the last cinematic exploit for spaghetti western regular Adriana Ambesi who also had a role in the big budget John Huston production The Bible: In the Beginning... (1966) just three years earlier.

The remainder of the cast were veterans of Paul Naschy and Jesús Franco productions. Rosanna Yanni and Julián Ugarte worked earlier with Naschy on The Mark of the Wolfman (1968), and Yanni would do so again in Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973). For Amando de Ossorio’s Fangs Of the Living Dead she not only acted as one of the principal characters, but also served as its producer together with Adriana Ambesi. Yanni would also appear in The Amazons (1973) from former Bond director Terence Young. In 1962 Diana Lorys appeared in the Jesús Franco thriller The Awful Dr. Orloff before starring in a string of spaghetti westerns. Lorys had worked earlier with de Ossorio on the spaghetti western The Three from Colorado (1965). During the 1970s Lorys turned up in the Franco productions The Bloody Judge (1970) with Christopher Lee, and Nightmares Come at Night (1972) with late Franco muse Soledad Miranda in a relatively minor part. Not helping matters either was that Ugarte was only two years senior to Ekberg.

As a peculiar retelling of the 1897 Bram Stoker novel Dracula, Fangs Of the Living Dead concerns itself with Sylvia Morel (Anita Ekberg), an Italian model that looks suspiciously Nordic, who inherits the old family homestead of Waldrick Castle, somewhere in a remote region of Germany. Two weeks away from getting married to her fiancé Dr. Piero Luciani (Giani Medici, as John Hamilton), Sylvia rushes to inspect her inheritance. At the local tavern she meets barmaids and siblings Freya Zemis (Rosanna Yanni, as Rossana Yanny), and Bertha (Diana Lorys), both wearing low-cut dirndl dresses, the latter of whom wastes no time in making a pass at her client. When she announces that she’s the new Countess barmaids and villagers alike act as if they’ve seen a ghost. Meeting Count Walbrook (Julián Ugarte) at the castle estate, Morel enthusiastically declares “what an incredibly handsome uncle I have!” before kissing him on the cheek and noticing his icy coldness. Vladis (Fernando Bilbao) Walbrook’s trusty coachman, houseservant, and guard at this juncture chooses to dispense information to Morel about her uncle’s nocturnal habits in the castle.

That night Sylvia is woken up by Blinka (Adriana Ambesi, as Audrey Ambert) who wears an incredibly revealing funeral dress, describes herself as one of her uncle’s former mistresses, and prefers to talk about herself in the third person. Not having properly rubbed the sleep from her eyes Sylvia is overcome by Blinka, who doesn’t hesitate to make a pass on her. Moments later Walbrook storms in, forcefully removing Blinka from Morel’s room, and whipping her into subservience in one of the adjacent chambers in a scene that must have been provocative and daring for the time. At this point Walbrook shows Sylvia an ancestral portrait which is said to be her maligned great-grandmother Malenka, “a brilliant biochemist!” and alchemist that dabbled in black magic, and experiments in necro-biology. Transgressions for which she was burned “at the stake in the town square” by a pitchfork-and-torches brandishing mob of mortally terrified - or “a murderous, ignorant crowd” as Walbrook describes them - villagers. Having put Sylvia under his spell the Count tries to turn her in a blood ritual that doesn’t follow typical vampire lore. As a last resort he coerces her to call off her engagement, to follow the voice of blood and join him in the halls of eternity. Sylvia is, of course, none too sure about any of it...

Piero Luciani and his comic relief buddy Max (César Benet, as Guy Roberts) travel to the castle but are denied admittance by Vladis. In the town they seek the assistance of Dr. Horbinger (Carlos Casaravilla), the disgraced and now continually inebriated town physician that believes in the vampire myth. Luciani shrugs it off as “nonsense” and before long the trio are headed off to Waldrick Castle to put end to Count Walbrook’s unholy reign of terror. Will they be able to free Sylvia? Is Walbrook truly a vampire as he suggests? Fangs Of the Living Dead exists in several different versions. First there's a 75-80 min. US print with producer-mandated alternate ending that de Ossorio reluctantly filmed, then there's a 96-98 min. European print, probably of Dutch origin, that includes additional science exposition, and dialog scenes but omits the alternate ending. Finally there is the original Spanish Malenka print with the ending as envisioned and intended by its director.

The ancient undead already played a prominent part in Naschy's The Mark Of the Wolfman (1968) and they were the focal point of de Leon's The Blood Drinkers (1964) and Blood Of the Vampires (1966). Fangs Of the Living Dead pilfers both of de Leon's vampire exercises in terms of plot. The vampire craze would reach a climax in 1973 with the release of Count Dracula’s Great Love, León Klimovsky’s The Dracula Saga (which all but steals the plot of Fangs Of the Living Dead), Joe Sarno's low-key Vampire Ecstasy and Luigi Batzella’s The Devil’s Wedding Night. Compared to these later outings Fangs Of the Living Dead is rather demure and prudish as was expected under Franco's military dictatorship. For a late 60s continental European production it at least tries to be provocative with its scenes of punitive whipping, implied sapphic liaisons and by putting the major female cast members (Lorys, Yanni and Ambesi) in very flattering low-cut dresses.

Fangs Of the Living Dead might not be the most stimulating of the form, but it benefits tremendously from its location. Waldrick Castle, or the chateau standing in for it, is filled with darkened hallways, candle- and torchlit mausoleums; shadowy, cobwebbed crypts, and opulent chambers. As a gothic horror piece Fangs Of the Living Dead eschews from both blood and nudity, but as Hammer Horror before it each of the actresses is put in skimpy dresses that allow as much bare skin as possible. The more voluptuous Rosanna Yanni and Adriana Ambesi regularly struggle to keep their assets contained in their dresses. What it lacks in technical polish it compensates with a sweltering sense of Mediterranean darkness and a melancholic organ, violin and harmonium score from Carlo Savina. The English language dub is atrocious even by 1960s exploitation standards. Amando de Ossorio would truly come into his own with his much lauded second horror feature Tombs Of the Blind Dead (1972), which spawned two sequels of its own, and with the amiable The Loreleys Grasp (1973) with Helga Liné and Silvia Tortosa.