Rituals of HORROR

It’s understandable that many heavyweights in the film industry view Netflix and Amazon as unwelcome competitors in the awards market, a dubious arena to start with, since it’s more a way to generate income and box-office receipts than truly award excellence.

Steven Spielberg, for instance, recently said he felt original films by the new media giants have no place in the Academy Awards. And just last week, the Cannes Festival agreed, banning Netflix and Amazon “originals” from its awards showcase.

Apart from the ruffling of egos, though, Netflix in particular gives us the chance to see some really good studio (as well as independent) films that might otherwise go unnoticed, even in terms of DVD/Blu-ray marketing.

Now streaming on Netflix (in advance of their appearance on disc) are two such films (one Spanish, one British) that should appeal to horror fans. Each is better than most such fare on the big screen, and neither is typical of the usual pap.

Veronica (2017) is about a teenage girl whose turn with a Ouija board results in the usual goings-on one expects in a horror film. If the bare-bones plot sounds familiar, writer/director Paco Plaza goes for chills and thrills in a different way, minimizing the scare tactics and special effects, focusing instead on building a sense of impending dread.

The doomed 15-year-old Veronica (Sandra Escacena) and two friends meet in the school basement while everyone else is outside watching a solar eclipse. Maneuvering a Ouija board, they try to make contact with a spirit, ultimately sending Veronica into a cataleptic trance, during which she whispers something in her best friend’s ear.

Recovering quickly from the weirdness, Veronica goes about her usual routine, taking care of her three younger siblings while her mother (Ana Torrent) tries to sustain the family income managing a bar. Things begin to go bump in the house as Veronica starts to see figures where they shouldn’t be. As a creepy, old, blind nun (the kids call her Sister Death) warns, the teen has brought something unwelcome into the world.

How to get rid of it? Ah, there’s the rub.

Based on a more credible and documented “true” event than most of this ilk, Veronica features incredible performances from its young cast, all of whom look and act like real kids instead of child stars. Ana Torrent, who made a sensational debut at age 7 in Spirit of the Beehive, is convincing in a minor role.

The kids make Veronica work, along with writer/director Plaza’s intelligent choice to emphasize mood and suspense over shock and special effects. The filmmaker had already made his mark in contemporary horror with [Rec] and [Rec] 2 spawning American versions Quarantine and Quarantine 2: Terminal. His new film may be his best yet, earning many nods and several wins in Spain’s Oscars and Golden Globes.

Quite different from Veronica but just as good is The Ritual (2017), a true hybrid; it’s set in Sweden (though filmed in Romania), scripted by an Englishman (Joe Barton) with a British cast, and directed by American David Bruckner, best known for his work in the recent V/H/S and The Signal. The plot has elements of several diverse kinds of films, ranging from The Blair Witch Project to The Wicker Man to the very weird YellowBrickRoad.

The opening sequence shows five 20something friends enjoying a night on the town that suddenly goes tragically wrong. Flash-forward a few months, and the remaining four are on a hiking trip through the Swedish mountains and forests, honoring their dead friend’s final wish. For Luke (Rafe Spall), the trek is also a time of soul-searching as he tries to get a grip on the guilt he has from the tragedy.

Things go wrong, of course, and the hikers are soon lost in the woods. As if the nightmarish dreams they begin to have weren’t bad enough, it’s soon clear they’re not alone. And whatever’s out there is far from friendly.

I hate spoilers, I never read plot summaries, and I avoid trailers as much as possible. Consequently, I also divulge as little of the story as possible-the element of surprise is one of the special pleasures of the horror genre. The Ritual throws quite a few surprises at us.

Moody and atmospheric, the film’s greatest strengths are its remote setting and strong performances from the ensemble cast. This is a buddy movie with distinct personalities, rather rare in horror films.

Veronica and The Ritual missed some big-screen hype, so they deserve a close scrutiny in the safety of your home.