If you follow me at my personal blog, you probably know that I’ve been doing a marathon of every film I can get my hands on about the Mexican legend La Llorona as preparation for this weekend’s release of the new film from the James Wan stable, The Curse of La Llorona.
For those not in the know, La Llorona is a pretty fascinating folk tale. The story differs depending on who’s telling it, but the meat of the thing is that she’s a woman who was cheated by her man and drowned their children in a fit of rage. Now her spirit is doomed to wander the banks of the river, weeping and wailing and drowning any children who venture out after dark. The boogeyman story to get kids to behave is a staple of pretty much all cultures, but something about La Llorona really appeals to me. It’s like she’s an elemental spirit of pure emotion and pain, and the specificity of her story makes her more than just an insubsantial evil closet monster. There’s a reason Mexico has pumped out over twenty films about La Llorona and almost none about El Cucuy, their most obvious analogue to the Anglophone “boogeyman.”
Now that I’ve seen almost every film about her the world has to offer, I have come to a conclusion: no movie will ever be able to tell her story perfectly. And I’m not just talking about the myriad of films who get the details wrong (a lot of the early films focus on stabbing rather than drowning, use her as a curse of vengeance upon a particular family rather than a general menace, or in the case of one ill-conceived franchise reinterpret her as a Freddy Krueger-esque slasher villain).
La Llorona belongs squarely in the oral tradition, where big emotions can be imagined and amplified by the flicker of the campfire rather than portrayed by some overacting ingenue in hag makeup. Plus, the necessity for narrative films to have a more structured, concrete storyline usually forces screenwriters to position her as the villain, something which I am not entirely convinced she is. La Llorona is a tragic, lost figure who is acting out of blind grief and rage, doomed to forever repeat the action that was her greatest shame. She’s not a lip-smacking evil witch, or a twisted succubus, or Freddy freaking Krueger. The two highest films on my list are the ones that understand her plight and ask the audience to empathize with her, but two out of twenty is a perilously low batting average (and those films themselves have their own smaller missteps in the way she’s represented).
But even if every movie that tries fails to capture the totality of La Llorona in some way big or small, I’d like to recommend five of the movies from my marathon, ones that managed to tell interesting stories around their central figure even if they didn’t portray her one hundred percent correctly.
(Be warned that almost all of these films are in Spanish, but subtitle files for all of them are pretty easy to come by.)
1) Las Lloronas (2004)
Las Lloronas, from director Lorena Villareal (who was thanked in the end credits of Roma, for reasons I have no way of knowing even though I desperately want to), is hardly a horror film. It’s a melodrama about three generations of women who have descended from La Llorona and who are cursed to have their young sons die tragically. But it is high melodrama, using La Llorona as a feminist figure about the crushing woes the patriarchy delivers upon women everywhere. It’s a slow moving affair, but I for one was swept completely into its embrace and was fully sobbing along with the Lloronas of the title by the time credits rolled.
2) La Llorona (1960)
La Llorona has pretty much everything I’m looking for from a vintage horror movie. Suffocatingly lush cinematography (as you can see in the gif above), political subtext galore (La Llorona is an indigenous woman who is abandoned with her irritating children by her Spaniard lover, and her rage-fueled curse also exercises the rage of the oppressed indigenous population of Mexico), and some surprisingly brutal story elements that will rattle you in your seat. This one doesn’t quite stick the landing (the third act is basically about La Llorona showing up as an evil Mary Poppins attempting to murder some great grandchild or other), but it’s a genuine treat just the same.
3) Santo y Mantequilla Nápoles en la Venganza de la Llorona/Vengeance of the Crying Woman (1974)
The Mexican wrestler Santo is a true cinema legend and sports icon south of the border. Along with a massive career in the ring, Santo portrayed himself in dozens of movies featuring the silver-masked hero battling all matter of demons, monsters, mafiosos, and warlords. In this film, the luchador (who never takes off his trademark mask, even when suited up for a business meeting or rocking a stripey 70’s dad sweater) teams up with boxer Mantequilla Nápoles to prevent the mafia from getting ahold of La Llorona’s hidden treasure (Santo wants to use the money to build children’s hospitals, of course). It’s mostly about using wrestling to bust crime, but La Llorona gets to rampage around a bit on the sidelines as well. It’s a delightfully strange romp in the style of old adventure serials of the 30’s and 40’s that I would highly recommend. Through legit means, this film is unfortunately only available to stream in Spanish, but the script really isn’t the point of this one.
4) KM 31 (2006)
KM 31 reimagines La Llorona as a roadside urban legend, swaddling the whole business in J-horror tropes stolen from the high profile remakes of The Ring and The Grudge that were happening up in America. Director Rigoberto Castañeda presents his scares with slick, even Verbinski-esque flair, and he even pays homage to the J-horror hits of yore by including a plot that makes absolutely no sense. It’s creepy as hell though, with a psychosexual plotline involving one of a pair of twin sisters in a coma and some stunning effects that redeem the disappointing CGI he uses to smooth over a couple scenes.
5) La Maldición de la Llorona/Curse of the Crying Woman (1963)
This one goes lowest on the list because it engages with the genuine Llorona legend the absolute least (there is a “wailing witch” and that’s about the extent of it), but it’s a terrifically fun Old Dark House potboiler just the same. And the witch herself has no eyeballs, come on! This film is full of 60’s genre tropes mixed up in a Yahtzee cup and dumped all over the screen (creepy servants, mad science, evil dogs, a curse at midnight), and there’s even an English dub available because this was the first (and pretty much only) of these films to achieve any sort of crossover success back in the day.
Brennan Klein is a writer and podcaster who talks horror movies every chance he gets. And when you’re talking to him about something else, he’s probably thinking about horror movies. You can find his other work on his Dread Central column applying film school theory to silly horror movies, his Ghastly Grinning column pairing the week’s releases with the perfect classic horror double feature, and his blog Popcorn Culture where among other movie reviews, he is running through every slasher film of the 1980’s. Also check out his podcasts, Scream 101, where he and a non-horror nerd co-host tackle horror reviews with a new sub-genre every month, and Attack of the Queerwolf!, an LGBTQ discussion of horror classics that he produces for the Blumhouse Podcast Network.