An old man explains to his son in law that he believes there is a curse on their family and that his four-year-old grandson is in danger. He relates a story involving their ancestors, an illegitimate child and a vengeful spirit that still seeks restitution…
The first version of the legend of La Llorona was arguably Mexico’s baby steps into the horror genre. As is typical with oral tradition and folk myth, there are multiple variations of the original tale, which allowed director Ramón Peón to season his take with elements of the kind of old dark house mystery popularised by such Hollywood pictures as ‘The Cat and the Canary’ (1927).
A prominent young doctor (Ramón Pereda) poo-poo’s superstitious beliefs when teaching a class of students. The subject of the lesson is a man found dead on a city street, his face frozen in such a horrified expression that the rumour is he met his end after a supernatural encounter. Rubbish insists Pereda. But when he returns to his family home, he’s taken into the library by his elderly father in law, Don Fernando (Paco Martinez). The old gent is worried about the upcoming birthday of his young grandson. He proceeds to tell Pereda about the skeleton in the family closet; a tale of illegitimacy, suicide and a curse reaching out from beyond the grave. While he speaks, a hooded figure eavesdrops from the shadows.
The film goes into an extended flashback as Martinez speaks. Here we meet Don Rodrigo de Cortés (Alberto Marti) and Doña Ana (Adriana Lamar). They have a son but are not married and, although both are of noble birth, Marti is not keen on acknowledging his parentage. It’s a case of ‘promises, promises’ as he is far more interested in making a more advantageous marriage. Yes, Marti is an unmitigated cad but, by the time he’s called out by the handsome Captain Don Diego de Acuña (Pereda, again), Lamar has killed the child to prevent Marti taking him. She then kills herself on a balcony, her spirit ascending to the sky via some quite effective, if somewhat crude, SFX.
This flashback takes up a very long chunk of the film’s 72 minute running time, almost half an hour in fact, and is followed by Martinez’s recounting another example of the curse. This second instalment is far briefer, but all this historical re-enactment leaves little time for the framing story, which comes over almost as an afterthought. This gives the film are very unbalanced feel and there’s little time to invest in any of the principal characters. There is an interesting clash between the old world and the new here, with Martinez still steeped in superstition and Pereda taking a modern viewpoint, but it’s not very fully developed.
Technically, the film is a little static at times, but the performances are surprisingly naturalistic, showing little hangover of acting technique from the silent days. Unfortunately, the main story does take time to get anywhere because of the awkward flashback structure, and there is also some comedy relief involving the family servants, which is rather painful. On a positive note, the black and white photography by Guillermo Baqueriza does help conjure an appropriate atmosphere, and director Peon manages some creative and noteworthy moments here and there.
The legend of La Llorona, or ‘The Crying Woman’ is an integral part of Hispanic folklore all around the world, so persistent that it was written into the film universe of ‘The Conjuring’ with the poorly received ‘The Curse of La Llorona (2019). The story varies considerably in the telling, but the basic premise is this; a woman commits suicide after drowning her own children. She is then damned to wander through existence, forever weeping and searching for their souls. In some versions, she drowns living children when she discovers they are not the ones she seeks, in others an encounter with her is seen as a portent of death, much in the manner of a banshee. The Mexican variation mentions speaking her name in front of a mirror a la’ Bloody Mary’, but this element does not make an appearance in Peon’s film.
The director was already a veteran of the silent days and worked in the Mexican industry until the early1960s. One of his later projects was ‘Arsenio Lupin’ (1947) which starred Pereda in the title role and was presumably an adaptation of the tales of French author Maurice Leblanc and his gentleman thief. The character has been adapted in multiple films over the years, and a ‘new’ novel written by Leblanc was published 71 years after his death. The manuscript was found wrapped in a shirt on a top of a cupboard!
An interesting relic of the early days of Mexican sound and horror cinema weakened a little by a lopsided structure and slow pace, but still with some entertainment and historical value.