Reviewed by Tristan Sinns
Starring Angelique Boyer, Pablo Bracho
Directed by Benjamin Williams
Ghost stories are the biscuits and gravy of the horror genre. It is easy to imagine that perhaps every culture that has ever been has had their creepy ghostly tales. It is a human thing to worry about that which might remain and linger after death. One of the few that hasn’t made its way into film is that of La Llorona (that is “lah yoh-ROH-nah”, if you’re curious), which is something of a sobbing banshee from across the Border.
There are many variations of the old ghost story, but it revolves around a very poor mother with several children, who somehow becomes very disturbed (typically because her husband or lover has left her) and so drowns her children in a nearby lake or river before killing herself. Her tortured spirit is then cursed to roam the countryside forever, weeping and crying, and looking for other victims, especially children, to pull down into watery depths.
Bad things are happening in Chiapas, Mexico. George Christensen (Parker), an American, visits his estranged mother to help in the search of his missing younger sister. The young girl isn’t the only one missing, however, as George soon finds a near epidemic of unexplained kidnappings that may have a rather sinister perpetrator. The police are uncooperative and surly; his mother doesn’t have anything to go on; and to make matters worse, George doesn’t speak a single word of Spanish.
The folklore of La Llorona is a creepy old story, and J-ok’el manages a few hair-raising moments of its own. There are some good contextual scares here — dark apparitions hiding behind doors, creepy ghostly things sneaking out from the dark to snatch babies. Some of it is good stuff. George has one of the more believable reactions to all of this when he first arrives; he calls it all crap and is disgusted with anyone who tries to push the myth on him. The film slowly forces him into believing, and it does it in a way that feels natural. Creating characters that believably take ghost stories seriously is tricky business, and George unfolds the mystery in such a way that it seems plausible when he’s finally willing to open his mind.
J-ok’el certainly has some flaws that are partially attributed to a tight budget, as well as other pacing and tension issues. While there are moments of true creepiness, there are other ghostly movements that get a little silly and thus drop the suspense. For example, finger wriggling. For some reason, as this ghost approaches a new baby to snatch, she wriggles her fingers, which is what we all did as kids when we pretended to be a ghost. Why would a ghost wriggle their fingers? Stop that! In another scene, late in the film, the ghost steals a child by seemingly flapping out of the sky; complete with loud flapping wing noises! I actually kind of liked this last effect, though at the same time it didn’t necessarily make sense in the context of the entire plot. You’ll see what I mean.
One other hiccup is the lack of subtitles. Sometimes subtitles are better left out, especially if the protagonist doesn’t speak the language; it better conveys the sense of being in a foreign land, and we only know what the protagonist knows. This really should only be done if the foreign languages spoken are fairly brief and we can still follow the story. In J-ok’el, however, sometimes the Spanish conversations tend to go on a bit long. What are these people saying? I have no idea!
Overall, J-ok’el is one of the better adaptations of the La Llorona tale, though I would also like to see a bigger budget production someday that really did the story justice. The folklore behind the story is creepy enough material, and it’s surprising it hasn’t been done all that much before. In time, we’ll see.
2 1/2 out of 5