“Brennan Went to Film School” is a column that proves that horror has just as much to say about the world as your average Oscar nominee. Probably more, if we’re being honest.
You may have noticed that this month we’re doing an appreciation of Asian horror over here on Dread. But I had to diverge from the rest of my columnist crew just this once, because my interests abroad lie somewhere else this month. This weekend will see the release of the James Wan-produced The Curse of La Llorona, a film that dramatizes a very famous Mexican folk legend.
La Llorona (also known as “The Weeping Woman”) is basically a boogeyman designed to scare kids away from wandering outside at night. The story differs based on who’s telling it, but the general gist is that she’s a woman who was screwed over by her man (in many cases she is an indigenous woman and he is a colonizing Spaniard who has left her for a white woman) and drowns her children in a fit of rage. Her ghost is doomed to wander the banks of the river, weeping and wailing “¡Ay, mis hijos!” (“Oh, my children!”) and drowning any local children who happen to walk by the river.
It’s a creepy, fun bit of folklore that finally has a chance to break into mainstream American culture. But The Curse of La Llorona is hardly the first film to feature this elemental spirit of grief and rage. In fact there are over 20 films about La Llorona (mostly Mexican productions), and I’d like to get you prepped for this new movie with a little bit of history, comparing how different filmmakers in different times and cultures have depicted her and what she represents throughout the years, as well as how you can approach understanding her interpretation in the new movie.
The cinematic history of La Llorona begins with the very birth of Mexican horror itself. Mexico’s first horror film was a black and white project from 1933 titled La Llorona (these movies almost all have very bland titles, buckle in). Even though this was a “modernization” of the legend involving a lot more costume drama and a Scooby Doo-esque murder mystery in the third act, this film and its quasi-remake, 1960’s La Llorona (see, what did I tell you about those titles?), both bring the anti-colonial elements front and center. In these films, La Llorona
That political element was almost completely ignored by the pair of pop-horror romps that followed, 1963’s La maldición de La Llorona (The Curse of the Crying Woman) and 1974’s Santo y Mantequilla Nápoles en la Venganza de La Llorona (Vengeance of the Crying Woman). The former was a classic “old dark house” B-movie dressed up with some scattered elements of the Llorona legend and the latter featured Mexican wrestling superstar Santo teaming up with a boxer named “Butter” to stop the mafia from stealing La Llorona’s treasure (long story, don’t ask).
However, when director Lorena Villarreal picked up the reins in 2004 with her film Las Lloronas, she saw enormous potential in the character for a feminist retelling. Her film is more melodrama than horror, but it uses La Llorona as a tool for telling the story of several generations of a family, much like the pair of earlier Llorona projects. The women in the family are all cursed to have their sons die, and the drama surrounding the birth of a new child sends them careening in all directions to save him. Grandmother, mother, and daughter alike are mistreated by the men in their lives and must find a way to make it through this ordeal together, unbinding themselves from the patriarchal strings that control their destinies.
Immediately following this powerful and thought-provoking entry, the rise of cheap and easy digital filmmaking allowed filmmakers across the nation access to the tools to get their projects off the ground, and the world was suddenly swamped with Llorona projects. Unfortunately, the people making these films had less lofty goals for the character and unintentionally indulged in the worst side of La Llorona. There is always danger of embracing sexist stereotypes of hysterical women when telling a Llorona story (it’s kinda baked into the premise, you know), and these filmmakers… Well, they didn’t really bother worrying about that, but their efforts between 2006 and 2007 did prove that the Llorona legend can be successfully adapted into any number of subgenres. (And yes, you read that right. No fewer than six Llorona films were released in that two year span.)
The films in The Wailer trilogy depict her as a Freddy Krueger-esque slasher villain with deadly fingernails (well, the first two do – the third has nothing to do with anything – I know, I’m as shocked as you that the second sequel to a direct-to-video horror movie misled me in its advertising). Rigoberto Castañeda’s film KM 31 and its decade-later sequel KM 31-2 (these titles are seriously killing me) deposit her in the realm of early 2000’s J-horror with heavy vibes from The Ring and The Grudge. The Cry transplants her to modern day New York (unsuccessfully), J-ok’el – pronounced “joe-quelle” – is heavily influenced by the indigenous Mayan mythology of the Mexican town of Chiapas, and La Verdadera Historia de La Llorona (The True Story of La Llorona) is pretty much just a crummy telenovela.
And then there’s the most notable recent entry in her canon, 2011’s La Leyenda de La Llorona (The Legend of La Llorona) an animated children’s film that’s one part of a massive multimedia franchise. It’s basically Mexican Goosebumps and it’s quite delightful.
I think what all of this proves is what a remarkably elastic legend La Llorona is. She has been prodded and pushed into a thousand different shapes, but she always comes back to haunt us time and again. Whether or not her portrayal was scary or silly, politically charged or woefully ill-advised, slasher or haunted house or zeitgeist rip-off, she calls out to filmmakers everywhere for her story to be told.
Hopefully one of the subgenres she can fit herself into is “James Wan spookshow,” because I would love nothing more than for the broader culture to be exposed to her and invigorated to seek out her storied and infinitely compelling history. But at the very least, I hope this article has helped you understand a little bit of her history and given you the tools to approach this new film with the understanding of the potential this story has, and to be able parse out and analyze the value of what exactly they’ve chosen to do with it.
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. On his blog, Popcorn Culture, he is running through reviews of every slasher film of the 1980’s, and on his podcast, Scream 101, he and a non-horror nerd co-host tackle horror franchises from tip to tail! He also produces the LGBTQ horror podcast Attack of the Queerwolf! on the Blumhouse Podcast Network.