In Mexican legend, la llorona is the ghost of a woman who drowned her own children after the children's father abandoned her for another woman. One of the possible inspirations for this legend is a particular historical figure, the Indian mistress of conquistador Hernan Cortes. This gives the legend particular potency in light of the ongoing tension between indigenous and European culture in Mexican history. The legend may actually go back even farther than the Spanish invasion; in any case, the legend has lost none of its power over the centuries, with reported sightings of la llorona crying for her lost children continuing even now in norteamericano communities with a significant Mexican population.
It's hardly surprising that the legend has been adapted for films ever since the early days of Mexican cinema. The very first Mexican horror film was 1933's La Llorona, which followed the morbid legend through three periods in Mexican history. Other versions included 1947's La herencía de la llorona and Rene Cardona, Sr.'s mildly interesting 1960 film, La llorona. El Santo ran into the ghost in the mid-seventies, although he never actually shared any screen time with the Crying Woman (and certainly never wrestled her). Even today, new films based on the old story continue to be made, from major studio productions to low-budget camcorder epics. Most recently as of this writing, the creative team behind The Conjuring franchise came out with a movie entitled Curse of La Llorona. Shame on them: that's essentially the title of one of the best films based on la llorona, if also the one that bears the least resemblance to the folk tale: La Maldición de la llorona (Curse of the Crying Woman, 1961), which uses the legend as a sort of jumping-off point to one of the darkest and most deliriously unhealthy of the classic Mexican gothics.
Now, there are those insist that horror films must be overstated and obvious — not to mention in color — and they will probably find La Maldición... very tame. That's too bad: if they would only stop and consider what's going on just beneath the surface of the movie, they would see that in spite of the lack of blood or nudity there's as much decadence and corruption to be found here as in any contemporary horror.
Take the pre-credit sequence, for example. In a sequence probably inspired by Mario Bava's Black Sunday, we open with a coach travelling through a desolate stretch of studio — er, sorry; forest — carrying a typical load of victims. There's the fat guy who thinks he's funny, and the obligatory straight man he plays off; and there's the frightened young girl. Waiting for them down the road, we have our Main Monster — not the Crying Woman herself, but her acolyte and descendant Selma, who has become some sort of psychic vampire who feeds off suffering, despair and death. She's got the requisite disfigured hunchbacked henchman and a pack of ferocious dogs. Typical, right?
Not necessarily. First of all, the girl in the coach speeding to her certain doom is played by none other than Julissa, a Mexican actress who would later become a famous actress in her own right (she's beloved by us bad movie aficionados for co-starring in Boris Karloff's last 4 films, which were Mexican co-productions). What makes this bit of casting so particularly nifty is the fact that Julissa was the real-life daughter of Rita Macedo, the actress playing Doña Selma. Yes — this girl is about to meet a gruesome on-screen demise (particularly nasty for 1961), at the hands of her own real-life mother!
OK — you don't need to know this particular bit of trivia to appreciate what's going on... but it does add an extra frisson to what happens next: as our vampire woman savors the horrible deaths of the people in the coach, it becomes obvious to us that she's not just enjoying the bloodbath... she's getting off on it. Don't let the fact that her eyes have turned jet-black distract you: this woman is having an orgasm watching these people die.
But this massacre is just a snack for Selma. The main course will be served later that night. Selma is awaiting the arrival of her sweet, innocent, virginal niece Amelia from the Big City, who (whether she likes it or not) is going to play a big part in the evening's orgy of evil. For Selma has in the basement of her gloomy mansión the mummified body of the Crying Woman herself... and la llorona makes a particularly restless corpse. La llorona's undead soul is trying to claw its way out of the depths of hell; but in order to come back to life all the way, someone needs to pull the big metal spike out of her withered heart. Selma can't do it herself, since she's already given her soul to the forces of darkness. Selma is already rotten through and through, and the one who revives the Crying Woman must be a sweet, innocent victim, just on the verge of corruption.
(Ahem) Guess who?
(As an aside, I'm not sure how a woman who became infamous for murdering her very young children could have descendants... but I may have misunderstood the directness of the family connections.)
Much to Aunt Selma's suprise, young Amelia brings something unexpected with her from Town: a husband named Jaime (Abel Salazar). This causes Selma some consternation — remember the whole "virginal" bit? — until she finds out that the couple was married very shortly before her summons arrived and drew them out to the country. And by "very shortly", I mean no sex.
Amelia hasn't seen her aunt in many years, since well before her uncle supposedly — supposedly — passed away. She's a little surprised to see that the hacienda has been redecorated in Early Transylvanian, and that her aunt has been taking Lugosi lessons (I wish someone would teach me the ol' walking-through-the-cobwebs trick). Amelia even comes across her aunt playing a dirge on the pipe organ — if that doesn't give her a hint that something sinister is going on, then what would?
Selma is a little anxious to get the party started, since this particular night is the one night that la llorona's resurrection might be accomplished. If she misses this chance, the Crying Woman will turn to dust forever, and her own power will drain out of her like blood from a flayed victim. Obviously, the biggest obstacle is Amelia's new husband... but Selma has two things working in her favor. One is her disfigured, huchbacked henchman. There's nothing like a disfigured, hunchbacked henchman for taking care of your dirty work, especially when your disfigured hunchbacked henchman is played by one of Mexican cinema's most distinguished actors, Carlos Lopez Moctezuma. The other thing working in Selmas favor is the fact that Abel Salazar's Jaime is something of an idiot.
Abel Salazar wrote, produced and/or directed a good number of the classic Mexican gothics of the 1950's and 60's. He also saw fit to star in a handful of them, and while I realize there are plenty of people who will disagree with me, I'm not at all sure that was such a wise thing for him to do. Salazar was a gifted comic actor, and his skills were put to good use in movies like El Vampiro and El Ataud del vampiro (The Vampire's Coffin). However, he also played the heavy in El Baron del Terror (The Brainiac) where his stolid, affable presence is so unthreatening that it helps make the film unintentionally funny. And then there are films like this one, where Salazar got to play the romantic lead. The romantic lead in a horror film is usually the least interesting character; that's particularly true of this film, in which women hold all the power, and the men are either bumbling fools (like the men in the coach, or the ineffectual policemen who show up later) or half-human monsters (such as the disfigured hunchbacked henchman, or... well, we'll get to that later). As played by Salazar, Jaime falls squarely into the "fool" category. He certainly tries to be heroic, but this is not a film for heroes; besides, Salazar carries himself like a comedian, which makes his efforts seem even less inspiring.
Almost immediately, Selma gets to work separating Amelia from her husband, and trying to convince her that the cursed blood of la llorona flows in her veins. Amelia starts to believe that corruption is her destiny when strange things begin to happen to her: for example, she looks in a mirror and sees the Crying Woman's ghastly corpse-face staring back at her. At least this situation is a little better than that of her aunt, who casts no reflection at all. Later, when Ameila runs in a panic out to he road to look for help, the Crying Woman's supernatural nastiness begins to assert itself: her eyes turn black, and she assaults a poor farmer who stops to try and help her. She is only barely able to restrain herself in time to let the terrified man escape.
Her husband, in the meantime, begins to suspect something is not as it should be in this house. Creeping up one of the most familiar stairways in Mexican cinema — I think it's a studio scaffold that film-makers used any time they wanted a long flight of stairs — he comes to the top of the bell tower. It's obvious that the layout of the inside of the tower in no way matches the exterior shots... but I suppose we can overlook this. At the top of the stairs is a barred cell, and here Jaime discovers that Amelia's uncle is still alive... or at least part of him is. Hes been reduced to a horrible state, more like that of an abused animal than a human being. It's even hinted that his wife has unmanned him in more ways than one.
Now, if you've ever taken an undergraduate humanities course, you're probably used to the idea that attics, towers, mountaintops and other high places are usually the lairs of the masculine Sky-God cult... and in Sky-God mythology, creation is an act of will or intellect (Zeus, Jehova or Frankenstein wresting the secrets of life from feminine Nature). Similarly, cellars and caves tend to suggest the feminine Earth-Goddess cult, for obvious reasons. Well, this film thumbs its nose at the undergrads: sure, the women are in the basement, secure in their power. Sure, masculine and feminine elements are struggling over the secrets of life. But the Guy Upstairs is a gibbering eunuch... make of that what you will.
Anyway: our bumbing male lead soon finds himself caught between a homicidal lunatic at the top of the stairs, and the knife-wielding hunchbacked henchman at the bottom. The only thing that saves him is the sudden reappearance of Amelia — since Selma hasn't quite won her over to the Dark Side yet, and knows that she risks losing her if she moves too decisively.
(Actually, Jaime finds himself in an even more dangerous position when he is left alone in the care of Selma. In order to gain her powers from la llorona and the forces of evil, Selma has had to renounce love... which is something we've heard many times before in myth and legend. And, or course, by "renounce love" I mean no sex. We've seen how she gratifies herself with the suffering of innocent victims; but when she's confronted with a steaming slab o' Salazar she starts to forget herself. Here you really have to give credit to Rita Macedo: in a film with little blood and no nudity, she manages to convey an aggressive and earthy sexuality with a light caress and a whisper... putting to shame the whole lot of today's supposedly-sexy vampires.)
As I mentioned earlier, this is a film in which men have very little part. Even God is conspicuously absent from the movie, which is unusual for a supernatural vampire film of this vintage. Not even Satan dares risk his presence here: the Crying Woman wields an older magic. In this version of the story, la llorona is a sort of devil-figure from some ancient fertility cult: an evil deity who murders her own offspring and brings only death.
(Whoops! There I go with the undergraduate bullshit again...)
But if this is a distinctly female film, perhaps it's only appropriate that its male director, Rafael Baledón, has a great deal of difficulty bringing it to a climax.
With the movie's men reduced to mere bystanders, it's up to Amelia herself to decide whether she will save her husband, defeat the Crying Woman and restore the boring status quo... or whether she will bring la llorona back to life and help evil triumph. We all know how this is going to end, but it takes Amelia an agonizingly long time to choose. And here the movie takes a huge step back from the revolutionary steps it's taken to establish strong female characters: Women, says the movie; they just can't make up their minds!
Oh, well. It's not until the very end of the movie approaches that the male characters being to reassert themselves (not, as in other horror films, because the movie thinks they deserve the upper hand, but more as an attempt to even out the roles of the sexes and restore some balance... well, either that or just because all the major decicions are over with, and somebody needs to do the cleaning-up). One of the highlights of the movie comes when Selma's husband escapes from his prison in the bell tower. His rampage is interrupted when he catches sight of his own portrait (as a healthy and complete man). Paralyzed with shock at first, he then flies into a murderous rage, destroying the painting and then rushing off to wreak his revenge.
What more could a horror fan ask for? We've got monsters! Madmen! Mayhem! Living corpses! A house that disintegrates in a perfect Roger Corman ending, even though the Corman ending had just been invented! We even get to see a montage of bits of other classic Mexican gothics, as Selma explains the bloody history of la llorona to her neice; and if the montage is shown in negative, well... that only makes it more tantalizing. And underlying the whole film, there's that strong sense of frustrated sexuality — unhealthy sexuality that sustains itself on decay and death. La Maldición de la llorona is a sick little treasure of a film. Anybody with a serious interest in horror movies should by all means watch this delirious minor classic of the genre.