Saturday, November 03, 2007

Movies: It's my party and I'll cry if I want to.

After watching and loving CasaNegra's fabulous edition of the Mexican horror classic The Witch's Mirror (El espejo de las bruja), I went off in search of some of the other South of the Boarder horror gems presented by the company. I quickly found CasaNegra's first release, a 1961 Mexican horror flick called The Curse of the Crying Woman (La maldición de la llorona).

First, a bit about the legend of the La Llorona . . .

The ghostly La Llorona, "The Crying Woman," is to many children of Spanish-speaking North and America what the spectral Bloody Mary is to English-speaking Anglo youngsters. Just as Bloody Mary's backstory changes from region to region (I heard it had something to do with the Titanic), the tale of La Llorona varies depending on where you hear it. The key elements, however, remain fairly stable: a mother, dead children, and a restless spirit. In Mexico and New Mexico, the story of La Llorona centers around a young woman, seduced and abandoned by a local man who left her with several children. La Llorona then killed her offspring, either to spare them a life of poverty or to free herself to marry another man or to wound the man who left her. In some sections of Texas, the legend specifies that La Llorona was a Native American woman and that her fate was God's punishment for killing her children. In some variants, La Llorona doesn't kill her children but rather dies in a failed attempt to stop her brutal husband or father from killing the children. In at least on variant, La Llorona's children are the victims of a natural disaster. Regardless of how La Llorona's children end up dead, the result is always the same: La Llorona's ghost ends up roaming the Earth, wailing and calling out for her dead children. In the cities of Southern California, the banshee-like specter travels the flood control channels. In Las Cruces and El Paso, La Llorona haunts the banks of the Rio Grande.

In Guatemala, the ghost's wail gives the name of her dead child: Juan de la Cruz. Also, in a truly weird and unique detail, La Llorona's wail reverses the normal relationship of space and sound. If she sounds close, she's actually far away. If you can barely make out her cries, then she's right next to you. (Potentially cool sound trick – would-be makers of La Llorona films take note.)

The children of Honduras know the same ghost by the name La Ciguanaba, "The Dirty One." A more sinister variant of the traditional La Llorona tale, The Dirty One drowns other people's children (notably school children) and her cry translates to something like, "Drink from my breast because I am your mother." In Peru, she haunts the tourist-clogged beaches. In Panama, she's called "La Tulivieja" and haunts the banks of rivers.

Got all that? Good. Now forget it.

Despite the fact that "The Crying Woman" is nearly the national spook of many Central and South American countries, the The Curse of the Crying Woman seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the legend. Which is weird. It is kinda like a director making a superhero movie called Superman, only, you know, not THAT Superman.

That strange quirk aside, The Curse of the Crying Woman is an excellent "old dark house" style horror flick that CasaNegra can count as another feather in their cap. A pleasingly overstuffed tale of murder, witchcraft, and madness, the flick has a stylish and classy look that brings to mind the golden age of Universal horror.

The Curse begins with a strange "false" start in which the Crying Woman, a witch with black cavities for eyes, and her malformed henchman dispatch a carriage full of travelers that are passing near her mansion. And I do mean dispatch: a thrown knife, a pack of man-eating attack dogs, and one woman-crushing carriage wheel make quick work of these filler folks. It operates much the way the opening scenes of the Scream films did. By ripping through a trio of disposable characters right away, the movie sets the bar for the craziness to come. After that initial scene, we settle into the real story, involving a young woman who is coming home to visit her aunt after an absence of many years. During these years, many things have changed. The young woman has gotten herself a hubby – who comes along for the visit. The aunt, for her part, started worshipping the dark spirit of an evil witch whose corpse she found in a chamber underneath her mansion. She's also trapped her horribly mutilated husband up in the tower of her home and has taken up random homicide as a hobby. What, you want her to wither up and die just because the children have finally left home?

In a display of dramatic unity that would please Aristotle, the rest of the movie spools out over the course of a single evening. The aunt tries to convert our heroine to witch worship, the hunchback servant attempts to kill the husband, the mutated uncle breaks loose and goes on a rampage, at one point police officers show up and face off against the aunt's pack of killer hounds, and eventually the house begins to literally break apart. All in one night! That’s narrative efficiency for you.

The visual effects, if somewhat dated, are still enjoyable. The direction, by Rafael Baledón, is effective, but not showy (in contrast to the pull-all-the-stops approach of Urueta in The Witch's Mirror). The acting, with the exception of the husband who's a bit wooden, is suitably over-the-top and dramatic. Curse is well worth the time of any horror fan who wonders where the melodramatic aesthetic of classic horror went. Apparently, it went south.


Anonymous said...

Although a digression, I feel I should mention that on Halloween night, I played my DVD of SANTO AND BLUE DEMON VERSUS DRACULA AND THE WOLFMAN while I handed out candy.

I've seen these CasaNegra DVDs at some of the stores I haunt and I've been very curious about them. I'm glad you've been reviewing them. I'll have to check them out.

My mom told me a similar legend from where she grew up: Indonesia, the island of Sumatra. Actually, her hometown was in the province that got slammed by that "Christmas" tsunami a couple years ago.
But they also had a crying woman, who could be heard when it got dark.
Parents would tell the kids to come in or else they'd be abducted by this woman, who cried and, apparently, had a nail in her back.
Weird. I don't know any more of the legend.

CRwM said...