❉ The first horror film made with sound in Mexico deserves to be seen for its historical significance alone, writes Johnny Restall.
An unwary man stumbles home at midnight, braving the deserted streets. Suddenly, the air is filled with an unearthly, ululating shriek. Overcome with terror, the stricken man falls lifeless to the ground, a cigarette still stuck in his mouth and his fingers frozen in an anguished claw.
So begins 1933’s La Llorona, the first horror film made with sound in Mexico, re-released this month in a new Blu-ray restoration by the Indicator label.
By the late 1920s, Hollywood studios were increasingly concerned that their international success would be adversely affected by the advent of sound, due to the increased prominence of the language barrier. In a short-lived attempt to bridge the gap, a number of alternative-language versions were filmed alongside the American originals (most famously 1931’s Spanish Dracula, filmed by night on the very same sets as the English-language production, with Carlos Villarias replacing Bela Lugosi). Although the experiment did not last, this brief innovation provided practical experience for many non-US artists, who then brought their skills to bear on the blossoming film industries of other countries.
One such individual was La Llorona’s director, Ramón Peón. Born in Cuba in 1887, he initially trained as a chemist but moved into entertainment, helming several silent features in his home country. After working as an assistant director on several Spanish-language Hollywood movies in the early 1930s, he moved to Mexico and made his ‘talkie’ directorial debut with La Llorona.
Reflecting the growing self-confidence of Mexican cinema, the film declines to adapt one of the European gothics favoured by ‘30s Hollywood, preferring to tackle a home-grown phantom. The folkloric figure of La Llorona (or The Weeping Woman) is deeply embedded in Mexican popular culture. Some scholars trace her origins to the Aztec goddess Cihuacoatl, the protector of women who died in childbirth, while others link her legend to the abuses committed against native women by the colonial conquistadors. Although accounts vary, she is typically portrayed as a vengeful spirit said to roam streets near the waterfront, howling for the children she herself has drowned. The ghost has been interpreted in many different ways: as a symbol for the vengeance of wronged women, a spectre of infanticide, or as a patriarchal warning of disobedient ‘evil’ motherhood.
Despite its horror billing, the 1933 film largely plays as a gothic mystery, favouring old houses, secret passages, and the intrigues of the living over explicitly supernatural shocks. Its striking opening sequence turns out to have almost no relationship to the rest of the plot, beyond serving to introduce the suave Dr Ricardo de Acuna (Ramon Pereda), who performs an autopsy on the corpse. De Acuna swiftly proves his scientific, sceptical credentials, overruling his superstitious juniors and pronouncing the cause of death to be heart failure.
The story moves on to his son Juanita’s fourth birthday party. Despite its cheerful tone, the scene again establishes that the Doctor’s rationality is not shared by everyone, even in his own house, the four-leaf clover tables and the antics of the servant Mario (Carlos Orellana) attesting to the persistence of older, uncanny beliefs. More ominously, the boy’s grandfather Don Fernando (Paco Martinez) is full of foreboding. His own first-born son disappeared on his fourth birthday, only to be found stabbed to death days later. He warns de Acuna of a curse on the family, linked to two historic scandals involving their ancestors. Even as he explains his fears, a menacing figure, clad in a dark hood, eavesdrops behind the door…
Although the stage seems set for a contemporary tale of deathless vengeance, around half of the film’s duration is actually devoted to lengthy flashbacks detailing the two loosely-linked ancestral tales (which also serve as potential ‘origin’ stories for La Llorona herself). Perhaps surprisingly for its time, both stories are broadly sympathetic to their vengeful female protagonists; the cruel, selfish male ancestors are depicted as the true villains, provoking the women into their terrible final acts. While these recreations are not without interest, with the opulent costumes and grandeur of the first contrasting effectively with the eerie minimalism of the second, they do have the unfortunate effect of significantly derailing the momentum of the present-day action.
The decision to squeeze three separate storylines into one seventy-minute film ultimately results in a somewhat disjointed, rushed whole. Character motivations and certain plot points remain unclear, particularly in the de Acuna storyline, with the supernatural elements barely tethered to the dominant mystery melodrama. Although the horror is only tentatively unleashed, the film still has brief moments of sinister poetry, and an intriguingly dreamlike tone. The moments when the ghost ‘rises’ are simple but effective, the monkish hooded figure makes a pleasingly macabre image as it stalks the secret passages, and the curse itself, though somewhat underwhelmingly resolved in the end, has a satisfyingly gruesome and subversive edge.
While the film lacks the more distinctive visual style of silents such as Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari or the ghoulish wit of James Whale’s contemporary Hollywood horrors, its re-release remains a cause for celebration. It certainly holds academic interest for students of Mexican or genre cinema, and deserves to be seen for its historical significance alone. The restoration, from the sole surviving 16mm projection print (all 35mm prints being lost or destroyed), inevitably shows some wear and tear but remains highly watchable, its very existence being quite an achievement in the face of its past neglect. Indicator round out their typically thorough package with commentary from author and editor Stephen Jones with critic Kim Newman, a documentary by the producer’s great granddaughter Viviana Garcia Besne, and a particularly enlightening introduction from critic and curator Abraham Castillo Flores.
❉ ‘La Llorona’ Limited Edition Blu-ray (World Blu-ray premiere) released 21 March 2022 via Picturehouse/Indicator, Cat. No. #PHILTD243. BBFC cert: 12. REGION FREE. Limited edition of 2,000 copies for the UK (4,000 copies for the world). RRP £15.99. Click here to order.