Thursday, March 19, 2015

The curse of the crying woman (La maldición de la Llorona)

The curse of the crying woman / La maldición de la Llorona [DVD]. Alameda Films, CasaNegra presents a film by Rafael Baledón; screenplay by Rafael Baledón & Fernando Galiana; directed by Rafael Baledón. Panik House Entertainment; Ryko Distribution, 2006. Originally released as a motion picture in 1961. Cast: Rita Macedo, Rosita Arenas, Abel Salazar, Carlos Lopez, Moctezuma, Enrique Lucero. 
Summary: a young woman inherits a creepy mansion from her reclusive aunt and gradually discovers its secrets, which include cursed bloodlines, mysterious murders, and supernatural magic.

style ****
substance ***

Accompanied by her husband, a naïve young woman visits her eccentric auntie, who lives in a decaying mansion. When they arrive, a scarred, clubfooted servant greets them in most menacing fashion while the auntie is nowhere to be found. As the couple settles in, creepy sounds of a wailing woman and ominous organ music can be heard in the middle of the night. Things only get worse for the visitors as the night progresses. 

If all this sounds familiar it’s, well, because it is. Curse of the Crying Woman (La Maldición de la Llorona) follows the familiar Gothic formula while throwing in a few, decidedly Mexican, twists and tricks of its own. Beautifully filmed at night and often described as the Mexican Black Sunday, the film is one of the summits of Mexican horror cinema and abounds in the genre’s trademark creepy atmospherics: hovering fog, candle lit dungeons, dilapidated castles, endless stairways, howling wolves, and lots of dead trees. In overall elegance of production I would rate it a whisker below Black Sunday, but with its own quirks and charms, which is another way of saying it’s pretty darn good.

Unrepentantly Gothic and with references not only to witchcraft but also voodoo, vampirism and lycanthropy, Crying Woman has all the genre’s requisite tropes: an inherited curse, pervasive madness, a menaced heroine, well meaning but ineffectual hero, sexy witch who is also a femme fatale, deformed servant, madman in the attic, rundown old castle, magical mirrors, dour portraits, and an intermingling of life and death, all done in a quintessentially Mexican style.

A veritable catalog of cinematic sleight-of-hand conjures up all these moods: miniatures, trick shots, lighting effects, rubber bats, foam rubber makeup, shadows, spooky sound effects, trap doors, elaborate staircases, fog machines, zooms, heavy-handed music score, rear projection and so on. Thus the striking similarity not only to the elegant Italian horror films of the era, but also the cheesy potboilers William Castle was serving us at about the same time, House on Haunted Hill in particular. But Crying Woman is a lot classier than Haunted Hill, and in its way scarier. All the more impressive that its high level of technical accomplishment was done so on a much smaller budget than its Hollywood and European counterparts.

In any case, the Mexican folktale of “La Llorona” (“The Weeping Woman”) has many variations and can be found in the local folklore of Hispanic communities from the American Southwest to the Philippines. The Curse of the Crying Woman is a very loose adaption of the original legend. In this version, the villainous Selma tries to use her niece in order to resurrect the ancient specter of La Llorona.

Selma is played by Rita Macedo, who projects a strong screen presence in the role of country estate matriarch who moonlights as a high priestess and sometimes eyeless witch. She’s supported by a fine cast of veteran Mexican actors but it’s really her show all the way. Whether playing the organ or metamorphosing into witch mode through one of her sinister trances, she oozes a malevolent sensuality that overlays a smoldering evil: seldom have we seen a witch this hot (burned at the stake or no) [1]. All in all, a marvelous, scenery chomping performance as the black magic woman.

My regard for the Mexican Horror genre grows with each new film I see, and if Curse of the Crying Woman is any representation, Mexico was a great country for Gothic cinema in the 1950s and 1960s. Though it my have some minor flaws, La Maldición de La Llorana is a quasi-masterpiece and nudges for a place in the top tier of horror films of the era.

CasaNegra’s re-mastered print looks like a million dollars and the special features include commentary by Michael Liuzza and a full color booklet, "The Legend of La Llorona" by Peter Landau. Delectably macabre and just plain beautiful to look at, Crying Woman is a must-see for fans of offbeat horror films.

[1] Barbara Steele, in the aforementioned Black Sunday is also pretty steamy. Is it just me, or does Rita Macedo bear a vague resemblance to Miss Steele? Maybe it’s all that black they wear.

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