La Llorna doesn’t show up in tales from the Caribbean, so I didn’t know about her until I was a teenager with an interest in urban legends and an internet connection. However, she is one of the most well known and enduring figures in Latin American folklore from Mexico, Central America, and South America. There are many versions of the La Llorona story – one of the most common being that she is an Indigenous woman living in the 1500s who falls in love with a Spanish nobleman. Despite their class discrepancy they have a loving relationship and two children together, though eventually the nobleman decides to marry a wealthy Spanish woman of his same social stature. In a fit of jealousy or revenge, the Indigenous woman drowns her two children and then herself in a river. Unable to enter heaven until she can locate the souls of her children, her spirit wanders the shores of rivers at night while crying loudly (La Llorona literally means “the woman who cries a lot” and is usually translated as “The Weeping Woman” and sometimes “The Wailer”). Like many urban legends, the story of La Llorona serves as a tale meant to curb bad behavior in children i.e. don’t wander alone near the river at night or La Llorona will think you are her missing child and spirit you away.
Now let’s take a look at how three recent pieces of media adapt her story.
First up we have The Curse of La Llorona from 2019. This was actually the last movie I saw at my best friend’s place before quarantine started. We used to do “bad movie nights” almost weekly for years and we’ve had a lot of fun watching some truly bottom of the barrel stuff. I had heard almost nothing but negative things about The Curse of La Llorona, but I hoped that it would be stupid fun in the same way that something like The Bye Bye Man or Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare is. Unfortunately it isn’t silly enough to be in the same league as those films and and doesn’t take enough risks to be legitimately good either.
Director Michael Chaves does as good a job as can be expected when asked to emulate the aesthetic of the other films in The Conjuring universe. The only truly goofy filmmaking decision is when the theme from Superfly plays during the intro to establish that the film is set in the 1970s. The music doesn’t fit the style and tone of the scene whatsoever, and the fact that it plays non-diegetically means it fails at establishing anything. The other big project that Chaves had in 2019 was directing the music video for “Bury a Friend” by Billie Eillish and I wish some of the style from that bled into this.
The biggest issue with the film is that it doesn’t treat the source material properly… La Llorona is an implicitly Latin American story but the film regards its few Latino characters with contempt. Linda Cardellini is decent enough in the starring role and the movie isn’t crass enough to pass her character off as Latina, but why not cast a Latina in the role? Her children are Latino but their presumably Latino dad was killed off before the story of the film takes place. Why not include him in a supporting role? The only two prominent Latino characters are brujo Rafael and the unfit mother Patricia.
Rafael is one of those non-white characters who just sort of is magic for some reason… he is a former Catholic priest who now practices some vague Indigenous form of mysticism that isn’t named. He does not have a character arc of his own besides being helpful to the main characters, and even then they question and ridicule his methods and beliefs at every opportunity (even though they are the ones who sought his wisdom in the first place). The film goes out of its way to remind you that he isn’t heroic, at one point he uses the family as bait for La Llorona, and in the end it’s good ol’ Catholicism and not his magic that saves the day (spoilers but La Llorona is killed when they stab her with a crucifix). Patricia also exists only to drive the plot forward. Anna, Linda Cardellini’s character, is her social worker, and Patricia’s supposed mistreatment of her children is the inciting incident that sets the story in motion. She isn’t really seen much until she comes back near the end in a mostly antagonistic role.
Now I mostly like The Conjuring movies, but I feel like the studio behind them simply wanted to have their own Sadako (the girl from the Ring) and grabbed the first public domain character they thought of that fit the bill. Studios assume that only white audiences watch horror, so they’ll hire white writing teams to transform non-white stories into white ones and we end up with middle of the road affairs like this that appeal to no one. How are studios still making this baseless assumptions in a post Get Out world?
Now for something completely different, we have La Llorona. While also from 2019, I wasn’t aware of this movie at all until Shudder posted about it online as part of their Hispanic Heritage month collection. I’m so glad I watched this movie and only wish it was more well known. If you haven’t seen this unique and important film and don’t want (minor) spoilers, I’d recommend trying out Shudder’s seven day free trial and giving it a watch.
La Llorona is a slow burn film but it is never boring or dull. In Guatemala during the 1980s, an elderly war general is being tried for his part in orchestrating the genocide of the Mayan people native to the area. His increasingly bizarre behavior could be due to senility or the supernatural, either way all but one member of his Mayan house staff decide to quit. An uprising occurs after the general’s guilty verdict is overturned by the higher courts. Even though riots and demonstrations are happening outside of the general’s palatial estate, he is able to hire on one new housekeeper… a Mayan woman named Alma. While all this is going on, the general’s wife is having recurring dreams that she is being hunted down by men with machine guns and his daughter begins to question what happened to her daughter’s missing father.
La Llorona herself doesn’t appear in the film at all until a third of the way in. Many of the horror moments are fake-outs meant to play on the audience’s assumed knowledge of the legend, and this preps the viewer to question all of the magical elements in the film and be genuinely surprised by the ones that turn out to be real. All of the characters are given backstories or characters arcs, and the movie treats its Indigenous characters, even the ones who are revealed to be supernatural entities, as humans with agency. The film understands that Latin Americans are not a “faceless brown mass”, and that racism and classism are just as prevalent in our countries and communities as everywhere else. This is a film made by Latinos for a Latino audience but it is a film that everyone should watch.
La Llorona plays fast and loose with the mythology of its title character, but in a way that only someone who understands the origins of the story could do. Monster or not, she is 100% the hero of the story, and the movie lets us know that her work isn’t done while the credits roll.
Llorona is a short video game released a few days ago as part of the HISPANIC HERITAGE MONTH JAM 2020. I bought it for the suggested $2 on a whim after seeing videos of it pop-up on Youtube and Reddit, and I loved every minute of its short running time. In Llorona you inherit a haunted estate in a card game and have to find the source of the paranormal activity. As a “walking simulator” style game, it isn’t possible to die in Llorona, but the eerie atmosphere and well done jump scares will keep you on edge throughout.
La Llorona’s backstory is explored in letters and journal pages you find while solving puzzles; the story here doesn’t touch on the racial/class divide between La Llorona and her husband and instead focuses on the neglect she experiences at his hands. This game is more interested in being a spooky ghost story than exploring social commentary, and thats fine: I love a good ghost story, and Llorona is very good at being one, with more scares than both of the movies I’ve discussed. That is not to say that this version of La Llorona has nothing to say – horror always lives in the land of metaphor – but her function in this story is squarely as a vehicle for jumps scares, which is a valid interpretation of the character. The Curse of La Llorona tries to treat her in a similar way and fails miserably because the creators don’t have the same love for the folktale as the artist behind Llorona.
The game is rough around the edges, but the low-polygon aesthetic deliberately calls to mind early 3D horror games like Alone in the Dark and the original Resident Evil. As a game made in three weeks by one person, I think it is a great accomplishment, warts and all. As someone who has spent their adult life immersed in niche art communities, I can’t help but root for small projects like this.