Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Tears For Fears: Cry For Help

Year: 2020
Director: Jayro Bustamante
Cast: María Mercedes Coroy, Sabrina De La Hoz, Margarita Kenéfic
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

Like all the best horror villains, La Llorona is never quite dead. You may recall the massive undertaking of winter 2019, when I decided to review every movie (or at least every accessible movie) featuring the Mexican folk legend of the weeping woman, leading me down a path of over a dozen movies ranging from the very beginning of silent horror cinema in Latin America to the adventures of famous luchador Santo to a bunch of dumb slasher movies dolled up in folklore drag, culminating in The Curse of La Llorona, the latest effort in the extended Conjuring universe. 

Like most of my marathons, this one shall be resurrected every time La Llorona wails her way across movie screens, and this time the perpetrator is the online streaming service Shudder, which has brought us this highbrow horror effort from Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante.

Don't cry! Nothing's ever over!

This incarnation of La Llorona (it's the fourth film by that name) is about retired dictator Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz) and his family. The aging despot, who is dealing with encroaching Alzheimer's, is currently standing trial for the genocide of the Mayan Ixil people under his regime. Although a judge declared him guilty, the ruling was overturned and he and his wife Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic), daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz), and granddaughter Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado) return home, only to find out that every one of their indigenous servants has abandoned them except for the implacable Valeriana (María Telón). 

They are also under the care of super hot security guard Letona (Juan Pablo Olyslager), whose job has gotten a whole lot harder since protestors have been surrounding the building nonstop after the trial. When new maid Alma (María Mercedes Coroy) arrives, carrying nothing but her extremely long J-horror hair, things take a turn for the uncanny. I can't quite put my finger on it, but the way she keeps trying to hold Sara underwater to "teach her how to hold her breath" reminds me of someone...

Now who could that be?

So when I approached La Llorona, I was curious what take it would have on the famous legend. Immediately it announces its intentions to position her as a force of indigenous revenge upon future generations of colonizers. This common approach was first brought to the screen in 1933, so it's not particularly new, but it remains an especially potent aspect of the legend. It's very clear from the first blush that the film is brimming with ideas about how to implement this theme, looping in the way that the sins of the parents fall on the heads of the children, the ways that people who benefit from racial crimes without endorsing them are still complicit, and the way one's past has an implacable way of coming to crush them.

Unfortunately, ideas are not enough to build a feature film. You need characters, narrative, conflict, etc., and La Llorona boasts about as little of that as it can get away with without just playing a test pattern for 80 minutes. I'm not here to argue that "this horror movie isn't scary," even though it isn't. It's clear it's trying to build a sustained mood rather than deliver a few cheap jolts, and I don't begrudge it of that. But when that sustained mood is "women staring out of windows from underneath severe haircuts," it's hard not to be at least a little disappointed. 

Although Carmen's hair is immaculate and I worship it.

Plus, the way the film treats its titular villain is immensely frustrating. I will concede that I have no knowledge of how Guatemalan culture specifically interacts with the Llorona legend, so maybe I'm approaching it from a too North American perspective, but the hallmarks of her story are barely used here. Sure there might be a distant wail echoing through the halls at night on occasion, but beyond that even the basic building blocks of the legend are nowhere to be found. We sure get the message that Alma is up to something spooky, given her tendency to stare hollow-eyed and unspeaking into the middle distance, but most of the film's feints at building dread are entirely laughable. One instance, where her hair is blowing mysteriously, reveals that Sara is just using a hairdryer out of frame. This scene in a vacuum might be acceptable, but everything spooky about her is undermined with a cut rate Simpsons gag like this, so it's hard to let the dread sink under your skin.

And usually these slow boil horror films are building toward an explosion of mayhem in the final ten minutes (see: Hereditary), but La Llorona doesn't so much boil over as quietly evaporate. I honestly think the scariest moment in the movie beyond one 30-second stretch just before the end is when a faucet turns on by itself. It gives us almost nothing except a quiet, elliptical meditation on the indigenous experience in Guatemala. I hardly think it's a bad thing to explore the plight of indigenous peoples in countries across the globe, but I think the story could maybe have been better served if it wasn't wrapped up in the trappings of a genre it barely wants to engage with. 

Visually, at least it's trying something. The frequent overexposed lighting is not something that specifically appeals to me, nor is the deliberate and languorous camerawork that slowly pans in and out of carefully arranged tableaux, but it delivers a very clear vision, even if it's not to my taste. And moments like the increasing pounding from the protesters on the outside of the ambulance carrying the family home show hints of the dread we might have been experiencing later on in the film if the characters weren't quite so hollow and the narrative being played out quite so tedious. If the idea of a film combining La Llorona with Roma, Parasite, and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle intrigues you, I don't blame you. It intrigued me too. Unfortunately that just didn't get me much of anywhere.

TL;DR: La Llorona is good-not-great as an indigenous allegory and wholly boring as a horror film.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1047


  1. Bummer that this wound up on the more airless side of art horror.

    On a happier note, happy belated birthday, Brennan!

    1. I know the horror community as a whole abhors the term “elevated horror,” but I think I’d like to save it for special movies like this where they elevate themselves up their own ass.
      And thank you!