Director: Jayro Bustamante
Stars: María Mercedes Coroy, Julio Diaz, Sabrina De La Hoz
Horror cinema has long reached hard for ways and means of isolating characters within a specific, claustrophobic space, be it through hazardous weather, clapped-out cell phone reception or even – in the case of Babak Anvari’s excellent 2016 film Under the Shadow – the threat of death from above in Iranian missile strikes. Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona (new to the UK thanks to streaming channel Shudder) takes a leaf from Anvari’s book by turning to the political… enshrining it’s characters in their home, barraged on all sides by righteously angry political protesters.
With his faculties and his physical body failing him, Guatemalan Don Enrique (Julio Diaz) has been found guilty of genocide; complicit through his inaction in preventing the slaughter of scores of innocence lives, a majority of them children. Besieged by the indignant and the furious, his family hunker down at their lavish estate. Their staff have deserted them and new help is required. Enter the young and quiet Alma (María Mercedes Coroy) whose long, lank raven hair and inscrupulous demeanor connects her psychically to countless J-horror sirens and their imitators.
Compounding the connection, Alma is often found near water, either ‘helping’ Don Enrique’s granddaughter Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado) to hold her breath in the bathtub, or emerging in the blue moonlight from the pond close to the ground floor windows; a place she frequents with a frog that seems very like a witch’s familiar. Sara’s mother Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz) is disquietened when she learns that Alma has already borne and lost two children. Given the atrocities leveled at their doorstep, the possibility that Alma plans some kind of reprisal becomes a ghost the haunts the house; as ever-present as the boos from over the high garden walls that often sound uncannily like the wailing of some ceaseless wind.
Western viewers may be familiar with the roots of this Central American folktale thanks to the functional (and already partially forgotten) Conjuring-offshoot The Curse of La Llorona which whimpered through UK cinemas only a year ago. The titular menace is a scorned spirit who scours the Earth for replacements for her own dead children to take as her own. A weeping woman unable to sate a wrong she only compounds. Jayro Bustamante’s version of the tale as conjured here feels much more potent; a kind of political reprisal or reckoning. Don Enrique may have been found guilty of his crimes (framed as the cruelest form of indifference), but he still lives in comparative luxury. It prompts the question: what constitutes justice? What’s enough, and who does it sate?
Horror films often try to brew tension through the fear of what might befall undeserving heroes. La Llorona places us in a strange position by holing up with Don Enrique and his family. We’re asked to wonder to what extent the women that surrounded him were also complicit? Tacit agreement and a code of ignorance. Natalia is a cold person (calloused by the sins of the father). Her mother, Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic), is increasingly haunted by nightmares that cast her in the role of one of her husband’s victims – another expression of the same guilt-by-proxy. None of these characters may have directly harmed another person in their lives, but the pall of genocide clings to them all. Only young Sara seems like a true innocent, making her the perfect victim…
Anvari’s Under the Skin comes to mind in other ways while watching La Llorona. Bustamante’s film shares its slow-burn approach, slowly building unease and judiciously dialing up the sense of a waking nightmare unfolding. Reality bends gradually. It’s the furthest cry possible from Hollywood’s jump-and-shout The Curse of La Llorona. I didn’t mind that film as a bit of time-killing fluff. La Llorona, however, is more demanding. It is also more compelling and more memorable for it’s complexity, political clout and skillful ability to worm its way under the skin. And, like Under the Skin before it, it uses superior genre tactics to open up awareness of altogether more human atrocities happening outside the blinkered gaze of most Western media.
Autumn is coming, which means horror season. There are a few choice titles on the horizon. In the meanwhile, however, this little gem from Guatemala is thoroughly deserving of your attention. Dark waters run deep.