Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A new DVD label called CasaNegra is releasing excellent remasterings of classic Mexican horror films starting with two notable titles from the early 1960s, this film and El Espejo de la Bruja (The Witch's Mirror). Unless one happens to catch an infrequent showing on Spanish language television, original-language versions of these pictures are almost impossible to find, especially in quality presentations. Part of that is due to the heritage of K. Gordon Murray, an enterprising American who imported the films and dubbed them horribly into English.
For many viewers The Curse of the Crying Woman (La maldición de la Llorona) will be an odd return to genre basics. The literal and linear story ignores the standard legend of La Llorona and instead substitutes every creaky cliché from the Universal era forward. As crude as it is, this Mexican horror film believes in the genre and is both sincere and enthusiastic. While the rest of 1960s horror was moving into psychological territory, many fans welcomed a return to traditional terrors on claustrophobic B&W sets.
Amelia (Rosita Arenas) and her new husband Jaime (producer Abel Salazar) visit the creepy mansion of her Aunt Selma (Rita Macedo) and find themselves in the middle of a supernatural mystery. Selma is actually a ghoulish vampire waiting for Amelia's return to revive the rotted corpse of her grandmother, the famous Llorona of legend condemned as a witch years ago. As Amelia undergoes a psychic preparation for her role in the resurrection, Selma's demented servant Juan (Carlos López Moctezuma) menaces Jaime. And locked in the bell tower is Selma's supposedly deceased husband Dr. Daniel Jaramillo (Enrique Lucero of Macario), now a raving madman.
Savant would never have believed that a Mexican horror film industry had existed until Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine did an article on them in 1964 or '65. Forry Ackerman didn't seem to know what The Llorona was, but she looked mighty scary with her empty eye sockets and creepy smile. 1
The real Llorona of legend is a sad female bogeyman from Latin America, a woman who has been abandoned by her husband and haunts the streets. She cries for the children that have been taken away from her. This is the "supernatural" basis for, among other stories, Hitchcock's Vertigo. In the New World, it was not uncommon for emancipated rich men to "trade up" in wives simply by ditching the first for a younger and more desirable replacement. Declassed, "shamed" and alone, many of these women became homeless and perished "in their tears." It's a fear that runs through the Latin culture, and it created a supernatural ghost story with a very real social basis. 2
The Curse of the Crying Woman starts by reversing the meaning of the legend. Like most Mexican horror films it presents the female character as the villain: The real cause of Evil is female power. Three generations of 'cursed' females lust after the "unlimited" power of black magic. The main villainess has become a vampire and revolted against domestic normalcy by imprisoning her own husband: He's presumed dead but is really locked in the belfry to rot away. As for the new generation, the supposed hero is an ineffectual lummox constantly getting himself knocked unconscious while his bride undergoes a transformation to the "Dark Side." It's good that women have an active role in these pictures but rather unfair that they be unfairly branded as the Root of All Evil.
The story throws in every stock gothic situation that writer Fernando Galiana can think of, "borrowing" from both Universal and the new Italian horror films. The evil Selma has a magic mirror in which she casts no reflection, one of the film's few convincing camera tricks. She behaves as a standard vampire might, sleeping by day. We see her transform from a bat with a death's head into the disturbing eyeless Llorona figure. She must seduce her niece Amelia to the way of Evil by midnight to meet the deadline for the resurrection of the corpse in the cellar. The imagery comes right out of the Universal Dracula series and includes marionette bats and lap-dissolve transformations. Selma acquired her solitary servant Juan by rescuing him from the gallows; he limps on one leg like the Mummy and grins through a disfigured face just as did Bela Lugosi's Ygor in The Son of Frankenstein. Finally, the first appearance of Selma as La Llorona is a direct copy of the introduction of Princess Katia in Mario Bava's Black Sunday, right down to the clutch of dogs she holds on a leash. The makeup on Rita Macedo resembles that for Barbara Steele, minus the facial punctures from the Mask of Satan.
The action in The Curse of the Crying Woman is straightforward and artless, with clumsy exposition to set up the relationships. Very little happens that we haven't seen five times before in old American horror films. The difference is in the details. Director Baledón underlines every supposedly scary moment with an annoying zoom and a blast of music. Universal-style visuals are transposed to the Mexican setting (some years after colonial days) just by changing glass chandeliers to iron ones and replacing a candelabrum on a table with a piece of pottery. The women look attractive but severe in their period dresses.
The make-ups are disturbing, if not convincing, with Juan's face marred by a burn scar and the attic prisoner a mass of rotting flesh. Double exposures that superimpose living eyes into the decayed skull-face of the witch's corpse in the cellar are much more effective. All of these visuals would be far too strong for the 1930s.
After a violent prologue on the road (filmed very much in the interior-set Mario Bava style) the film settles into conventional storytelling, broken by two impressive visual nightmare scenes. The flashback story of the old witch is effectively rendered in negative. When Amelia is overcome with a vision of her new role as the third holder of the Llorona curse, Baledó superimposes a sky-ful of swooning eyes. These expressionistic visuals are what set the Mexican horror cinema apart from the genre in other countries -- influences from classic, even silent cinema seem to have been encouraged.
CasaNegra presents The Curse of the Crying Woman in a very good flat transfer of what was probably (judging from the shape of the text blocks in the main titles) a 1:66 film; cropping it to 1:78 immediately lops off critical information. One can't argue with the presentation details. The film can be watched with a Spanish or English track (possibly K. Gordon Murray's re-dub job) with or without English subtitles. The animated menus are tastefully done. The English commentary track is by CasaNegra exec Michael Liuzza, who mispronounces most of his Spanish (it's not the Lor-na) but he knows the basics on the cast and crew of the film and can tip ups off when the director is 'borrowing' from Mario Bava.
The text extras are all bilingual, as is the reversible cover sheet that changes from English to Spanish at will. The best extra is a series of detailed bios for the director and his stars, written by David Wilt. The Mexican movie business seems even more inbred than the English or Japanese cinema, as everybody seems to be related to somebody already working in films. The beautiful actress playing the heroine was at one time married to Carlos Fuentes. Both actresses had major roles in Luis Buñuel's Mexican films. A short image and poster gallery is included.
A generous selection of printed inserts includes a bilingual booklet on the traditional Llorona character through history, written by Peter Landau and illustrated with many full-color images of posters and artwork. The English translation again muffs the Spanish, to the extent of misspelling Llorona.
An engaging extra is a "Lottery Game Card" that uses poster image details to illustrate concepts like "El Miedo" and "La Bruja." It must have been put together by the same Spanish-challenged person, for at least one of the topics is misspelled. But it's a great collectable card, and CasaNegra's overall presentation is both refreshing and classy.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Curse of the Crying Woman rates:
Supplements: Commentary, bios, pamphlet on the traditional La Llorona, still and poster gallery, "Lottery" cards.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 1, 2006
1. Actually, while playing with friends as a 2nd grader in Hawaii, one of them told us all all about a monster "like Frankenstein, only better" called Orlak. Apparently Rafael Baledón's Orlak, El Infierno del Frankenstein (1960) had played in Honolulu. Looking up the film, I found that the dates matched up ... and imagine my surprise to see a giant, colorful poster for Orlak on my one visit to the Ackermansion in around 2001.
2. If you think you never heard of La Llorona, think back to A Streetcar Named Desire, a classic story of an 'abandoned' woman shunted aside by relatives. Somebody answers the doorbell in a scene, and there's a miserable old street woman, trying to sell flowers and practically shouting in Spanish, "Flores! Flores para los muertos!" ("Flowers for the Dead!") It might as well be La Llorona, selling graveyard flowers but really mourning for her lost children. The moment is lampooned in the Bill Murray comedy Quick Change: Geena Davis shudders when an identical woman approaches her on a dark street and complains, "Jesus, is that symbolic, or what?"
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson