The most effective, emotionally intense, intellectually mature themes of the Mexican fright film are anchored in oral legend and rural folklore. Embodying the universal fears, anxieties, and secret desires of the culture from which they spring -- and which they in turn feed -- traditional folklore is the literature 'of the people,' the language of dreams and nightmares. Spread orally from village to village, mouth to mouth, family to family, weathering centuries and various artistic mediums, the basic premises of stories coated in shadow-haunted tragedy and spectral possibility remain surprisingly constant. Perhaps minor details are altered, such as place names, and contextual attitudes which mirror the changing values of a people, but, for the most part, the essential plot structure, thematic substance, and cultural resonance of legendry -- particularly that of horrific lore -- remains unaltered. The purposes for such oral art, too, remains consistent, consisting of the desire to teach, entertain, and titillate. Such are the elements that breath life and pertinence into the emotionally provocative cross-cultural folktale-turned-modern-urban legend of 'La Llorona', the tragic spectral wraith lending undeniably eerie surface imagery (and still deeper cultural/social meaning) to the evocative Mexican masterpiece, The Curse Of The Crying Woman.

Entrenched in the emotional lyricism and cultural tragedy of an actual folktale whose spectral shadow has long enmeshed the people of Mexico, Texas, and various parts of the world (and through various ages) in a stranglehold of dread and delight, The Curse of the Crying Woman, is a sadly underappreciated classic of Mexican cinema, seen primarily in the altered K. Gordon Murray edition. Focusing on the exploits of La Llorona, the crying woman of cultural infamy cursed to wander the earth searching for the souls of children, this specter is both victim and victimizer, a wrathful Ban-shee type creature whose call and appearance are harbingers of death. In this fascinating film of terror and titillation from industry great Rafael Baledon, the frightful figure of Llorona (and the haunting curse which envelopes her and all whom she encounters) reaches out to choke the soul of characters believable enough for us to feel sympathy for even as we thrill to the dangers.

Seductive in its combination of unearthly occult atmosphere and naturalistic decay, the plot is entrenched in the tradition of cultural decadence and supported by luscious atmosphere. Na´ve Emily (Rosita Arenas) and her husband Jaime (Salazar)arrive at a crumbling mansion whose physical deterioration mirrors the internal decay of characters in a creative nod to the expressionism of early German cinema. Not knowing that Aunt Selma (Rita Macedo) is a demonic temptress who drains life and lust from hapless victims, Emily is a tad disconcerted when she peers into a mirror and sees a skull leering back at her. Planning on resurrecting the essence of a vampiric entity by the murders of several neighborhood folks, Elma hungers for the moment when she can resurrect the vengeful spirit of the Wailing Witch (Llorona). Will Emily surrender to the dark hungers of her ancestral blood and the supernatural taint hanging over the estate or will she find the power to resist?

Along with The Witch's Mirror and the Black Pit of Doom, The Curse of the Crying Woman (La Maldicion De La Llorona) is one of the finest examples of Mexican dark fantasy. Equally poetic and harsh, suggestive and graphic, its contradictory impulses and paradoxical themes evoke a constant state of friction and unease difficult to surpass even in modern cinema, where lavish effects and big budgets cannot compensate for lack of story, dedication, or heart. Curse excels in all three, making up in enthusiasm, technical ability, and a simple willingness to disturb any deficiencies of budget. Employing the very same images that terrify to arouse, the film instills in audiences a child-like sense of wonder. In this the movie is both an adult fable of morals and full fledged terror spectacle. Although burrowing from the Italian gothic films of the period, the film achieves an independent identity, thanks to the inspired direction of Abel Salazar (who also stars).

There is something special, something unique, about Mexican horror movies, and nowhere is this point more realized than in Curse Of The Crying Woman, which tells its refreshingly simplistic tale in a serious, reflective manner. Harkening us back to the glory-gory days of the supernatural gothic, and the emotional resonance of horrific folklore, this particular film treats a surprisingly sensitive script with respect and energy, celebrating sensation both for its own sake and as logical extensions of an inventive story. Director Rafael Beldon explores both the internal nature of characters and the phenomena of external appearances with aplomb, mirroring the essence of both in the manifestations of the other. Thus is the hopelessness, fear, and anger of characters echoed in the stone walls of the castle, and fear of the unknown symbolized by the seeping, raw wounds of the dark night. Likewise, the murky confusion of innocent consciousnesses are embodied by swirling fogs and mist banks. Beldon's sense of pacing and ability to instill physical surface action with additional thematic sub-text lends further integrity to a plot whose dependence on cultural legend raises it above the simplistic level of a pot-boiler. As much a suggestive drama of self and culpability as it is an adult faerie tale of betrayal, the film also hints at a political allegory, suggesting the savagery with which the aristocracy feeds upon the poor. For those not interested in subtext, the impressive period setting, spectral atmosphere, and engaging performances make the film essential viewing.

Presented in a re-mastered print void of the deficiencies one would expect in such an old film, The Curse Of The Crying Woman has never looked this good! CasaNegra should be congratulated for the effort and expense it must have taken to clean the imagery up to this extent, freeing the images from grain, scratching or dirt. A definite improvement over the US prints, the picture is exhaustive in detail. Taken from the original vault elements, the moody lack and white photography may be fully appreciated at last. Audio is a joy to listen to in both the original Spanish language (Dolby Digital 1.0), and in dubbed English.

Extras for this haunting chiller include a lively commentary featuring Michael Liuzza, who philosophizes on the merits and conventions of Mexican horror cinema, the cast, the director, and the overall atmosphere of the production. This commentary is particularly effective in establishing a cultural, historical, and aesthetic context against which to better understand and appreciate the film, as Liuzza actually has something to say. Well versed in his chosen subject, he shares his knowledge in a friendly, informal manner, resembling a friendly chat rather than a lecture. Next is the CasaNegra Loteria Game Card, and an informative essay on Rafael Baledon by David Wilt. Biographies are insightful, followed by a gallery of posters and stills.

Lastly is the well researched and written "Drowned In Tears: The Legend of La Llorona, From Folklore to Film." Exploring the various manifestations of the 'weeping woman' legend from the pre-dawn days of the Aztec goddess 'Cihuacoatl" to modern cinema sightings, this cross-cultural investigation of myth, fiction, and cultural transition is a splendid extra. Particularly interesting in the connections it traces between manifestations of the La Llorona legend and paralleling world crises, the various incarnations/types/meanings of this primal folklore motif are laid bare. While the essay certainly does justice to 'the weeping woman' figure, a subject so complex resists easy interpretation or summarization. Requiring a book to discuss the evolution/change of the legend across varying countries and time periods, it isn't surprising that a few early prop types of La Llorna are left out, including legends surrounding the original Jewish Lillith, the Greek Hecate, the 'Night Hag' of Northern Europe, and Black Annis, a revenant of the old Pagan world -- all of which were dangerous female spirits whose cravings/sins cursed them to hunt the night for children, and whose collective influence may be seen in the 'lady in white', or 'lady of the cross-roads", as she is also known. A keepsake, this booklet is easily the most unique supplement in the package.

Entrenched in the soil of a land whose domestic terrors have included a formidable amount of civil strife, bloodshed, and superstition, Mexican horror draws its strength from the soil of its land and the roots of its people. Organic elements of repulsion, fear, and desire make monsters of us all, and such stories as this surreal masterwork capture this truth with simplistic elegance. Hope and love burns brightest in the shadows, and a subtle moral may even be found (although, thankfully, it is not forced upon us!). Inherently sexual, the film is also brazenly daring, questioning our faith in the world around us, and the means by which we perceive it. Launching their new line of classic Mexican Horror films with both this and The Witch's Mirror, CasaNegra promises to be a company to watch.

Review by William P. Simmons

Released by CasaNegra
Region 1 NTSC
Not Rated
Extras : see main review