The story of La Llorona shaped my life and my love of horror. The story itself is rooted in cultures across Latin America and the Southwest United States. With a slew of bad adaptions, most recently the stereotypical film from an all-white creative team The Curse of La Llorona, I was hesitant when I heard that Shudder had acquired the rights to stream La Llorona. But from the first scene, the film, written and directed by Jayro Bustamante, thrills, chills, and presents a powerful narrative of larger problems in Latin America, but more specifically Guatemala.
General Enrique (Julio Diaz), a genocidal military general and deposed dictator, finally faces trial for the massacre of thousands of Mayans decades ago. After being cleared of what seemed to be a guilty verdict, protesters stand outside Enrique’s estate night and day which leaves the women of the house—his haughty wife, conflicted daughter, and precocious granddaughter— to deal with the violence their patriarch inflicted on the people of Guatemala. In this position, the women have to weigh their responsibility and make a choice. Do they shield the erratic, senile Enrique against the devastating truths being publicly revealed? Or do they give in to the increasing sense that a wrathful supernatural force is targeting them for his crimes? Meanwhile, much of the family’s Indigenous domestic staff flee, leaving only loyal housekeeper Valeriana (María Telón) until Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), a mysterious young maid, arrives and brings with her the elements of the folktale we know and fear.
La Lorona is a horror story because of the folktale many Latinx like myself grew up with yes, but it is really a story of vengeance. As its narrative uses the genocide of Mayans in Guatemala as its driving force to look at class, guilt, racism, and of course how to seek justice. Before I continue, I have to note that this is film is Guatemalteco and to generalize it as anything else does a disservice to the powerful story it presents. Specifically, the pain and violence faced by the Maya Ixil population in the country. During the trial, the film delivers a detailed exposition to the violence. While many Americans won’t be aware of the history this film pulls from, La Llorona makes sure that its viewers understand the depth of the violence that Enrique and the military have inflicted. While anti-indigenous racism is rampant throughout Latin America, this story is rooted deeply in the country’s history.
For those who don’t know, The Mayan Genocide, also known as the Silent Holocaust, was the massacre of Maya civilians during the Guatemalan military government’s counterinsurgency. With United States-backed forces, the military government massacred, disappeared, tortured, and executed an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans. The repression reached genocidal levels in the predominantly Indigenous northern provinces of the country, affecting the indigenous Mayan population. There, the Guatemalan military viewed the Maya as siding with the insurgency and began a campaign of wholesale killings and disappearances of Mayan people. This is the history beneath the fiction in La Llorona, and the pervasive anti-Indigenous sentiment and violence serves as a foundation for the story that Bustamante is telling.
La Llorona is historical, political, and social horror at its peak. By grounding the narrative of the film in the reality of racist violence we see “the Wailing Woman” take a different form; one that calls for their children, meaning the lives brutally taken by Don Enrique. His wife is the embodiment of the racism that is pervasive in Latin American culture. She is a woman of wealth, a woman with fair skin, and a woman who believes her husband’s lies over thousands of testimonies to his genocide. She, and the people she is meant to represent, are just as dangerous. While they don’t pull the triggers, they do allow them to be pulled with impunity.
Because of the fact that the film takes place in both Spanish and Kaqchikel, one of the indigenous languages of Guatemala, there is a duality to the film: two worlds existing in one space. The burden to protect the family falls on Valeriana and Alma. They must do so while knowing how the family sees them, understanding that those in the home see them as nothing but tools to use. For the women of the house, they’re the caregivers. To Enrique, they’re objects for him to claim.
The film builds tension by crashing these two worlds together and removing the boundary so that the white wealthy family experiences the pain and fear felt by the women their patriarch has hurt and killed. As the partition between those who sit and ignore the violence and those who suffer it is dropped, the film’s intensity picks up.
Instead of cries from a woman in white, there are chants for justice, music, and the throwing of papers that have the faces of victims displayed on them. Those faces begin to appear in the crowd, as the guilt pushes the women of the house further into realizing their contribution to a system of racism and violence—one that relies on silence like theirs to propagate. Additionally, the family who’s racism prevents them from speaking about Mayans as people, begins to rely on Valeriana and Alma for their spiritual practices and not just their labor.
Beyond the power in its storytelling, La Llorona is one of the most intimately and beautifully shot horror films of the year. Each frame pulls you into the tension, the pain, and the despair and doesn’t let you go. Beginning as a drama with the typical cinematography associated with it, by the third act, the horror is in full swing as La Llorona makes her appearance and the retribution hits its apex. But it’s grounded in visceral flashbacks, the history blends with the supernatural and creates a unique film that showcases the importance of using horror to tell the stories of the marginalized.
With a cast that brings emotion in silence as much as when speaking, there is no fault in this movie, but it truly excels with María Mercedes Coroy‘s haunting and powerful performance as Alma.
Ultimately, La Llorona is the most powerful take on the folktale I’ve ever seen, regardless of medium. Bustamante’s work and care in crafting a film that hits a variety of genre notes, and crafts a story of pain and retribution. The rendition of “La Llorona” that plays as the film closes is chilling and ties the themes of the film together. Lasting the entirety of the credits, “La Llorona de los Cafetales” is different than the version my grandmother played in our home but set to the exact same music. Reworked to tell the story of the genocide and the film itself, this is the most powerful use of music in film and it comes with a black and white screen and nothing else. La Llorona shows the power of Latin American cinema in crafting horror and decenters Mexico as the focal point in the horror conversation in a much-needed way.
La Llorona is available exclusively on Shudder now.
- Rating - 10/1010/10
La Llorona is the most powerful take on the folktale I’ve ever seen, regardless of medium. Bustamante’s work and care in crafting a film that hits a variety of genre notes, and crafts a story of pain and retribution. The rendition of “La Llorona” that plays as the film closes is chilling and ties the themes of the film together… La Llorona shows the power of Latin American cinema in crafting horror and decenters Mexico as the focal point in the horror conversation in a much-needed way.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.