Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Curse of the Crying Woman (1963)

Original title: La maldición de la Llorona

Somewhere in the Mexican countryside in the 19th Century, or thereabouts. The area is plagued by a series of horrible murders. Victims are found in terrible states – mutilated and without a drop of blood in their veins. The local police seems to have their suspicions about Selma Jaramillo (Rita Macedo), a widow apparently living completely alone in a huge, intensely creepy mansion in the middle of nowhere, being involved somehow, but thus far, there’s no actual evidence beyond the woman acting rather off-handedly, perhaps even a bit gleeful, about all the murders in her direct neighbourhood. We the audience know these suspicions about her are indeed well-founded, for the film’s first scene sees Selma – though with disturbing shark eyes in her face – her dogs and her scarred henchman Juan (Carlos López Moctezuma) making brutal work of some travellers.

Tonight is going to be special night in Selma’s house of horrors. After fifteen years during which she has kept the girl away, she has invited her niece Amelia (Rosita Arenas) to visit her in the house; she has a bit of a nasty surprise waiting as the young woman’s present for her 25th birthday. Amelia also brings a surprise of her own – she is freshly married to the cigar-chomping Jaime (Abel Salazar).

Amelia and Jaime quickly understand that something is very wrong with Selma and her house. A single servant the woman says she’s cut from the gallows and who certainly looks the part, mysterious cries in the house and an unpleasant vision in a mirror are the sort of things that’ll get guests into an ominous mood. And that’s before Selma reveals the horrible truth about their family to Amelia – they are the descendants of La Llorona (which in this version of the legend was an evil, powerful, bloodsucking witch), fated to become just like her. Amelia, says Selma, is cursed to bring La Llorona herself back to life by removing the pike she had been staked with when a bell that hasn’t tolled in ages will strike midnight. Worse still for the young woman, she too will become an evil, bloodsucking fiend, while Jaime, like apparently all men marrying into her bloodline, is doomed to madness.

While Amelia is more than just a little disturbed by all this, Selma is all too happy with her project. After all, following in her ancestor’s (or mother’s, the film isn’t terribly clear about it) footsteps has brought her considerable power and agelessness already; she expects nothing less than “omnipotence” once La Llorona lives again.

As most Mexican genre directors of his era, Rafael Baledón made a huge number of films in all kinds of genres, and as normal for everyone whose output is quite as humongous as his was – I speak from practical experience here – not every single film he worked on was a masterpiece; some were indeed rather bad. However, his best films – and I have by now seen more than a couple that deserve this description – could be outright brilliant.

La maldición certainly is brilliant, as great a Gothic horror film as anything the Italians or Corman made around this time, breathing the mood of bad dreams and cruel fates. Where most Mexican Gothic horror on screen seems to have come to the genre mostly by way of the Universal school (with more or less hefty pulpy elements added to the mix), this entry shows some clear influences by Bava, Black Sunday specifically. Particularly the beginning scenes, the shot of Selma, shark-eyed, surrounded by her attack dogs, and the whole look of the set dominated by broken trees they take place in suggest the iconic shot of Barbara Steele surrounded by her dogs, and the coach sequence at the beginning of Bava’s masterpiece. There are some plot parallels too, but Baledón’s film takes these elements in directions too much of its own for the film ever to become a rip-off.

Baledón’s direction may not be quite on the level of Bava at his best here, yet the film is still full of the mood of dreams and nightmare imagery, putting its characters into a place perpetually dominated by fog and nature that looks broken, twisted and corrupted, trapping them in a house whose series of secret passages and elegantly placed giant spider webs, its stairs leading who knows where suggest the subconscious mind much more than an actual house people would inhabit. The performances fit these places, particularly Macedo playing her Selma much larger than life. But then, how else would you portray the character of a potentially immortal, bloodsucking witch trying to push her niece into fulfilling the family curse?

Apart from the sometimes expressionist sets and camera work suggestive of the otherworldly and the strange, Baledón also has some simple, and brilliant ideas that make the film stranger in all the best ways. Take for example, the scene where Amelia – well on her way to turning evil herself – has a crisis of conscience, and the night sky above her suddenly fills with (animated) eyes; or the one where Selma exposits some of the family history to a hypnotized Jaime but all we see of the flashbacks (which look like scenes from other Mexican horror films as far as I could make out) is in negative form, turning what could be hokey cost-cutting peculiarly disquieting.

Thematically, this is a film very much about an obsession of Gothic literature and cinema (and sometimes weird fiction following it, too, see Lovecraft): the fear of inheritance as a form of fated doom, be it biological inheritance, spiritual inheritance, or a philosophical one, very close to the idea of free will being a mere illusion. Interestingly enough for a Mexican horror film - whose solutions to this sort of conundrum, this being a very Catholic country, usually involve religion or masked wrestlers – this particular horror here is averted by the very earthly love between a husband and a wife, the climax finding Jaime – not at all like a proper macho but rather like a real man – pulling Amelia back from the abyss by pleading with her and declaring his love. Well, he does get to punch Juan afterwards too, but that’s really more an epilogue to help the audience cope with Jaime’s general lack of fighting skill, as is the traditional – and impressive - breakdown of the house where everything took place.

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