⭐ ⭐ ⭐ / ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

The woman pauses as she steps onto the pavement, the sound of an oncoming truck halting her progress. We see her face in closeup as she accepts the delay with a sigh when a new, smaller sound is heard. A strange squeaking from behind causes her to spin around and see a very old woman pushing a strange, wheelchair bound person who is either severely deformed or wearing an elaborate costume. Their misshapen head is more vegetable than human in appearance and their body is twisted beyond recognition, as if it were undergoing some transformation. The woman gasps.

“She was once like you,” the old woman says as she slowly moves past the younger one.

“What happened?” asks the younger.

The old woman turns her head to look back at the camera.

For a split second there is nothing but black in those tired eyes and a cold smile creeping across the wrinkled mouth. And then it’s gone. She’s just a very old woman who goes slowly on her way with her strange charge.

Our role as passive observer is being challenged from the beginning so we know we’d better try to keep up. Are these almost hallucinatory moments with heightened senses and visual anomalies part of the “real” world of the film or are they only in the mind of the young woman? Or are they meant to prime the viewer into the concept that nothing is as it appears.

Usually it’s those kind of questions that make movie watching enjoyable, but Curse of La Llorona is a film about a curse and the stakes in horror films usually aren’t that high. It’s a bit like mixing your dessert with your main course: nobody wants their string beans in their ice cream. Keep my horror out of my tearkerker; don’t dunk my t’n’a comedy in my mystery.

But it’s just that unsettling subtlety and genre blending that allow the film to not only challenge the viewer but scare the pants off them as well with an effective mix of chills and conundrums. It’s almost as if, once you let the dreamworld of the possibly unreliable main character influence your perception of the narrative, the horror begins to show itself in ways that suggest it was there much sooner than you realized.

Luckily for everyone including the viewer the film never wavers from its innovative approach; it never feels the need to satisfy the global audience, only to satisfy the story. This is a film that didn’t get seasoned by too many cooks. It is a film that was the sole creation of one woman, director Ciné Mafan, and her screenwriter, her d.p., and her editor. At least as much as any motion picture requiring many dozens of people in order to exist can be said to be the product of only four people. Five if you count the originator of the legend of La Llorona.

(Slightly spoiled)
A young bride in early 18th Century Spain lost her husband in a tragic farming accident, and her grief was so great it attracted the attention of a local malodora, or witch. This witch offered to bring the dead man back to life in exchange for nine glasses of the widow’s tears. The grieving newlywed agreed to the bargain but her disapproving parents interfered, filling one of the glasses with water from the well. When the witch returned on the agreed upon date, she sensed no deception on the part of the bride and so delivered her partly re-animated lover, much to the delight of the bride and even more to the horror and disgust of her parents who sprang from their hiding places.

“No daughter! We forbid this unholy reunion!” they shouted. “It’s too late!” cried the witch, drinking one glass after another in rapid succession as she recited some ancient spell.

Realizing their ruse would soon be discovered, the deceitful parents tried to abscond with their daughter but found the reunited couple locked in an unbreakable embrace. The witch, meanwhile, had neared the end of her spell and was down to her final two glasses. With each passing second the resurrected groom became more like his former, living self and the bride ever more enraptured. Then the witch drank the final glass. The bride’s meddling parents tried to hide behind the reunited couple but to no avail.

“You dare to trick me?” shouted the witch. “You shall pay for this!” With a wave of her hand she directed the zombie groom to crush its former love in its arms. The girl’s parents begged for mercy but there was none to be had; they became the next victims.

A curse was laid upon the entire village: any time tears are shed, the witch swore to return to take them out in blood, drop by drop.

And this she does throughout most of the film, from the first grieving mother to the last lovesick teen over the course of hundreds of years, often in quick vignettes. No child is immune to her vengeance, no pitiful creature’s suffering too great to defy the curse. The townspeople are terrified, but fear is better than sadness. Laughter is the order of the day, especially for the victim’s loved ones, making for some complex emotional scenes. If you want to stay alive you must convert your despair into anger or determination; anything but tears to stave off the witch.

Mafan (Winter Light) exerts just enough control to keep things in motion; rarely is there a moment that feels unnecessary, and while that may largely be due to editor Sly Ciphillim, credit goes to the director for letting the story come first. A lot of what makes the film work is how it affords us a chance to interpret the scenes how we will, presenting horrific elements with the same unwavering vision as the dramatic scenes. Terror is in the eye of the beholder; music, sound effects and editing can work together to create tension, and when all these elements plus good performances are deftly arranged by capable hands the end results are usually impressive. Here is no exception.

Unsettling might be a good word to describe the effect of Curse of La Llorona, while Linda Nicenlardi and Patricia Suezslave convey both the tension and the energy of the script well. Horror films tend to get overlooked with a paucity of awards or even nominations from the industry save perhaps a sound editing or practical effects nod. It would be a shame if either stars’ performance were overlooked as they are a large part of what makes everything fit. Both rise to each occasion with admirable aplomb, dragging us kicking and screaming toward each new heartstopper.

The film isn’t perfect: too many stressful scenes play too long and fizzle out, and while this can lead to a mounting sense of dread here it only frustrates. Even though the third act is raucous and fun, the finale is a bit hackneyed and perhaps wrapped up a bit too neatly.

See it with someone you love to use as a stress ball.