Written by: Rafael Baledón, Fernando Galiana
Directed by: Rafael Baledón
Starring: Rosita Arenas, Abel Salazar, and Rita Macedo
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“I've heard stories about this forest..."
In the annals of genre cinema, I’m not sure we talk enough about Abel Salazar. A true renaissance man of Mexican cinema, he wore many hats as an actor, director, writer, and producer, and it was in that latter capacity that he would usher in a golden age of genre film for his home country. An obvious—if not admittedly reductive—comparison might put him in the company of legendary exploitation Roger Corman, who infamously became synonymous with low-budget wizardry that often saw him recycling actors, crews, and even entire sets to stretch every single dollar at his disposal.
Right around the same time, Salazar was adopting a similar approach south of the border, often working alongside writer/director Rafael Baledón to craft low-budget riffs on familiar folklore and popular cinematic trends. One such outing found the duo exploiting one of their homeland’s most prevailing legends in La maldición de la Llorona (aka Curse of the Crying Woman) and crossbreeding it with Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, an inspired take that yielded one of this era’s most indelible and underappreciated efforts.
Its debt to both Bava’s film and vintage gothic horror is immediately evident, as a prologue finds a carriage of travelers plodding through a mist-shrouded forest, disregarding the warnings of the spooked locals. A mysterious, dark-haired, vacant-eyed woman (Rita Macedo) flanked by a trio of hellhounds emerges from the haze, commanding a disfigured lackey (Carlos López Moctezuma) to lay waste to these interlopers. In the distance, a wolf howls, providing the perfect gothic grace note as the opening credits unfold. We soon learn that this woman only moonlights as an apparent witch; by day, she is merely Selma, a lonely widow who has recently summoned her niece, Amelia (Rosita Arenas), to her decrepit mansion. As she approaches her 25th birthday, Amelia is due to collect her inheritance, which quickly proves to be much more than she bargained for when Aunt Selma reveals the truth about their family’s sordid history with the occult. When Amelia arrives with a newly-married husband (Salazar) at her side, it’s a surprise to her aunt—but it’s nothing compared to what Selma has waiting for her.
Another comparison to Corman’s output is perhaps apt here, particularly the King of the Bs’ legendary run of Poe adaptations that often took the bare essence of those tales and spun them into something more elaborate. Baledón and co-writer Fernando Galiana likewise take the bones of the La Llorona mythos and forge an Old Dark House movie out of it, practically following that genre’s blueprint to a T. The mansion rests on the foundation of a bleak past; parts of the home are decidedly off-limits and hoarding horrible secrets; a deformed butler lords over the place; hidden relatives lurk both above and below; B-movie music warbles on, accenting the familiar digs. Curse of the Crying Woman is cut from a vintage—and some might say derivative—cloth as it blows dust and cobwebs off of these gothic conventions.
To his credit, Baledón does so with gusto: what Curse might lack in ingenuity, it makes up for with its funhouse sensibilities. Once the action moves to the mansion’s decrepit dungeon, the film roars to life with ghouls and bats whirring by on barely-concealed strings. Strange visions unfold as Selma conjures up family lore in a weird, psychedelic monster mash sequence featuring negative exposure footage of witches and werewolves cobbled together from previous Salazar productions. An obvious shoestring budget proves to be a small hurdle for Baledón, who makes the most of charming effects and a lavish production design. Curse of the Crying Woman looks to sweep you up with its alluring visuals and an increasingly lurid tale of corrupted innocence and family curses.
La Llorona herself also rests in these bowels, splayed upon an altar as a heap of bones and rotted flesh, still sporting the stake that was fatally driven through her heart. We learn her backstory, which retrains barely recognizable scraps of the original mythos: instead of the usual wraith-like avenger who preys on children, Curse imagines its wailing woman as a more straightforward witch capable of walking among the living and the dead. Condemned to death after going mad with power in life, her spirit persists through her descendants, as she patiently awaits a flesh-and-blood vessel that will aid in her resurrection. It’s more riffing on familiar themes, but the lyrical script and evocative imagery carve a distinctive path through this well-trod ground.
While the human element is not completely dismissed—Macedo is especially vivacious as the demented Aunt Selma, and Arenas is a nice foil—Curse of the Crying Woman thrives on its filmmakers’ sense of showmanship. This is a movie that always seems to be playfully leading the audience through its funhouse with one hand coyly hidden behind its back, hoarding secrets slathered in cobwebs and fog. Again, two of these secrets involve cursed relatives stowed away in the dusty corners of the mansion, meaning there’s no shortage of grisly make-up effects to compliment the magnificently lived-in production design.
A low budget does not necessarily translate into a slapdash production here, as Curse of the Crying Woman is an exquisitely made monster movie teeming with stark sights and sounds, like clever time lapse dissolves, Selma’s eerily empty eyes, and the title character’s wails whipping through the desolate landscape. Baledón’s direction is nothing if not spirited throughout: after coiling the film’s energy into a bundle of mystery and intrigue, he stages a breathless climax that allows it all to explode during a stunning finale. His meticulous craftmanship is matched only by his eagerness to tear it all down with this spectacular, action-packed ending, where brawls spill out as the mansion crumbles and flames lap about its decaying foundation.
This, too, might seem familiar, but it’s fitting for a film straddling the crossroads: with one foot firmly planted in the Gothic, old dark house tradition and another planted in contemporary garishness, Curse of the Crying Woman also endures as a snapshot of a genre crossing a threshold into more lurid territory. Like La Llorona herself in this film, vintage horror was awaiting a vessel to endure into the 60s, and Salazar and Baledón’s vision proved to be an irresistible match.
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