Ghostly justice comes for Guatemalan tyrants in the atmospheric “La Llorona”

La Llorona La Llorona (Shudder)

A genocidal general is haunted by the women he’s wronged, both living and dead, in this eerie historical chiller.

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Folk tales and urban legends might be considered old hat for horror audiences, mining ancient myths and legends for contemporary chills. But Jayro Bustamante and Lisandro Sanchez’s La Llorona puts a political spin on an old story, giving the old wives tale new depths as a metaphor for a country still struggling to reconcile with its past, something American audiences are bound to understand. 

Set in Guatemala in the somewhat recent past (these details are a trifle vague), La Llorona opens on a wealthy family having a strange gathering. In one room, the women whisper incantations and prayers, blue candles burning against crisp white blouses. Meanwhile, the men sit in a smoke-filled room, discussing the upcoming trial of the family patriarch, Don Enrique, a retired General (based on real-life General Efraín Ríos Montt) who oversaw the genocide of Guatemala’s indigenous Mayan-Ixil people.  

The film is beautifully staged and shot, and while it might be light on jump scares and outright horror, the slow buildup of tension and dread is effective. When the General begins acting strangely and hearing a woman’s cries in the middle of the night, some of his behavior is dismissed as symptoms of Alzheimer’s by his physician daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz) but it’s not enough to keep the servants from leaving, too fearful to spend another night near the haunted Enrique. It isn’t until the beautiful, mysterious Alma joins the household as a new maid that the tension beings to ratchet up at an almost blinding speed. 

La Llorona
La Llorona (Shudder)

There is a real sense of oppression and claustrophobia as the family has sequestered in the Generals (admittedly palatial) estate after his guilty verdict is overturned. Crowds of protestors surround the house, sometimes throwing bricks wrapped in photos of the people who disappeared during Enrique’s time in power. The family begins to splinter as Enrique’s wife Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic) is forced to reckon with her husband’s history of sexual violence, as Natalia begins to suspect her father in the disappearance of her husband, and Natalia’s young daughter Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado) grows closer to Alma. 

Enrique seems to veer from doddering old man—a pitiful object—to monstrously carnal from one minute to the next, so Bustamante wisely puts the focus primarily on the women in the story, from the brittle, icy Carmen to the protective and loyal family maid, Valeriana (María Telón) whom Carmen suspects of being an illegitimate by-blow of her husband’s. It is the women who lead and cajole Enrique, and the women who ultimately begin to feel a portion of the horrors their patriarch meted out on the native people. Carmen, who is cruelly disdainful of the veiled indigenous women who come to accuse her husband, becomes a vessel for their fury and vengeance.  

And while so much time has been spent slowly building up the pressure, the rushed third act might leave viewers wanting more. While satisfying, it’s also a bit too tidy. Still, it is not the supernatural elements that will linger with audiences, but the real-life horror that human monsters can inflict on the innocent. Even Carmen’s disbelief that her staff wants to quit (“Don’t we feed you and take care of you? How can you be so ungrateful?” Is very much the tone) feels monstrous in its own way. 

The film is beautifully staged and shot, and while it might be light on jump scares and outright horror, the slow buildup of tension and dread is effective.

There’s always been a home for sociopolitical messaging in horror, but it’s a novel take to see a figure out of folklore used as the conscience of its people (it looks as though Nia DaCosta’s upcoming take on Candyman will follow this formula) and it gives a more meaningful depth to what could have been a relatively rote horror. Justice, it turns out, can be just as bloody as revenge. 

Folk tales and urban legends might be considered old hat for horror audiences, but Jayro Bustamante and Lisandro Sanchez’s La Llorona puts a political spin on an old story, giving the old wives tale new depths as a metaphor for a country still struggling to reconcile with its past, something American audiences are bound to understand. 

Set in Guatemala in the somewhat recent past (these details are a trifle vague), La Llorona opens on a wealthy family having a strange gathering. In one room, the women whisper incantations and prayers, blue candles burning against crisp white blouses. Meanwhile, the men sit in a smoke-filled room, discussing the upcoming trial of the family patriarch, Don Enrique, a retired General (based on real-life General Efraín Ríos Montt) who oversaw the genocide of Guatemala’s indigenous Mayan-Ixil people.  

La Llorona

The film is beautifully staged and shot, and while it might be light on jump scares and outright horror, the slow buildup of tension and dread is effective. When the General begins acting strangely and hearing a woman’s cries in the middle of the night, some of his behavior is dismissed as symptoms of Alzheimer’s by his physician daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz) but it’s not enough to keep the servants from leaving, too fearful to spend another night near the haunted Enrique. It isn’t until the beautiful, mysterious Alma joins the household as a new maid that the tension beings to ratchet up at an almost blinding speed. 

There is a real sense of oppression and claustrophobia as the family has sequestered in the Generals (admittedly palatial) estate after his guilty verdict is overturned. Crowds of protestors surround the house, sometimes throwing bricks wrapped in photos of the people who disappeared during Enrique’s time in power. The family begins to splinter as Enrique’s wife Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic) is forced to reckon with her husband’s history of sexual violence, as Natalia begins to suspect her father in the disappearance of her husband, and Natalia’s young daughter Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado) grows closer to Alma. 

Enrique seems to veer from doddering old man—a pitiful object—to monstrously carnal from one minute to the next, so Bustamante wisely puts the focus primarily on the women in the story, from the brittle, icy Carmen to the protective and loyal family maid, Valeriana (María Telón) whom Carmen suspects of being an illegitimate by-blow of her husband’s. It is the women who lead and cajole Enrique, and the women who ultimately begin to feel a portion of the horrors their patriarch meted out on the native people. Carmen, who is cruelly disdainful of the veiled indigenous women who come to accuse her husband, becomes a vessel for their fury and vengeance.  

It is the women who lead and cajole Enrique, and the women who ultimately begin to feel a portion of the horrors their patriarch meted out on the native people.

And while so much time has been spent slowly building up the pressure, the rushed third act might leave viewers wanting more. While satisfying, it’s also a bit too tidy. Still, it is not the supernatural elements that will linger with audiences, but the real-life horror that human monsters can inflict on the innocent. Even Carmen’s disbelief that her staff wants to quit (“Don’t we feed you and take care of you? How can you be so ungrateful?” Is very much the tone) feels monstrous in its own way. 

There’s always been a home for sociopolitical messaging in horror, but it’s a novel take to see a figure out of folklore used as the conscience of its people (it looks as though Nia DaCosta’s upcoming take on Candyman will follow this formula) and it gives a more meaningful depth to what could have been a relatively rote horror. Justice, it turns out, can be just as bloody as revenge. 

La Llorona premieres on August 6th, exclusively on Shudder. 

La Llorona Trailer:

Beau North
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