In the roaring but cinematically silent ’20s, Hollywood studios could ship their products pretty much anywhere. Then Al Jolson had to open his big mouth. The advent of talkies saw Universal, in an attempt to maintain their grip on Latin American markets, releasing Hispanophone variations on some of their productions, shot during the graveyard shift on the same sets as the more widely seen English language “originals”. George Melford, for example, cranked out La Voluntad Del Muerto (“The Will Of The Dead”), an alternate Spanish speaking version of Rupert Julian’s The Cat Creeps, in 1930 (both pictures are now presumed lost) and performed similar feats on three subsequent occasions. Most famously, as soon as Tod Browning, his cast and crew had called it a day, every day, on the shoot of the following year’s Dracula, Melford (who had been sitting and watching Browning work) would move his cast and crew onto the set and work up the Spanish language release, starring Carlos Villarias in place of Bela Lugosi. With the one exception of that piece of casting, the Spanish version has often been claimed as superior to Browning’s. Whatever, it didn’t go over that well with the intended audience, who would seemingly have preferred to engage with a Horror mythos more attuned to their own cultural heritage… specifically “Macabre Legends of the Colonial Era”. Cue the very first Mexican Horror Film…
Ramón Peón’s La Llorona (“The Wailing Woman”, 1933) begins with a bloke expiring on the street, apparently frightened to death on an account of a run in with the eponymous banshee. Having concluded the autopsy, Dr Ricardo de Acuna (Ramó Pereda) scoffs at his credulous assistants for attributing some supernatural significance to what he regards as an open and shut cardiac infarction. He doesn’t go as far as the sceptical police commissioner from René Cardona’s Night Of The Bloody Apes (1969), in alleging: “It’s more probable that of late, more and more, you’re watching on your television many of those pictures of terror” but I imagine the only thing that gave him pause was the fact that not many Mexicans owned TV sets in 1933. Back in the bosom of his bourgeoise family, the doc’s attempts to celebrate his little son’s birthday are thwarted by repeated warnings from gnarly old father-in-law Don Fernando de Moncada (Paco Martinez) that the weeping witch is indeed stalking his heir.
As evidence we get not one but two flashbacks to dodgy family history. The first involves Marina (Maria Luisa Zea), an Indian woman who was rejected by her Spanish lover (also played by Pereda) when he contracted an advantageous marriage to the “proper” sort of girl. When he tried to claim their son, Marina took the boy’s life and then her own rather than submit to this injustice, at which point she became the vengeful, child killing spirit, La Llorona. As if this commentary on the racial fault lines in the Mexican class system weren’t clear enough, the second flashback concerns the historical figure of La Malinche (Zea again), the Indian woman who was personally used and abused by Cortes while he was figuratively fucking over her compatriots. Dr Ricardo takes all this with a pinch of salt but when his lad is dragged off by a hooded figure, clutching a ritual dagger, to an Aztec altar in the cellar (gee, who knew that was there?) he changes his tune. The doc reverts to his default rationalism during a denouement which suggests a pretty prosaic resolution to the preceding events… but there’s one more twist to come.
Conceived in the very infancy of the Mexican film industry, La Lorona stands comfortable comparison with contemporary American offerings. Peón is at least as good a director as Tod Browning and performances from the principals are all strong. Writers A. Guzman Aguilera, Carlos Noriega Hope, Fernando de Fuentes arguably pack the proceedings with one too many flashbacks but you never feel your attention waning and there are plenty of incidental elements (some charming little edits, for example) to take pleasure in. Although the story is particularly well suited to its 20th Century Mexican setting, Peon’s film draws much of its power from the age old story of Lilith (Adam’s first wife, written out of the Bible by patriarchal diktat). In addition to the stand it takes on race and class, it anticipates James Whale’s Bride Of Frankenstein as some kind of feminist statement by a good two years. René Cardona’s La Llorona (1960) is a virtual remake and adaptations have continued to come thick and fast, as recently as Michael Chaves’ The Curse of La Llorona (2019) and Patricia Harris Seeley’s La Llorona (2022)… a virtual Llorona virus!
Co-writer Fernando de Fuentes directed Mexico’s second Horror Film, El Fantasma Del Convento (“The Phantom Of The Monastery”), the following year. This one lays off the injustices of Colonialism but still delivers a meaningful kick in the jodhpurs to middle class Mexican complacency. It’s never exactly explained what the well heeled trio of Eduardo (Carlos Villatoro), his wife Cristina (Marta Roel) and friend Alfonso (Enrique Del Campo) are doing wandering around in the wilderness at night but it soon becomes apparent that significant sparks are flying between the latter two. Encountering a mysterious dude and his dog, they are directed to a tumbledown monastery and taken in by the Brothers of Silence, a perversely talkative chapter of Trappists. In particular, the main Monk seems particularly keen on bringing them up to speed regarding the cautionary tale of Brother Rodrigo, who disgraced the brethren by giving into his carnal desires. Sex pot Cristina simmers away in her sepulchral surroundings, while the boys notice that their hosts seem unusually boney beneath their robes… well, they do seem to subsist on a diet of dust!
Concocted by Fuentes with Jorge Pezet and Juan Bustillo Oro, this shaggy dog story has a long pedigree and an eminently guessable denouement, which is conspicuously telegraphed at several points in the proceedings. The cellar duly disgorges its coffin-loads of Mummies but they’re not Aztec remnants, nor is there a masked wrestler in sight. There’d be plenty of time for those in the subsequent annals of Taco Terror…
Atmospheric lighting comes courtesy of American import Ross Fisher and the camera moves around way more fluidly than was apparent in La Llorona. It’s difficult to take your eyes off Marta Roel, one very hot tamale indeed… disappointing to learn that she had only three subsequent credits, spread across the ’40s and ’50s. Some of the film’s sly anti-clerical imagery suggests a familiarity with Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930) and it’s really no surprise that Bunuel found the Mexican film industry such a convivial refuge after Franco’s Civil War victory obliged him to get out of Spain.
Both pictures have benefited from extensive restoration work for their world premieres on Blu-ray, La Llorona from the only surviving film element by the Cinema Preservation Alliance, El Fantasma (in 4K from the original negative) under the auspices of George Lucas, no less. Both come with lively, conversational commentary tracks teaming Kim Newman with Stephen Jones. The limited (to 4,000 units for UK and US release) editions of each come complete with illustrated collectors’ booklets. Abraham Castillo Flores, head programmer of Mexico’s Mórbido Film Fest, contributes a learned introduction to each of the tiles. The extras on La Llorona are rounded out by a short compilation of the source print’s distinctive cue marks (removed during the restoration) and Ghosts of the Past, a lovely short documentary by Viviana García Besné, the producer’s great granddaughter, conveying a touchingly personal take on the film.