A modern retelling of folklore - La Llarona (2019)

'La Llorona' is the third feature film of Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante, and the second feature in the same year of 2019 (first one being Temblores). But before I get into my thoughts about this film, I wanted to make two things clear.

La Llarona (2019) | Dir. Jayro Bustamante

First things first, don't mistake this film with the horrible Hollywood film that was 'The Curse of la Llorona (2019)' which unfortunately also came out the same year as this one.

Secondly, seeing the tag that this is a horror film and what the film title suggests, if you walk into this film expecting a ghost flick with fiends and demons and jump-scares like most commercial horror films, then please leave those expectations outside. This is a very unique horror film experience (from the ones that I have experienced) and in all honestly, it felt refreshing and breathtaking to see such a horror adaptation.

So the film is set sometime between 2012-15 and tells the story of Enrique Monteverde, a former Guatemalan dictator who is responsible for the brutal genocide of several native Mayans in the 1980s. We are brought into the story while Enrique's genocide trials are going on and even though he is ruled guilty, due to a corrupt judicial system, he is still allowed to be free and stay at home due to a legality. All natives, in pure distaste of him being a free man protest around his house, handicapping all members of Enrique's family to be locked up in their own home, scared to step outside.

As this film tackles a very real and dark part of Guatemalan history, the take Jayro Bustamante has taken on retelling this tale and blending it with a very popular latin American folk tale of La Llarona is spellbinding. This isn't a normal horror film and even though the title suggests a typical female ghost with a white gown and long hair that can haunt you (and in very unique ways the film does give you that), Jayro finds ways to break those cliches and present us a very real story with the subtle pinch of supernatural.

La Llarona (2019) | Dir. Jayro Bustamante

If you know me personally, there is a chance I have spoken about my love-hate relationship with horror as a genre in film. When a horror film is done right and to my taste, there is a chance I might like it much much more than most films, but with how horror as a genre is perceived by a lot of the audience, most Hollywood and commercial horror is subject to ghouls, monsters and ghosts. I don't mean to say that having such figures is a bad thing in horror films, it is just not my preferred kind of horror. The blend of the supernatural is best (I reinstate, this is my personal preference) when it still confines itself to the bounds of reality. A psychological horror tends to work better in achieving a fright as it subjects you to question. The concept of ghosts and spirits came about because of unanswered incidents and questions in nature; similar is the case with psychology, the science of asking questions that lead to further questions. I believe when a horror film is able to bridge the setup of a film with something so real that I start believing incidents showcased could happen or haunt us, it becomes an effective scare. Similarly, psychological horror tends to play around that thought of messing around with the real horrors of our psyche. One of the most beautiful examples are The Babadook(2014) or Psycho(1960) which purely messes around the setup with aspects of psychology, pain and loss to slowly subject horror. These films rarely use cheap camera tricks and jump cuts with jarring sounds to create scares. It is the slower, stiller shots with low or no music that haunt us even more. I get that a lot of us do prefer going into a horror film wanting to feel the rush of adrenaline and that spike in our heart rate as we jump off our seats, but such expressions of fear die down instantly once you get back into your seat. Effective horror tends to scare you even in broad daylight, not just under your bed. I believe that is where Jordon Peele and his understanding of the horror genre allowed him to create such haunting films like Get Out(2017) and Us(2019). For me, La Llorona easily falls under that same level and maybe even at par with those films.

The Babadook (2014) | Dir. Jennifer Kent

The film focuses on the inner dynamics of a family which is in conflict with itself. A family that knows that their head (Enrique) has done something horrifying and wrong but are trying to question and convince themselves that they are on the right side. They keep questioning his actions but never go against him. The most effective and beautiful interaction comes from his granddaughter played by Ayla-Elea Hurtado who is subject to ridicule and accusations from her friends and the internet as everyone tells her that her grandfather is a bad man. Her constant need of an escape, of wanting to leave the house and go back and her friendship with the only person in the house who isn't her family being their new maid talk a lot about a child's psyche while dealing with such problems at a young age.

Jayro ridicules several cliched horror tropes throughout the film, but using them effectively to create haunting visuals. Several horror films would use many moments in this film to make a random silhouette with long hair and a white gown just very quickly walk past the screen without any rime or reason, but this film has a very creative take on it. And that is what the beauty of this film is, it uses a lot of typical horror tropes but giving a reasoning for why what happens, and not using it jarringly to scare you, but foretelling it before it happens to let you slowly know that it is going to happen.

The film doesn't try to hide who the ghost/demon in the house is, her very introduction in the film and the trailer lets us know that she will be the doom-bringer but that adds onto the direction of the film.

For instance, there is a frame where she simply sits on the floor creepily and her long black hair is lying everywhere. As I have shown a still image of that frame, it feels like a very cliched, illogical and unnatural setup. And even though the film does hold onto that frame for several seconds unsettling you, the sound design and later the reveal of Ayla-Elea Hurtado just blowdrying her hair breaks the tension to create reason. I take this as a way Jayro wishes to mock these tropes in horror but still use them to his advantage in a unique way.

I don't wish to reveal anything about the plot because I want you to watch the film and make an opinion about it yourself, and I totally get it if you don't enjoy it as a horror film yourself. La Llarona is a very slow burning film that retells the myth of La Llarona. It doesn't ever say that such a folk tale exists and she has come to haunt this specific family, but instead rewrites the origin of this infamous ghost in Latin America.Yet, it does pay homage and respect to the original story of la llarona and creates several parallels between the two. La llarona's original folklore has represented the social history of Greater Mexico and has also stood as a symbol of resistance against patriarchy. Several historians also interpreted her story as a metaphor for the grief of several indigenous Mexicans killed during the Spanish conquest in the 17th century.

When you see the way Jayro has moulded the folktale to his plot, you can understand the comparisons he wishes to draw. In the case of his film, La llarona stands as the answer and resistance to similar patriarchy and dictatorship. A symbol of grief for the several Mayan people killed during the Civil war and the specific genocide lead by the dictator Rios Montt (adapted as Enrique Monteverde in the film) in 1982.

I believe the biggest drawbacks that the film has is its pacing which even though I loved, can be a very slow burn for people who are used to bursts of adrenaline and fear every 5-10 minutes while watching a horror film. The film is not for every horror film fanatic but still has enough horror tropes in it that horror-genre haters will also dislike it for that reason. The niche for this film is small and I am glad I fall under that category and got to experience this film. Another major drawback this film faces is honestly the title of the film. It severely harms the film that a very popular and unsuccessful horror film with the same/similar title (The Curse of la Llarona) came out the exact same year, not only making people immediately have a biased opinion on wanting to watch the film but also draw comparisons between two films that are miles apart in terms of quality, performances, plot and type of horror. But another drawback the film title has is the reveal of the inspiration for the ghost la llarona. For people aware of the folktale, it severely dilutes the subtleties of retelling the story. I believe if the film never mentioned the name la llarona in its very name, it could be seen through a different tinted lens and those who connect the dots as the film slowly unveils who this woman is, would create for a much stronger second half of the film.

Even so, I do highly recommend La Llarona to anyone who can get their hands on this film and is a fan of subtle psychological supernatural horror. The film is currently streaming exclusively on Shudder.

La Llarona (2019) | Dir. Jayro Bustamante