Guatemalan director and writer Jayro Bustamante has just delivered one of the most unique horror films of not only the decade, but of the 21st century so far. The tale of La Llorona is the most famous Latin urban legend on earth. By now, the female phantom who cries out for her drowned children needs no introduction. Hollywood has had its fair share of opportunities to produce cinematic content with this concept. The results have never resonated with audiences to the myth’s fullest potential (see 2019’s The Curse of La Llorona). It turns out that these failings did not root from a lacking legend, but from a lack of genuineness. Who would have thought that all it takes to make great movies on Latinx culture is to actually have Latinx artists behind them?
However, Bustamante’s La Llorona is more than great – it is a one of a kind masterwork. His driving Guatemalan voice has created something uncommon even in Latinx cinema. The 36-year Guatemalan civil war is one of the most horrific events in human history that not many know of. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives, homes, and way of living thanks to politically driven violence. The period from 1981 to 1983 is the most notorious. It is estimated that 3,000 Guatemalans were murdered each month of General Efrain Rios Montt’s 18-month rule. The victims mainly consisted of innocent adults and children who had been native to Guatemalan soil their entire lives. Thanks to strategic political and religious reinforcement, the genocide was swept under the rug.
To this day, the Central American country is divided by politics; those with opposing ideas on social justice are deemed threats. The “validity” of the genocide is still debated to this day thanks to corruption and government control. These factors are the main reason why many across the globe have never even heard of the massacres. Bustamante comes from a country still weeping for the hundreds of thousands lost. La Llorona is his piece of art in contribution to the everlasting cultural healing process. They say laughter is the best medicine, but his cinematic voice suggests otherwise.
The film follows the rotting general Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), inspired by Efrain Rios Montt, in present Guatemala. The day has finally come where he must stand trial for the genocide that he still denies the existence of. With a restless country continuing their fight for retribution, he is public enemy number one. The toll this stress is having on his physical and mental health leads him to start questioning his sanity. Is he really hearing the cries of an older woman at night? The legend of La Llorona manifests itself in a way never before seen or told in Latin America – a motherland weeping for her lost souls.
Unlike the majority of films in the genre, La Llorona is not trying to haunt audiences with a typical ghost that only shows itself in the dark. What one cannot see is magnificently proven to be more powerful than what is visible to the naked eye. Bustamante’s demonstration of how less can be way more within horror makes viewers walk away with a more pitiful look on the common practices Hollywood believes to be scary. The film trades jump scares for petrifying slow burns; scares that many will find anxiety-inducing. Thanks to a collaboration between Bustamante and cinematographer Nicolás Wong, one will find it impossible to look away despite their chilling nerves.
La Llorona‘s spectacle between beauty and fear is unforgettable. So many perfect shots, some not inherently frightening, manage to creep their way and make a home in the subconscious. The extremely delicate subtext elevates this beyond any expendable horror movie. The themes and messages are handled with intricate care, largely in contribution from not only the Guatemalan roots of the director – but of the production at large. The myth of La Llorona may be saturated in media, but Bustamante dares to dip his mind into forbidden and taboo waters. If some poor devil walks away from this film with only one thing, it will be the fact that original storytelling knows no limitations.
The most worn-out ideas often find new life from whence they came. In this case, a Latin legend found new immeasurable relevance stemming from uncomparable Latinx ingenuity. La Llorona‘s place not only in modern horror, but modern Latinx cinema, is not to be underestimated. The film is asking viewers to remember the wrongfully forgotten; doing so by giving a platform to voices such as the Mayan communities of Central America, marginalized indigenous groups that have been declining at the hands of corruption for decades, could not be more potent. The past cannot be erased, for the forgotten are still here.
La Llorona tests just how niche horror can get while still being in control. Those looking for a traditional fright fest will not find what they are looking for here. Instead, they are treated to something far superior. Incredible performances lead by Bustamante alumni María Telón, María Mercedes Coroy, and Sabrina De La Hoz strike the stakes of fear to towering levels above comfort. Many will remember this film for Coroy alone. A rising star with levels of talent that ooze off the screen, she owns this film with graceful grandeur. Female-led horror shines to the top of the genre’s best yet again.
Under Bustamante’s direction, the power of La Llorona‘s punch is lethal. An effective film of this high caliber simply could not bloom outside the minds of Guatemalan artists. With similar remarkably unique films, many will be quick to highlight them as cult classics popular within a specific following. La Llorona is too quintessential of a watch for this label- it is a pure classic that will stand the test of time.