Release Date(s)1933 (March 22, 2022)
Studio(s)Eco Films/Mariano Viamonte (Powerhouse Films/Indicator)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: C+
- Audio Grade: C+
- Extras Grade: A-
During the early sound era of the late 1920s and early 1930s, many filmmakers and distributors struggled with the new technology, mostly because it was a more difficult process that involved installing new sound systems in theaters in order to adapt. In Mexico, the film business was slow but evolving, specifically when the production company Eco Films began making their own pictures, but more importantly, getting on board with “talkies.” US studios were making Spanish language pictures like Dracula, which was shot concurrently with the Bela Lugosi version using the same sets, but the first true sound Mexican horror film wasn’t released until 1933. La Llorona and the films that came after it were successes in their home country, keeping the Mexican film industry in the game.
Many versions of the Mexican folk tale of La Llorona have emerged since the 1800s, but the generally known story tells of a tragic woman who is wronged by her husband, which sends her into madness, killing their children and herself, and later wandering the Earth as a restless spirit. Other incarnations add the wrinkle of her children being illegitimate, or that her spirit comes back to steal the children of the living. In the 1933 film, we’re given a combination of three versions of this tale. In current day, a husband and wife are under the watchful eye of a mysterious hooded figure. Within the story, the husband is told of the legend of La Llorona from different periods in history, which he initially scoffs at in disbelief. He soon finds his child under threat by the hooded figure, but whether the abduction is supernaturally-motivated or not is unclear.
While one must appreciate that La Llorona survives in any capacity, it’s not a great film. It’s fascinating, partly because of how well it’s made, but also due to the elements surrounding it. As the template for any kind of horror film wasn’t quite established at that time, it plays with the elements a little loosely, including tonally-inconsistent comic relief, family drama, and even a dash of swashbuckling. The horror elements are minor comparatively, but there is a small amount of actual bloodshed on display, as well as a few ghostly effects. The majority of the film is taken up by flashbacks, making it uneven with the more interesting modern day premise involving the cult-ish hooded figure. Yet, with impressive sets, cinematography, and an epochal Mexican filmmaking lineage behind it, La Llorona is definitely a film worth seeing and preserving.
La Llorona was shot by director of photography Guillermo Baqueriza on 35 mm black-and-white film, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Powerhouse Films brings the film to Blu-ray as part of their Indicator line. According to the text before the film begins, all of the original 35 mm elements are thought to be lost or destroyed. What survives is a single 16 mm projection print, which was restored in 2021 by Permanencia Voluntaria, as a collaboration with Filmoteca UNAM, Academy Film Archive, and Cinema Preservation Alliance. Many of the Mexican films of this era and beyond were damaged or destroyed in a 2017 earthquake. It’s unclear if La Llorona was among those battered elements, but it’s likely considering what’s presented here. Considering the source, its age, and the fact that there’s nothing left of this film in the world to transfer properly, it’s a miracle that anything of La Llorona is left to be seen at all. It’s a high quality restoration of a well-worn and severely compromised 16 mm source, filled with soft images, crush, scratches, speckling, instability, splices, delineation issues, and missing frames… and this is after the restorative efforts. Digital tools could likely clean the film up and stabilize it even more, but who knows what the budget was for this restoration and if it was even an option. Regardless, it’s still a most watchable presentation with heavy but well-managed grain, and its inherent flaws give it a charm of sorts, as if a relic has been unearthed for the first time (which it has). It isn’t so visually flawed that screen direction or lighting choices can’t be observed.
Audio is included in Spanish mono LPCM with optional subtitles in English and English SDH. The audio is in the same boat as the video, meaning that it’s in rough shape with frequent hiss, crackle, and distortion. Again, there’s something mysterious about it that adds to the darkness of the film. Thankfully, the subtitles are a great aid, whether you speak Spanish or not.
The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary with Stephen Jones and Kim Newman
- La Llorona: Ghosts of the Past (17:01)
- Transcending Time (17:49)
- Lunas y estrellas (1:38)
Writers and film historians Stephen Jones and Kim Newman take up commentary duties here. They discuss the pronunciation of the film’s title, various aspects of Mexican cinema, the possible influences of Tod Browning, sociopolitical aspects of the film as well as other films outside of Mexico at that time, versions of the original story in various films, story aspects that are not part of what we think as traditional film horror because the genre was in its infancy, the actors playing dual roles, the style of the film, distribution outside of Mexico, and the film’s reveal of the potential killer and the implications therein. As always from the two of them, it’s a great, informative track.
Ghosts of the Past features Mexican film preservationist and filmmaker Viviana Garcia Besne, great granddaughter of producer Jose Calderon. In this fascinating video essay, she discusses her great grandfather’s history as a film distributor. Along with his partners, they took up the task of producing some of the first Mexican sound films when the distribution business was not doing well in the burgeoning era of the “talkie.” She delves into the personal importance of locating and restoring this material, and even offers footage of her now deceased relatives, who were mere children at the time of filming, seeing the film for the first time in nearly a century. She speaks briefly about the legend of La Llorona as well, but the majority of time is spent talking about the film and her familial ties to it. In Transcending Time, film programmer and historian Abraham Castillo Flores discusses the folklore and legend of La Llorona, mentioning that it became intertwined with Hernan Cortes and conquistador La Malinche. He also mentions other worldwide legends with echoes of the same legend. He then further discusses the history of Mexican filmmaking from that period, covering some of the same ground as the previous extra. He talks about director Ramon Peon, the content of La Llorona, other films based upon the legend (intentionally ignoring those produced in the US), and his favorite aspects of the 1933 film and why it’s important today. Lunas y estrellas (which translates to “Moons and Stars”) is a compilation of the unique cue marks present on the 16 mm print of La Llorona, which were distinctively made up of crescent moons, stars, and ovals.
The disc sits inside a clear amaray case with a limited edition 40-page insert booklet featuring a new essay by Emily Masincup, an archival article on the legend of La Llorona, Valeria Villegas Lindvall on the many cinematic interpretations of La Llorona, an archival newspaper report on the film’s premiere, an overview of contemporary critical responses, Peter Conheim on the restoration of La Llorona, and a set of credits.
Powerhouse Films adds another quality release to their line of titles with La Llorona, an unfortunately underseen film that deserves more recognition today. Looking better than it ever has (replacing older duped VHS masters) with a quality set of interesting extras, this is a great release. Highly recommended.
- Tim Salmons