06 · 7 · 18

Mexico’s first horror film: The Crying Woman

By: Alonso Díaz de la Vega @diazdelavega1

Long before classics of Mexican horror like The Body Snatcher (1957) or The Vampire (1957) —both directed by Fernando Méndez—, The Crying Woman (1933, dir. Ramón Peón) opened the door to this genre in a rather unusual way: while it does contain elements of the supernatural, the film is also a period melodrama with elements of romance. Just like later films would mix elements of musicals and even revues, The Crying Woman is a popular entertainment that intends to explore all the possible nuances to attract its audience. That cliché in old trailers about films full of weeping, laughter and other emotions was more of a style for Mexican cinema. The Crying Woman follows it by including gags despite the fact that it starts with a murder. After hearing the ghastly scream of a woman —clearly the specter from the title and the legend—, a man in a dark street falls and we see his hand clenching into a claw. This announces a somber film but soon enough its style begins to mold in different shapes.

Even though the film’s aim is entertainment more than exploring cinematic form or delving into certain themes, The Crying Woman incorporates, since its second scene, the conflict between reason and superstition. Afterwards it talks about the yielding of the Americas to Europe. The protagonist, a physician called Ricardo de Acuna (Ramón Pereda), holds that the death in the aforementioned scene can be explained by science. Towards the denouement a scene establishes doña Marina, Hernán Cortés’ translator and lover, as the original Llorona, or Crying Woman. Her story of abandonment and betrayal expresses the abuses of the conquistadors. Even though The Crying Woman doesn’t seem to be trying to link them, these two themes are related since the meeting of Europe and the Americas was also the clash between rationalism and an ancient mysticism. Pre-Columbian societies lived in a dream of divinity, interrupted by conquest. It would be an exaggeration to suggest that the film hints at this but perhaps it does so unwittingly.

In formal terms Cuban director Ramón Peón introduces some attractive and very expressive elements. A top shot captures a table shaped like a four leaf clover —an unmistakeable symbol of superstition— before the birthday dinner of one of doctor De Acuna’s children. Later on, in a small gag which reflects the film’s themes the child’s grandfather sits at the table so that there aren’t only 13 people sitting. In that same scene the camera swirls around the table in order to give a wider view. The same move will be repeated at the end of the film in a beautiful image which conveys the encounter between Spain and the Mexica people. This sort of camera movement was usual in the films of Jean Renoir, who used them to emphasize the camera as a sort of narrative voice. During a fight with a killer, Peón uses atypically low angles and very fast movements which underscore the violence.

The plot’s conflict comes when the grandfather tells De Acuna that his first born child disappeared when he turned four years old —his grandson’s age— and was later found dead in the garden with a stab on his chest. To prove the incredulous De Acuna that there’s a curse running in the family’s veins, he tells him the story of their ancestors. At this point a diagonal transition, like the turning of a page, takes us to the colonial past, where we’ll see sword fights, a wedding and intrigue. These are all the elements a period melodrama needed to aspire to success but this episode also tells the story of a man who provokes the anger of his lover and the death of their child. Devastated, the woman kills herself with a stab to her chest and becomes a specter screaming in pain. She becomes La Llorona.

Back in the present day the catacombs typical of horror films and the shadows taught to the world by German Expressionism start to appear. Double exposures abound to create the effect of ghosts preying on the protagonists and a final confrontation reveals the mystery of the film to the characters and their spectators.

Although there are elements from many genres in it, The Crying Woman is not just part of horror cinema but an essential fragment in its history as well as of Mexican cinema’s. The technical mastery it shows is nothing but admirable and its attachment to Mexican folk traditions and history is an essential sign of identity.