Shudder’s Activist Horror

(Above: María Mercedes Coroy, ‘La Llorona.’ Source: IMDb)

“Horror Storytelling as Activism?”

We had ignored Shudder’s La Llorona on its premiere last week, but our interest perked up when anti-poverty group Oxfam invited us to an online screening of the Guatemalan film and a subsequent Zoom panel with the above question as its subject.

La Llorona is meant from the start to evoke an enduring Latin American legend of “The Weeping Woman,” who spends eternity mourning her drowned children’s deaths.

If, like us — and we suspect, most Americans – you were ignorant of this legend, you could well take La Llorona as a psychological political suspense tale of an old general, who – convicted of a decades-old genocide against indigenous Guatemalans, but then cleared by a higher court  – is now forced to reside at home, trapped by throngs of protesters outside and haunted by his personal demons.

Or is the haunting coming from beyond?

Turns out, from the Oxfam discussion, it’s no coincidence that everyone now living with the old man is female. These are his wife, daughter and granddaughter, along with two indigenous women: his sole remaining servant from a previously large staff, and a new, mysterious young maid.

Nor should you ignore all the water metaphors.

‘Water can go in places that people don’t want to go, because it flows very well’ — Producer Gustavo Matheu

Which leads us to our favorite quote from the panel: “Water can go in places that people don’t want to go, because it flows very well,” said Gustavo Matheu, the film’s producer.

Indeed, water is so essential to La Llorona that the film had its world premiere last year in Venice, Mattheu said, “because it’s covered with water.” (La Llorona went on to win the Venice Days competition at the Venice Film Festival.)

Like water, horror can get into areas otherwise off-limits, according to Abraham Castillo, programmer at Mexico’s Morbido Fest. “You can talk about symbols and metaphors,” he noted.

Besides La Llorona herself, the movie’s biggest symbol is the general.

Guatemala, genocide
(Photo: Queqchí people carry their loved one’s remains after an exhumation in Cambayal in Alta Verapaz department, Guatemala. Source: Archive Centre of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Sciences, via Wikipedia)

As with La Llorona, most Americans are probably also ignorant of Guatemala’s actual history. In a 36-year war (1960-1996) against the country’s own Mayans, a major figure was a general, who in 2013 was finally convicted of genocide, but then released by a higher court.

Director Jayro Bustamante calls La Llorona’s general a “composite”: “It seems like all Latin American dictators went to the same university in the US, and then came back [and committed crimes].”

Yet, even in Guatemala — indeed, maybe especially in Guatemala, ”You have to be really brave to talk about crimes against humanity. Whoever talks about this risks their lives.” Those words were said by Rigoberta Menchú Tum, the Guatemalan winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of indigenous peoples.

“It’s been almost 50 years of silence,” Tum said. “[Now] we’ve been able to have this story…reach the big screen….This has made us so happy. I’m really moved by this film.”

La Llorona presents the story of a fable, but this happened,” declared Oxfam Guatemala’s Ana Maria Mendez Libby, who added that the film’s “mix of fact and fiction” serves “to set forth a reality.”

‘In my country, people keep denying that genocide happened” -Director Jayro Bustamante

“In my country, people keep denying that genocide happened,” noted Bustamante. “I wanted to put together an army of women who would struggle [as] La Lorrano arrives and gets into them.”

La Llorona tells “a different kind of horror,” said Matheu, “the horror of our history, of our past.”

We didn’t find La Llorona particularly scary, but that may be one of the movie’s strengths: No horror inflicted on the general’s household could be as bad as what he had done to his own people.

“We really do need the truth to come out,” said Alex Martinez Kondracke, co-founder of The Latinx House, which works to support the Latinx community in film and entertainment. “Horror movies, because they’re so popular, have the power to reach people.”

‘We need to find the weight and breadth that horror has’ – Sam Zimmerman, Shudder

Sam Zimmerman, Shudder’s director of programming, would seem to agree. The subscription streamer, he said, seeks a “diversity of perspectives and voices….We need to find the weight and breadth that horror has.”

Shudder, he said, is committed to letting underrepresented voices “showcase their stories, their pasts, and their horror.”

As “great companion programming” to La Llorona , Zimmerman recommends the following Shudder titles:

Revenge, which Shudder calls a “feminist subversion of the [rape] revenge thriller”

Blood Quantum, in which immune Native Americans must fight back ”walking white corpses”

Tigers are Not Afraid, about three Mexican children orphaned by a drug cartel’s murders, who are granted three magical wishes

Horror Noire, which “traces the untold history of Black Americans in Hollywood through their connection to the horror genre.” 

Shudder, which costs $5.99 a month or $56.99 annually, normally comes with a seven-day free trial. But use code HORRORACTIVISM at checkout to increase the trial to 30 days. For more information, visit Shudder.com.

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About Les Luchter

Les Luchter is a former managing editor of Multichannel News, editor-in-chief of Cable Marketing, and news editor of Broadcast Week.

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