Long before there were horror movies, generations of Latin American families have passed down the terrifying story of La Llorona, aka The Weeping Woman.
Always the best folklores endure, and La Llorona still holds the power to scare – an iconic legend of a broken-hearted mother and wife, abandoned by her husband for another woman. In desperation, she drowns her own two children in a bid for revenge on her cheating husband. In grief, she stalks the rivers and waterways in an eternal hunt for children’s souls to replace the ones she drowned in life.
Parents and grandparents have long used this chilling tale as a cautionary warning for their children, should they misbehave or stay out too late.
“When I first came to America, one of the first stories people would come up and tell me was the legend of La Llorona,” says the film’s Aussie producer and supreme scaremeister, James Wan, who has learned a few things about frightening audiences with his Saw, Insidious and Conjuring franchises.
Enlisting Michael Chaves to direct The Curse of the Weeping Woman, the film serves as the feature directorial debut for the innovative filmmaker behind award-winning short, The Maiden. Clearly Chaves found the scares in just the right places, having already signed to direct The Conjuring 3.
Set in 1973 Los Angeles, this new take on the legendary weeping woman tells the story of widowed social worker Anna Tate-Garcia [Linda Cardellini], struggling to raise her two kids while coping with the loss of her husband. When she’s called to the home of long-time client Patricia Alvarez [Patricia Velasquez], she finds her two young sons locked in a closet, placing the mother in a psychiatric hospital and her kids in protective custody.
Hours later, when Patricia’s children are found mysteriously drowned in a nearby river, the inconsolable mother blames the social worker, cursing The Weeping Woman to take Anna’s own children.
Turning to former priest-turned-“curandero”, Breaking Bad’s Raymond Cruz offers an unconventional approach to rid Anna of the curse.
Before cameras rolled, the filmmakers brought in a priest and a curandero for spiritual protection, performing a “limpia cleansing ceremony”, burning sage to remove negative energy from the rented LA house where they filmed.
“All of us felt great power in this profoundly meditative moment that affected everyone on set,” says Chaves when STACK meets with the director and cast on the Warner Bros. lot on a spooky set, replicating Cardellini’s house in the film.
“Things happen on sets, or people get sick,” elaborates the actress, celebrated for her performances in Green Book and Mad Men. “This film has darkness, so it felt nice to bring some light into it before embarking on this journey.”
Despite their precautions, the set was plagued by unexplained spooky incidents. “We had some odd occurrences where people heard whispers, things moving around,” says Chaves.
On one day, filming in the kitchen, he recalls, “It was sweltering outside, and suddenly we felt this cold chill come through the house – not just a breeze; this was an arctic blast. All of us were completely creeped out and it was dead quiet. The owner of the house believed there was something there and, by the end of the shoot, pretty much the whole crew were convinced of it.”
“I‘ve always believed in La Llorona because I grew up in Mexico and Venezuela where she is very much an entity,” says Velasquez. “La Llorona is not even a story or a legend – she’s something you just believe in.”
Prior to the shoot, she even wrote a letter to La Llorona, leaving it by her bedside before going to sleep. “I was woken in the night by a horrible scream, a howling. I rushed out of bed and immediately went to protect my daughter but I tripped and fell on my knee. My daughter woke at the sound and I put her back to bed. Only when I returned to bed myself, I found my knee was bleeding and I was in shock. As I was cleaning my knee, I remembered my note and, in that moment, I understood her pain. Even though it was scary at the time, it gave me this weird peace of mind. It was almost like ‘I get you. I understand what you’re going through’,” recalls the actress, best known for her roles in The Mummy and The Mummy Returns.
Something of a sceptic, Cardellini became a believer after staying in not one, but two haunted hotels during the film’s recent premiere at SXSW in Austin, Texas. “First it was flickering lights while I was taking a bath in one hotel and then later a banging door at 3am in my room at another hotel. I thought it was housekeeping but when I got up, there was nobody there.
“I put all the lights on in the sitting area, and went back to bed, leaving my door a few inches open so I could sleep but still have some light. But, as I turned to go back to bed, the door slid shut. I was so creeped out, I turned on all the lights and, as I set in bed, it looked like my drapes were moving. After that I didn’t sleep a wink, spending the whole night with my lights on.
“It reminded me of the story, how La Llorona does not stay in one place. She is attached to you and moves with you, so you cannot escape her,” says Cardellini, who adds she would never pass down the La Llorona legend to her own daughter. “No! My God! My child would never get out of my bedroom! If I told her that, she would never sleep alone!”
“But I can understand how parents might have told their children this story to keep them out of trouble – but it’s a pretty harsh lesson I think.”
After a long and varied career, The Curse of the Weeping Woman serves as Cardellini’s horror lead debut.
“Reading the script for the first time and seeing these horrible things happening to children, I thought this was about as terrifying as it gets. So, if I was going to be in a horror movie after all this time, then I would try this one,” laughs the actress who featured in Brokeback Mountain, Daddy’s Home and Avengers: Age of Ultron.
“Matricide is so unthinkable; something most of us can’t even understand. As a mother, your whole goal in life is about protecting your child. So I found it fascinating that this story is really about three mothers and how, at some point, we all mirror each other in some ways.”
More importantly, she adds, “Horror stories have great parts for women.”
• The Curse of the Weeping Woman is in cinemas on April 18