Written by Deborah Shaw, Professor of Film and Screen Studies, University of Portsmouth
Pan’s Labyrinth taught audiences about the horrors of the human rights abuses committed by the Francoist forces in the 1940s. These abuses were personified through the monstrous fascist, Captain Vidal, and his otherworldly alter ego, the Pale Man. Fairies, a faun and a magical underground kingdom co-exist with the harsh realities of post-civil war Spain. Such fantasy elements successfully drew in audiences who may have had little interest in Spanish history.
Del Toro’s genre-bending and -blending approach to filmmaking allows him to reach a large and varied audience while also providing sharp social and historical commentary on Spain’s fraught past.
Despite their Spanish setting, the Mexican director’s Spanish language films have influenced a swathe of recent Latin American movies that combine realism, fantasy and the supernatural to reach wider global audiences and shine a light on social ills and human rights abuses.
Two such films, showcased on the horror streaming platform Shudder, are Tigers are Not Afraid by the Mexican director Issa López and La Llorona (The Crying Woman) by Guatemala’s Jayro Bustamante. Both films point to a growing genre of Latin American supernatural and magical realist films which also draw attention to political corruption and human rights abuses.
The real horrors of Mexico
As López has noted, Tigers are Not Afraid wears its influence from Pan’s Labyrinth proudly. The film has won praise from del Toro himself as well as Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. As in Pan’s Labyrinth, the protagonist is a young girl, Estrella (Paola Lara) who joins a band of street children. They, like her, were orphaned by femicides – the intentional killing of women because of their gender – committed by corrupt local politician and drug kingpin, El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), and the assassins working for him, Los Huascas.
The horror trope of vengeful ghosts, in this case those of Estrella’s mother and other murdered women, seeking to entrap and kill those responsible for their deaths are visible nods to del Toro’s ghostly tales The Devil’s Backbone and Crimson Peak.
As with these del Toro films, fantasy and the supernatural collide with the horrors of real life. As López explains:
Horror goes directly into our most intimate, primal emotion, so if you can squeeze your way there you have the audience’s heart and ear. Then you can go into their other fears, the ones they really don’t want to go into, the real ones.
The film uses the supernatural to reveal a neglected aspect of Mexico’s corrupt politics and its connections with drug crime and femicide. This provides a way into Mexico’s reality for international horror movie fans.
A Guatemalan ghost story
La Llorona also harnesses the power of the paranormal to tell the important story of the genocide of the Maya Ixil people by the military in Guatemala in the 1980s. The film follows General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Díaz) and his family. After angry survivors and protesters of the genocide surround their house demanding justice, the family find themselves trapped inside.
Monteverde is based on the former dictator and retired army general José Efraín Ríos Montt. During his presidency (1982-1983), he was responsible for the genocide of an estimated 10,000 people and the destruction of more than 400 Mayan indigenous communities.
In a 2013 trial based on oral testimonies of over 90 survivors, which is recreated in the film, he was found guilty of genocide of the Maya Ixil people. However, the verdict was quickly overturned by the Constitutional Court, as members of the military elite feared that a successful prosecution would lead to them also facing justice.
The film recounts the social, political and supernatural happenings following the arrival of the servant Alma (meaning “soul” in Spanish). A Mayan woman (María Mercedes Coroy), Alma is a mystical presence and the titular crying woman.
La Llorona is a folkloric figure across parts of Latin America. After drowning her children and killing herself, her ghost is forced to wander as she weeps for her dead family. In Bustamante’s reworking of this tale to tell the story of the genocide, Alma’s children are drowned by the military under orders from Monteverde. Ghostly wailing fills the house from the moment of Alma’s arrival but is heard only by the General who is tormented by it.
La Llorona and Tigers are Not Afraid are compelling ghost stories that have all the trappings of the brilliant horror movies we know and love. They cleverly employ the universal appeal of scary stories to teach their viewers about overlooked Mexican and Guatemalan social realities. These films show that while we all love a good scare on our screens, the real horrors are all around us and deserve to be remembered and seen.