Film

6 Movies That Use an Indigenous Curse as Key Part of Storytelling

Lead Photo: Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla.
Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla.

The no. 1 movie at the box office this past weekend was Freaky, a horror comedy about a teenage girl (Kathryn Newton) and a serial killer (Vince Vaughn) who switch bodies when the crazed lunatic stabs the high schooler with a cursed Aztec dagger.

It takes a little research online for the teen and her friends to discover the history of the mystical dagger, known as La Dola, but they soon learn that it was once a “tecpatl weapon or ceremonial knife, also known as ixcuac, used in ritual sacrifice.” They also discover an inscription on the dagger–in Spanish–but can’t translate it because, as one of the kids puts it, “Nobody pays attention in [Spanish III].”

Lucky for them, their Spanish teacher, Señora Cayenes (Maria Sager), is willing to help. She translates the text and lets her students know that if they don’t track down the dagger in 24 hours and use it to sacrifice the killer, the body swap will become permanent.

Freaky, of course, isn’t the first movie to use an indigenous or Native American curse as a storytelling device. One of the oldest horror movie tropes is setting a story on an “Indian Burial Ground” like in Pet Sematary and The Shining. There are others, however, like Freaky that adopt a curse, from the Mayan and Aztec people, into its screenplay, which causes bad things to happen. Here’s a look at six more.

'The Aztec Mummy' (1957)

The first of a trilogy of Mexican mummy movies in the 1950s, the horror film tells the story of Popoca, an Aztec warrior who is buried alive as punishment for sleeping with a temple maiden. When his tomb is disturbed by explorers who steal artifacts, the angry Popoca tracks them back to Mexico City to reclaim his treasures.

'From Dusk Till Dawn' (1996)

Spoiler alert: Robert Rodriguez’s vampire action flick doesn’t reveal its indigenous roots till the very end of the film. All viewers know for the first 107 minutes is that two brothers (George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino) kidnap a family and end up in a seedy Mexican saloon where everyone turns into bloodsucking demons. But at the end when the dust settles, you see that the bar is sitting comfortably atop an Aztec temple, which we’re assuming has something to do with everyone springing fangs.

'Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl' (2003)

The ancient curse featured in the franchise starts with an Aztec medallion stolen from the treasure of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés on the fictional Isla de Muerta. The medallion’s powers turn Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and his crew into undead pirates.

'The Dead One' (2007)

Originally titled El Muerto and adapted from the comic book El Muerto: The Aztec Zombie, the film stars Wilmer Valderrama as a young man living in East L.A. who dies in a car crash on his way to a Dia de Muertos celebration. He awakens in the Aztec underworld where he is sacrificed by the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca. Soon after, he must return to Earth to claim his soul and the woman he loves.

'The Ruins' (2008)

The supernatural horror film follows two American couples on vacation in Mexico, who stumble upon a remote Mayan temple in the jungle. When they are confronted by a group of enraged indigenous villagers, they are forced to find refuge on top of the ruins where they are faced with an even greater danger: carnivorous vines! Warning: The clip below isn’t for the squeamish.

'La Llorona' (2020)

Set on the backdrop of the Guatemalan genocide in the early 1980s, Jayro Bustamante’s political drama/thriller uncovers the sins of a retired dictator (Julio Diaz) through the story of a young Ixil Mayan servant (María Mercedes Coroy) who comes to work for his family. She becomes the catalyst for the general to face his horrific crimes when she brings a sort of supernatural force inside the home.