It’s high time for us to establish a new law, similar to Rule 34 or whatnot, that if something is a beloved or closely-held cultural institution amongst a people, it will inevitably be turned into a jump scare-loaded studio horror movie (not an exploitation movie, mind you) that will please approximately three people. At least when people did it with Santa Claus, there was an element of subversion going on, as filmmakers sought to undermine the Coke-swilling image of the jolly fat man and/or bring him back to his roots. But when you’re dealing with a legend like La Llorona, you’re going to have to do significantly better than to just have constant peek-a-boo scares and slamming doors, even if this is a movie set in the Conjuring universe. That said, Michael Chaves’ The Curse of La Llorona might have been better served by appealing more to the people with an attachment to this legend, as opposed to, you know, making it more accessible to a broader audience.
The film begins as you’d expect it might: As a blistering indictment of the cruelty of Child Protective Services in ‘70s Los Angeles, and, as such, this is where the problem begins. That’s right, our main character, Anna (Linda Cardinelli, who, at least, is able to finally able to move around and do stuff after being confined to a single location in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Green Book, and A Simple Favor), is a social worker, who has had a hard time keeping a healthy work-life balance since her husband died a few years earlier. She has two young children, Sam (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) and Chris (Roman Christou), who are precocious and adorable in that generic way that movie children often are. She’s required to do a welfare check on Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velasquez), a former drug addict with two children, whom the state fears may have relapsed.
And sure enough, they discover something troubling: Patricia, though stone-cold sober, has padlocked her two sons — bearing identical burn marks on their arms — in a closet as she fears that some supernatural entity might come and grab them if they’re out in the light for two long. She’s arrested, and the children are put into foster care.
But those helpful hands of the government don’t understand what they’re doing, after all, and Patricia’s two children are found drowned far away from the foster care center where they were supposed to spend the night. Immediately, Patricia is blamed for this, and despite being the obvious central character in any other version of this story — the wronged, flawed mother who has to prove to the state that she’s not delusion and didn’t kill her children — Anna begins to notice some weird things happening in her house. Doors slam shut. Her children are burned by unknown forces, are nearly drowned, and seem scared all the time. They begin to sleepwalk, trying to open locked doors. This begins to drive Anna a bit crazy — and she gets to experience life on the other side of the welfare visit once a doctor reports her for abusing her children — so she reaches out to a local priest (Tony Amendola, reprising his role from Annabelle), who lets her know that she’s not crazy, and that there’s a pretty simple explanation behind all this: She’s being haunted by the spirit of La Llorona.
Spanish for “the weeping woman,” La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez) gets a few flashback origin sequences, where we see her commit the deed that would make her infamous for an entire culture of people. Back in the 1600s, a beautiful bride, spurned by her husband for a younger woman, went mad with rage and murdered her two sons by drowning the two of them in the river. When she realized what she did, she committed suicide, and became a specter, forever haunting the globe, looking for children to replace the ones that she’d murdered. When children hear her moans and wails, she’s close-by, and will try to snatch them up and kill them as well.
So, Anna begs the priest for help, and he tells her that if they attempt to go through church protocol (after all, this is the Catholic Church we’re talking about), it’ll take weeks for any sort of relief to come down from further up in the hierarchy. But the priest recommends that she talk to a former priest-turned-mystic named Rafael Olvera (Raymond Cruz, best known as the psychotic drug lord Tuco from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul). Olvera agrees to help, and the two wage war on the spirit stalking Anna’s house. What follows is your garden-variety horror third act and an impossibly silly conclusion, one which the audience I saw it with recoiled from after being generally entertained by the proceedings.
It’s a common occurrence in (and criticism of) bad comedies that their best jokes are often in the trailer, but it’s relatively rare for that to be true of the scares in a horror film. Indeed, the film’s best sequence — which features Anna’s two children, soon after encountering La Llorona for the first time, attempting to lock their car doors and roll up the windows so that the spirit can’t get into the car and snatch them away — was spoiled way back in the film’s first trailer, which renders its scare-value in the narrative mostly moot for those who have seen any advertising. Every other spooky scene lacks that sense of captivity or that immediate fear, and eventually Chaves just throws his hands up and resorts to all of the cliches of his franchise forbearers: Loud noises, and quick jump scares. There’s no sense of dread or tension, as we all just know that there’s going to be something around the next corner when the non-diagetic music goes silent.
La Llorona’s design isn’t particularly interesting or compelling — though thank god she doesn’t crack her bones or contort in weird ways, as that would be one cliche too far — and the cast all seems bored, aside form Cruz, whose deadpan one-liners make for some occasional moments of levity after “tense” scenes. Its period setting is useless aside from qualifying where it takes place in the Conjuring world, outside of a baffling “Superfly” needledrop as Anna’s kids are getting ready for school on a busy morning, and its physical setting is genuinely funny from time to time, given just how much it rains in the film’s L.A. (you’d expect there to be flooding, honestly).
However, the single worst aspect of The Curse of La Llorona is how poorly Chaves and his screenwriters utilize the more interesting thematic portions of their story. Anna’s dead husband was Latino (as alluded to by her last name, Tate-Garcia), and their children are essentially growing up lacking in the culture that their father might have brought to them. Why doesn’t this story lean on their perspective more? They’re American children, who will one day grapple with a legacy of oppression and racism heaped upon their ancestors, and they are confronted by a literal cultural legend from their ancestral homeland that wishes to punish them. This potential theme of bi-cultural alienation might have been one that other filmmakers or writers might have played up, allowing the fear and tension to have supplementary detail to make it feel more honest. Instead, we’re given Anna’s limited perspective as an audience surrogate, and it doesn’t make the movie as interesting as it could have been, perhaps to preserve the kind of accessible blandness meant to make this movie as appealing to as many crowds as possible. Coupled with the lack of scares, this lack of resonance just makes La Llorona boring. What a shame.