Studio: Warner Bros.
Director: Michael Chaves
Writer: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis
Producer: James Wan, Gary Dauberman, Emile Gladstone
Stars: Linda Cardellini, Raymond Cruz, Patricia Velasquez, Marisol Ramirez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen
In 1973 Los Angeles, a widow fights to save her family from the curse of a weeping woman determined to drown her children.
Whether they receive the full benefit of James Wan’s sure showman’s hand as a director, or his less invested eye as a producer, The Conjuring Universe movies are nothing if not consistently accessible for mainstream audiences. That popcorn appeal usually turns each entry into a worldwide box office beast. Conversely, following assembly line formula to manufacture fright film fast food can cause hardened horror fans to groan with upset stomachs.
‘Exhibit Six’ in the ongoing argument between bored genre aficionados and enthusiastic average moviegoers: “The Curse of La Llorona.” Director Michael Chaves lathers this boilerplate haunter in so much cinematic slickness that spooky style drips into a puddle fit for the titular terror. You just wouldn’t want to step in it while wearing patent leather wingtips for fear of staining good shoes with standard scares and connect-the-dots plotting.
“The Curse of La Llorona” takes inspiration from a primo piece of Mexican folklore. In both the legend and in the film, ‘The Weeping Woman’ is the ghost of a mother who drowned her two sons in a jealous fit over her husband’s infidelity. Overcome with grief, La Llorona killed herself. These sins cursed La Llorona to roam Earth in search of wayward children to take the place of her own.
Fast-forward 300 years and recent widow Anna has her hands full raising young son Chris and younger daughter Samantha. Her daily routine of being run ragged has Anna sympathizing with single mother Patricia, who struggles to raise two children too. Anna’s job as a CPS social worker takes her to Patricia to find out why her two boys haven’t been seen in weeks. When Anna intervenes in the other trio’s affairs, she inadvertently unleashes La Llorona. Once she finishes with Patricia’s family, The Weeping Woman starts haunting Anna’s home. If her son and daughter are to avoid the same fate as others cursed by La Llorona, Anna will need the help of a rebellious faith healer who may hold the key to saving her children.
We’re basically looking at a transfer of tropes from one culture to another here. Instead of Maria Bello as a single soccer mom at the head of a suburban family, we get Linda Cardellini anchoring a poorer household a little closer to downtown. And instead of appealing to a priest in a church for an exorcism (although she does that too), Anna finds a curandero at a bodega who is proficient in sage smudging.
Yet it’s this commitment to compounding its Latino lineage that gives “The Curse of La Llorona” its tastiest flash of flavor. The ice cream in the cone certainly stays vanilla. At least this cascade of caramel on top keeps it from being overly plain.
And who better to script a movie steeped in Mexican folklore featuring Hispanic families than two white people respectively hailing from Germany and Atlanta, Georgia? Writing duo Tobias Iaconis and Mikki Daughtry previously wrote an English-language adaptation of Jaume Balaguero’s Spanish thriller “Sleep Tight,” so I guess that qualifies them as “close enough.”
I’m being cynically glib for fun, although this adds to the explanation for how “The Curse of La Llorona” becomes so conceptually basic. Characters have last names like Perez, Garcia, and Alvarez, whose Anglo counterparts would probably be Smith, Jones, and Miller. Even the curandero is a former Catholic priest whose primary weapons for exorcising evil are holy water and a cross. Retaining familiarity first and foremost, the film is only as vaguely ethnic as it can get away with before it risks alienating bigoted viewers.
“The Curse of La Llorona” takes place in 1973 Los Angeles, although the seventies setting does nothing except force characters to obtain exposition dumps from actual people instead of the internet. Two of those dumps come courtesy of Tony Amendola as Father Perez. Being the same priest who featured in “Annabelle” (review here), this gives the story its completely cursory connection to The Conjuring Universe. Since Anna wasn’t privy to the prologue the audience saw, Perez pops in to provide her with La Llorona’s backstory before returning later to say he can’t help, but maybe curandero Rafael can.
As helpful as Rafael turns out to be, the true MVP of “The Curse of La Llorona” is the dolly grip tasked with repeatedly pushing the camera on countless slow crawls. The production probably spent as much money on wheel grease as cast salaries, and no doubt wore ruts in the dolly tracks. I hardly fault cinematographer Michael Burgess for choreographing umpteen shots with turtle-speed creeping. “The Curse of La Llorona” features so many scenes of tiptoeing, peeking, and cautiously approaching corners that there are few alternatives for being creative with the camera.
The film fashions suspense exclusively through a series of white glove and magic cane buildups before a “ta-da!” assaults your senses. It’s easy use an eye roll to heave a complaint of cheapness at horror movies built on sudden cuts and amplified audio. But I’ll give “The Curse of La Llorona” this much. Its jolts are creatively constructed. For all their comfort in falling back on by-the-numbers blueprints everywhere else, Chaves and his collaborators don’t rely on the typical jump scares of a cat in the cupboard, closing door, or mirror revealing a shadowy shape (although those are there too). Their mischievous pops inventively inject more than a few moments of Wan-esque creepiness we haven’t seen a million times over.
“The Curse of La Llorona” hits par on roughly the same green as “The Nun” (review here). Let that movie be the thermometer for the temperature you’ll run on this outing. La Llorona has slightly more substance to her origin than Valak at least, even though both are hollow vessels for facilitating textbook frights. I’m not sure what sense it makes for a paranormal ghost to be bound by laws of physics when it comes to opening doors, but that’s the level of logic you get in a movie like this.
What exactly is “a movie like this?” One that works incrementally better opposite how indoctrinated you are in horror. “The Curse of La Llorona” covers the average ante we’ve come to expect from The Conjuring Universe’s more middling, yet still smooth movies. Veteran viewers seated at the same table on the other hand, won’t have trouble seeing right through its bluff.
Review Score: 60