Written by: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis
Directed by: Michael Chaves
Starring: Linda Cardellini, Raymond Cruz, and Patricia Velasquez
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
She wants your children.
One of the hallmarks of the rise of 90s alt-rock was the “loud, quiet, loud” formula. Pioneered by The Pixies and further popularized by Nirvana, the technique alternates soft verses with raucous choruses, and I can’t help but think James Wan has modeled the approach on the big screen with his various haunted house movies. Both Insidious and The Conjuring thrive on sequences that subtly ratchet up in suspense before unleashing loud, boisterous jolts: a master of the form, Wan has patented this art of the jump scare, and he earns it each time he sends you leaping from your seat. But like we saw during the later phases of the “grunge” era (whatever that was), plenty of imitators have spawned in the wake of these successes, many of them shepherded to the screen by Wan himself. Some—like Annabelle: Creation—have proven worthy; most, however, are pale copycats that don’t share Wan’s fondness for character work, nor his delicate sense of pacing: they simply lean into the loud part of the formula without honoring the quiet moments that would allow these works to sing.
So it is with The Curse of La Llorona, the latest entry in The Conjuring universe, though its connection is tenuous and adjacent at best. A cursory glance leads you to a cynical conclusion: this is yet another one of these things, only it’s swapped out haunted dolls and sinister nuns for the familiar folklore Mexico’s “Weeping Woman” myth. Such an assumption is very much correct: The Curse of La Llorona is the same old story you’ve seen dozens of times now, only with a new cast of characters that deserve a more spirited take than this. By its very nature, this should be a more distinctive effort since it brings an underseen mythos and an underrepresented culture to multiplex screens, but it’s thuddingly unremarkable: you could easily imagine this script starting as a generic haunting story, only to have the La Llorona mythos tacked on at the last second.
A prologue set in 17th century Mexico seems promising enough, as it provides an all-too brief glimpse at the heart of the mythos. Some children play innocently by the riverside, only to meet a grisly end at the hands of their own mother. It’s all too brief, though, and before that horror can settle in, the film whisks us to 1973 Los Angeles, where beleaguered social worker and recently widowed Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) struggles to balance personal and work obligations. Her life becomes even more difficult when two children in her case load turn up as truancy cases, prompting an investigation that ends with Anna finding the boys locked up in a closet, covered with mysterious bruises.
Their mother, Patricia (Patricia Velásquez), claims she is protecting them, but it’s not enough to keep them from state custody. Unfortunately, La Llorona—the malevolent force that terrified the mother to lock these kids in a closet—finds the brothers and leaves their corpses to be fished from the river. As their horrified mother looks on the crime scene, she hisses the truth at Anna: her boys were taken by La Llorona, and now her own children will fall victim to the weeping woman. Sure enough, a mysterious wailing sound immediately lures Anna’s oldest child from the car and leads him to La Llorona herself, who marks him as her next target.
There are many issues to work through here, but let’s start with the most obvious: all of this happens within the first 20 minutes or so, basically extinguishing any sense of mystery or intrigue. An entire subplot develops where authorities attempt to pin the kids’ deaths on Patricia, but it’s nonsense for audiences who have already had La Llorona’s existence confirmed. Hell, the moment when she draws the boys from their room isn’t even played ambiguously: this evil force barely lurks in the frame before shrieking front-and-center with predictable CGI outbursts.
Not only is her existence confirmed—these outbursts become the film’s raison d'etre, as its thin plot merely becomes a vehicle for more tepid scares that seem to have rolled in off of the Conjuring assembly line. It feels like a severe course correction in the wake of The Nun; where that film’s titular spirit barely had a presence, La Llorona is all over the damn place here, much to the film’s detriment. When she’s not literally haunting the screen, everyone’s talking about her at all times—she’s the Poochie of the Conjuring universe.
It might not be that much of a problem if these scares worked; however, they’re generally uninspired and telegraphed from the moment you spot certain camera angles and elements of the mise en scène. The setup is usually fine: first-time feature director Michael Chaves’s camera dutifully prowls and slinks about, capturing the occasional subtle—and perhaps even unnerving—image before punctuating it with obnoxious, unearned jolts. Many horror films aspire to have audiences watching through their fingers; here’s one that will have them plugging their ears with their fingers to brace for these annoying shrieks. At a certain point, it almost feels like self-sabotage because La Llorona seems to be hellbent on undermining its few inspired bits, like a gag involving an umbrella and a nice Evil Dead homage.
Unfortunately, these rare moments endure as anomalies, oases in a desert of thudding familiarity. Chaves often shows that he knows the song but doesn’t quite get the beat because he’s hellbent on hammering on those loud notes to the point of exhaustion. Quiet moments don’t have enough room to breathe, nor do they contrast with the startling outbursts, which start to screech like white noise by the end of the film. Loud noises aren’t scary in a vacuum—they only work with genuine investment, both on the part of the filmmaker and the audience. La Llorona doesn’t command proper investment for neither its scares nor its characters, leaving the entire enterprise flat and unengaging. When you can set your watch by certain developments (“ah, yes, here’s the obligatory exposition dump from a priest”; “ok, here comes the attic-bound climax”), a film starts to feel more like a checklist than it does a story, and you can practically tick off boxes as La Llorona plods ahead, insistent on sticking to the formula.
You can't quite check “decent characters” off the list, though, and, with this tremendous cast at its disposal, La Llorona truly has no excuse for allowing its audience to just disengage. They’re all given precious little to work with, however, and any drama feels forced for the sake of it. Anna’s plight as a widow obviously comes loaded with dramatic potential, but it does little more than to predictably dovetail into trashy irony when her co-workers start to suspect that she’s abusing her children. Some fleeting, nice moments between Cardellini and Sean Patrick Thomas proves that their terrific chemistry deserves better than this disappointing turn of events, which doesn’t even have any payoff anyway. By omitting any sort of scene that allows Anna some closure or reconciliation with her co-workers, the script effectively proves that it really doesn’t give a damn about these characters; no, they might as well be haunted house automatons themselves, existing simply to react to the surrounding horror.
One exception does emerge in Rafael (Raymond Cruz), the rogue exorcist Anna eventually seeks out for the climax. I know, I know—you’ve heard this shit before, and I was practically rolling my eyes at the cryptic dialogue revealing his struggle with the church. I’ve seen it, you’ve seen it, and, the screenwriters damn well have seen it before; however, in a rare display of cleverness, both the script and Cruz imagine this exorcist as something of an oddball. Sporting a deadpan wit and unconventional methods, Rafael proves to be a wry, warm, and human presence. Cruz plays off the expectations for this sort of character—terse dialogue, an exceedingly serious demeanor—and undercuts them with dry humor. He’s a terrific character, and I hope Wan and company find room for him in another Conjuring universe film in the future.
Unfortunately, he’s also an exception as one of the few Latino characters that aren’t demonized or marginalized in a film inspired by one of the culture’s most prominent myths. It becomes an obvious elephant in the room: just why is this tale centered on a white, American family, anyway? What’s worse, a Latino woman emerges as the film’s secondary antagonist once it becomes clear that Patricia harbors a vicious vendetta against Anna and has essentially conjured La Llorona as revenge. Some might fairly note that Patricia does eventually do the right thing, but it’s entirely unmotivated and simply makes her a magical helper figure. It’s frustrating because they essentially shift Patricia’s story to Anna—there’s already a dramatic tale here of a woman desperately trying to prove she didn’t murder her children. The Curse of La Llorona has so many options with this character and disappointingly chooses the worst possible one.
Likewise, this feels like the most lackluster take on La Llorona in general; far from the distinctive, intriguing, and genuinely scary movie this folklore deserves, this simply feels like the latest Conjuring wannabe with a different spirit copied and pasted into the formula. There’s an eerie, slow-burn version of this story that treats La Llorona herself as an unsettling, haunting presence that lurks in the margins more than she shrieks to the forefront, but this very much isn’t it. I suppose it’s some consolation that it’s already proven to be a box office hit, meaning Wan and company will get a mulligan and hopefully make improvements with a sequel. Chaves will also have the chance to impress again soon since he’s set to helm The Conjuring 3 in Wan’s stead. As disappointing as La Llorona is, it hasn’t completely soured that proposition: hopefully, a stronger, more invested script will give him a fighting chance next time around because there are some glimmers of hope here, nice little grace notes that are drowned out in an otherwise cacophonous din.
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