Every culture has its own share of legends, stories, and cautionary tales about boogeymen/women who roam the night, and one of the longest running is the Latin American creation known as La Llorona, or “The Weeping Woman.” The story goes that she drowned her own children hundreds of years ago in a misguided fit of rage and now walks the night in search of unattended kids she can claim as her own… before drowning them too. She’s been passed down through generations and appeared in all manner of pop culture incarnations, and now she’s joining The Conjuring Cinematic Universe with The Curse of La Llorona.
It’s 1973, and Anna (Linda Cardellini) is a widowed mother working for Child Protective Services in Los Angeles. She’s called to a recurring case after a woman’s two sons go missing, and she discovers the boys hidden in a closet. The mom claims she was protecting them, but the lock on the outside of the door and the burn marks on the children’s arms don’t look good so they’re taken into CPS custody. And then they’re found drowned later that night in the LA basin. Anna soon discovers the truth behind the tragedy as her own son and daughter find themselves stalked by La Llorona, and the only hope they have rests in the reluctant help from an unorthodox curandero (a Latin American shaman) named Rafael (Raymond Cruz).
James Wan’s gift as a filmmaker behind the likes of The Conjuring and its sequel has often been evident in his twin abilities to make viewers care about the characters on screen and then to scare the hell out of them. As with the Annabelle entries and 2018’s The Nun, Wan serves only as producer with The Curse of La Llorona, and again like those film his absence in the director’s chair is felt by viewers. The expected beats are here, but the skill and heart behind them are missing.
Director Michael Chaves does solid enough work with his feature debut with an early flashback setting up the character and delivering unsettling chills in the daylight, but once the script (by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis) moves viewers into 1970s LA the film grows decidedly less scary and endlessly predictable. Jump scares are frequent and repeatedly telegraphed well in advance through the script’s setup and the director’s staging. One scene in particular involves a mirror on a door, and in addition to doing exactly what you expect the sequence also goes on for far too long as it tries to trick viewers into thinking the inevitable isn’t actually heading their way. It’s dull rather than frightening, and the sentiment spreads throughout the film.
Horror films are often known for the dumb decisions of its characters, but even the most die-hard genre fans will see their patience tested by the characters here. A ghostly spirit is snatching up children in the night and murdering them you say? Of course Anna would leave hers unattended while she chats up Rafael several rooms away. The only thing keeping the undead visitor out is a loose line of seeds at the door you say? Of course one of the kids would ignore the warning and disturb the boundary in pursuit of a toy. That last sequence in particular is a doozy guaranteed to leave even the mute among the audience yelling at the screen and wishing for the child’s demise.
Far too often the film follows a basic formula — a noise! a slow search for the source. a surprise! — but while filmmakers like Wan and Mike Flanagan know to pepper it with personality and less traditional scares it’s all we get here. The film also spends far too much time stuck inside Anna’s house. Sure it’s a common factor in haunted house movies, but La Llorona’s entire shtick is snatching up kids left out and unattended at night and we’re even explicitly told that it’s not the house that’s haunted here. There’s a reason she’s used by some parents as a warning to ensure their children are home before dark, but that aspect of the legend is quickly dropped in order to keep the entire back half of the movie housebound.
Cardellini is a strong actor fighting an uphill battle as the white widow of a Hispanic man and mom to two Hispanic children in a tale about a Latin American legend, but rather than factor that racial disparity into the story somehow it’s just presented as is. It doesn’t kill the film — it barely limps along regardless — but such a specifically Latin tale probably deserves better and more attention in that area. Cruz, meanwhile, brings a jolt of personality and persona to the film and delivers some solid laughs on up through the third act, but they come at the expense of tonal balance. Kids are being murdered and stalked, and his dryly delivered one-liners and replies continue like they’re all chilling at a Sunday picnic.
The Curse of La Llorona feels the smallest and least effective of the Conjuring adjacent spin-offs, and it’s surprising for a franchise with such a well-worn formula. The previous five films vary in the amount and quality of terror-filled thrills they provide, but this is as lifeless and generic as they come. Hopefully it’s a mere aberration and not a sign of what to expect with the Chaves-helmed The Conjuring 3 — and yes, that concern is easily the scariest thing about The Curse of La Llorona.
Our review of The Curse of La Llorona originally ran during SXSW 2019.