Starring Linda Cardellini, Raymond Cruz, Patricia Velasquez
Written by Mikki Daughtry & Tobias Iaconis
Directed by Michael Chaves
James Wan’s The Conjuring kicked off a horror shared universe that no one saw coming. From following the Warren family to the history of the evil doll Annabelle and into the Romanian countryside to investigate Valek, the stories in this world cross decades and span the world. Now, with The Curse of La Llorona, we see how its reach impacts other cultures.
Brought to life by Michael Chaves, who will be helming The Conjuring 3, this latest entry follows Anna (played enthusiastically by Cardellini) as a case worker whose children become endangered by the spirit of La Llorona. Her work sets up a wonderful potential premise by which child abuse – something she investigates as her career – could be used as the very mechanism that keeps her from being able to protect her children. Sadly, the film never explores that possibility, teasing us with a “we could do this…but we won’t” moment that quickly becomes a recurring theme throughout. The Curse of La Llorona is a fascinating case study in “what could’ve been”.
What makes this that so frustrating is that Chaves directs the hell out of the movie. It’s very clear that he studied the intricacies and subtleties of James Wan’s previous work in the franchise and replicated it gloriously, all while adding his own flourishes. The camera spins throughout the house during long takes that establish the setting. Shadows and backgrounds become the focus of the audiences’ eyes as nothing, and nowhere, feels safe. The level of sustained dread was reminiscent of my first time seeing The Conjuring 2, a compliment, I assure you.
The issues that arise can nearly all be directed at one glaring issue: the script. While there are some great moments (“Ta-da”), the characters and their actions simply don’t align with the events that take place throughout. Anna’s deceased husband was a police officer and yet she doesn’t call the police when she sees the vision of La Llorona in her home, much less her room? Her daughter, having just experienced some PTSD-inducing trauma, decides that she needs her dolly, which rests outside and beyond the safety of the spiritual borders. Both children are unwilling to show their mother the burns on their arms that mark La Llorona’s cursed touch. The daughter at one point is said to be possessed by La Llorona but that subplot goes absolutely nowhere and is gone just as quickly as it appears. Anna doesn’t discuss events with her children even when things are clearly going awry. One thing’s for certain: this family needs to learn how to communicate with one another, Mexican ghost or not.
Even the relation to The Conjuring universe doesn’t ring true. It’s tenuous at best, feeling more like an afterthought than intentional decision.
Jump scares are a dime a dozen here, which is annoying because there are visual gags that are really great (the umbrella scene comes to mind). And as mentioned before, the sustained dread is undeniable. But when you’ve got the whole “camera looks one way, looks a different way, looks back, and then back again and OH NO THERE SHE IS” shtick done repeatedly, it quickly loses impact.
La Llorona’s look is almost laughable. With an almost bile black face and bright orange eyes, she’s essentially a reverse jack-o’-lantern. The design truly feels like what Asylum would design for “The Haunting of La Llorona”…or whatever it nonsense they’d put out. Simply put, seeing her face – and seeing it often – takes away from her ability to scare instead of the opposite.
Something that was exciting about the film was it being the first major studio horror film that focused on Mexican folklore. Most of the supporting characters are clearly from the Hispanic community, be it their accents or their knowledge of the culture that makes this clear. Why then is it that La Llorona goes after a family that is obviously meant to be Hispanic and yet shows no signs of having anything to do with their culture? And why is it set in Los Angeles? And why isn’t the La Llorona mythology explored more heavily? What could’ve been, indeed…
Still, all these issues aside, there is no denying that there are scares to be had and that the film will win over a lot of people. As a horror film, it works just fin and for as much as there is to scratch your head about, there’s certainly enough to make you cover your eyes.
The Curse of La Llorona isn’t going to win any awards and it certainly won’t stand amongst the year’s best horror films. But if this is a precursor to seeing more big-budget studio horror films that tackle folklore from around the world, then I’m grateful it exists.