for violence and terror
Linda Cardellini, Patricia Velasquez, Madeleine McGraw, Sean Patrick Thomas, John Marshall Jones
Warner Bros. on
There was a time when James Wan's association with a film meant something. Wan built his horror credibility with the likes of Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring. The last of those gave birth to a brand name (dubbed "the Conjuring universe"); properties of varying quality claimed kinship via tangential connections to the original or its numbered sequel. The Curse of La Llorona is the latest Wan-sanctioned spin-off. This example of prepackaged horror is so by-the-numbers (emphasis on numb) that even the jump-scares don't cause much of a jump. When the movie goes "boo!" and the viewer tries hard to stifle a yawn, something has gone wrong.
If you go to horror movies to see the same-ole-same-ole-shit, The Curse of La Llorona is for you. If you're hoping for something marginally original, you won't find it here. The Latin "ingredient" promised by the title is just a little side flavoring. The film's supposed ethnicity is a marketing ploy - something made necessary by the movie's inability to generate an audience based on its dubious merits. I often complain about how the PG-13 variant has watered down horror; this is an indicator that the R rating doesn't mean much either when it comes to successful terror.
The Curse of La Llorona opens with an "origin" prologue set in 17th century Mexico. In it, an angry woman extracts revenge on her cheating husband by drowning their two children. Overcome by grief, she then commits suicide. As a result, her spirit is condemned to haunt eternity looking for children to replace her own. Following this introduction, the movie skips ahead to 1973 Los Angeles. Why 1973? Presumably because that "simpler" era works better for lazy horror writers - no cell phones, no Internet, no true globalization. The movie doesn't have to explain why people don't make a call or snap a photo in certain circumstances. (That doesn't prevent the characters from doing the kinds of frustratingly stupid things people only do in horror movies.)
Linda Cardellini plays Anna Tate-Garcia, the recently-widowed mother of two whose job as a social worker brings her into contact with the troubled Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velasquez), who has locked her two boys in a closet. According to Alvarez, they are being stalked by La Llorona, the Crying Woman (Marisol Ramirez). Soon thereafter, the boys are dead and La Llorona has shifted her haunting to Anna's kids, Chris (Roman Christou) and Sam (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen). Anna's skepticism about her children's visions are dispelled when she experiences a face-to-face encounter with the demon ghost. She seeks help from an old priest, Father Perez (Tony Amendola, reprising his role from Annabelle and thereby creating the connection to the Conjuring universe), who sends her to an ex-priest-turned-shaman, Rafael Olvera (Raymond Cruz). Having seen The Exorcist and studied Max von Sydow's performance, he knows what to do.
Setting aside an effectively tense scene featuring Chris and Sam trapped inside a car, The Curse of La Llorona struggles to find anything creepy or scary. The ghost's appearance - that of a corpse-like creature with a desiccated face, eyes weeping bloody tears, and blackened clawed hands - isn't much different from the various ghosts and ghouls that have haunted horror movies in recent years. Like the alien in the Alien movies, familiarity diminishes the shock value. The Curse of La Llorona is also weak when it comes to atmosphere. Director Michael Chaves (handpicked by Wan to helm the third mainline Conjuring film) believes that thunder, wind, and rain are sufficient to set the stage.
Character development is generic and perfunctory. Anna and her children are interchangeable with the protagonists from just about every other ghost story to have come along in the last 10-15 years. The "rules" governing La Llorona's abilities and behavior change to suit the situation and the film's resolution is anticlimactic. Is that all there is? Is there nothing more? However, the movie saves its most terrifying moment for the last when, in the closing scene, it hints at the possibility of a sequel.
© 2019 James Berardinelli