By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Linda Cardellini, Raymond Cruz and Patricia Velasquez
Directed by Michael Chaves
Written by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis
Warner Bros./New Line
Considering the diversification of genre cinema lately, and that THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA is based on an enduring Mexican legend, why is its heroine white? I’d say it has less to do with color-insensitive casting and more because it allows Latin American supporting characters to describe the full backstory and m.o. of that legend to Anna (Linda Cardellini), and thus the audience. Were the film’s heroine Latinx, these lengthy dollops of exposition might seem a lot more contrived.
The more pressing issue is that THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA takes a folk tale rife with culturally rich and specifically scary possibilities and flattens it out into a thoroughly by-the-numbers haunting flick. Everything about this movie plays, looks and sounds like dozens of other movies you’ve seen before; La Llorona could be replaced with any other malevolent spirit, and not much else would have to be changed. It’s so insensitive to what makes its ghost unique that La Llorona—“The Weeping Woman,” who drowned herself after offing her offspring and now seeks to replace them—spends very little screen time crying, but rather shrieking as she lunges out of nowhere to attack her victims, accompanied by loud blasts of music.
We get a bit of her backstory in the opening scene set in 1673, in which she drowns one of her little sons and then grabs the other with the same intent. The rest of the film is set 300 years later in 1973, for no good reason other than to allow supporting character Father Perez (Tony Amendola) to briefly flash back to his part in the 1967-set ANNABELLE, and thus tie LA LLORONA into the CONJURING universe. Certainly, there’s very little period detail or atmosphere, which just adds to the overall feeling of blandness. (Some horror fans will note that ’73 was the release year of THE EXORCIST, one of many movies to which CURSE OF LA LLORONA owes a debt.)
Anna is a social worker and the widow of a Latino cop, with two biracial kids, Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen)—which again, has no bearing on why La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez) invades their lives. Investigating an apparent case of abuse and neglect, Anna “rescues” two little boys from a locked room in the house of Patricia (the MUMMY films’ Patricia Velasquez), who insists the confinement is for their own protection. It turns out she’s right, and after her sons wind up dead, Patricia prays to La Llorona to take Anna’s children so she can have hers back.
The rest is a lot of spookery that is not only generic, but Anna and her kids’ reaction to it is at times implausibly dismissive. La Llorona grabs Chris, leaving scars on his arm, but he insists the encounter was in his imagination, and in general the trio take way too long to acknowledge the obvious. Director Michael Chaves does stage an effectively tingly setpiece with Chris and Sam in Anna’s car, and an inventive bit involving an umbrella as a spirit viewer—though…an umbrella? Still, the rest of CURSE OF LA LLORONA could have used that sense of skewed creativity; instead, it’s the same old creeping through dark rooms without turning the lights on, creaking doors (this movie could be retitled THE HOUSE OF UNOILED HINGES), objects moving on their own, stock dialogue and La Llorona suddenly appearing in odd portions of the frame—a gambit done far better in the CONJURING duo.
Traditional religion, of course, is no help, so Anna is eventually led to Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a curandero, or faith healer who represents her only hope. Here, too, THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA remains mired in familiar tropes of talismans and rituals and more talk of ancient, boundless evil. One character does something really, really dumb in a protracted setpiece intended to up the tension, but that only invites derisive audience commentary, and the solution to getting rid of La Llorona turns out to be an action that could have been taken several scenes beforehand. With its undistinguished, half-lit visuals, THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA is a non-starter both as an ethnocentric fright film and a branch of the CONJURING tree; if its title specter’s adventures are to continue, one hopes a sequel will mark as much of an improvement as ANNABELLE: CREATION was on its own predecessor.