Mexican folklore gets The Conjuring treatment in The Curse of La Llorona, the latest haunt from New Line Cinema with director Michael Chaves in his feature-length debut. The film adapts the legend of ‘La Llorona’, a fabled ghost story of a weeping female spirit whose cries into the night mark those who hear it for death, and who kidnaps children wandering alone, desperate for her own children that she drowned long ago. A cautionary tale of vanity and rage, and a warning to keep children close to home.
For The Curse of La Llorona, this sorrowful spectre trades her haunting silhouette and eerie riverside loitering for dripping black eyes, banshee screeches, and languished jumpscares. But after the water calms, will this flick float?
Social worker Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) isn’t a religious woman. After rescuing two boys from their erratic and recovering alcoholic mother (Patricia Velasquez), everything is about to be tested. The two boys become care of the state, but tragedy befalls them that very night. Police find the two boys washed up in the river. At first, everyone assumes the children’s mother is to blame. But when faint cries are heard in the night, and a spectral woman in a white veil begins to torment Anna’s own children Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), this mama better start believing in something. Because something is at her doorstep.
La Llorona doesn’t hesitate to up the ante from the get-go. Children’s lives are at stake, and this film isn’t afraid to take tots off the call sheet. When La Llorona swiftly claims two children night one, expectations run high. This ruthless spirit led strong, but when push comes to shove – she doesn’t have the cards to back up her hand. The rest of the film is spent bluffing. La Llorona has a well-established mythology; a sombre, vengeful ghost with an endless score to settle – but when she actually gets the lead kiddos within her grasp, all she can do is screech.
“La Llorona has a well-established mythology; a sombre, vengeful ghost with an endless score to settle – but when she actually gets the lead kiddos within her grasp, all she can do is screech.”
But let’s be real, the trailer promised a lot of facetime with the betrothed banshee. And while I’d have preferred a lighter hand and a more subtle, haunting approach with a more camera-shy spectre – that’s not the flick The Curse of La Llorona set out to be. Chaves’ camera was desperate to hunt out La Llorona – in every mirror, every corner and doorway she appeared. Not afraid to overshare, we bent and twirled around the set-pieces like wet spaghetti on a fork, swirling our characters so much I’m surprised no one tripped on Llorona’s ghostly tatters. The camerawork very much reminded me of James Wan’s opening sequence to Insidious, which is no surprise giving this film’s (mostly unnecessary) tie-in to The Conjuring universe of films.
But those eager to get an eyeful of frights will not be disappointed. La Llorona trades backstory and plot for as many opportunities to be blindsided by our ghost as possible. She screeches in attics, she screeches in pools. She screeches in bathrooms, she screeches in doorways. She screeches in cars, she screeches in tunnels. And though our characters all seem to understand La Llorona’s motivations and limitations – particularly unconventional ex-priest Rafael Olvera (Raymond Cruz), who, though he’s never seen La Llorona himself, knows an awful lot about the laws of Llorona – it seems the filmmakers do not. La Llorona’s abilities and restrictions seem to bend and snap depending on a scene’s scare requirements. La Llorona can disappear and re-appear across rooms, only to be slowed by an attic hatch. Light hurts her, unless she happens to be appearing in a bright white bathroom. Then, it’s smooth sailing.
And because the majority of Curse of La Llorona is allotted to jumps rather than backstory, we don’t know enough about this ghost to be truly afraid of her. After the fourth or fifth time she pops out, we’re judging her drippy eyeliner, and questioning what is CGI and what’s real person (La Llorona is listed as being portrayed by Marisol Ramirez, but this is likely only in the flashback sequences).
While we’re here – let’s talk jumpscares. I don’t love them. There are jumpscares that have absolutely earned their place (The abrupt cut to the twisted face in The Ring, The demon appearing behind Patrick Wilson in Insidious), but I find most jumpscares annoying. As much as I hate the physical sensations that come with being startled to the point of terror, the real reason I hate modern-day jumpscares: they’re timesuckers. This film dedicates a heck of a lot of time to our main characters merely taking painstaking footsteps in the dark. All for a BOO! Did they get me? Of course they did. But the majority of these scenes, I am utterly and terribly bored. Tense, but bored. The jumpscare is the equivalent of sitting at a stoplight when the power is out and no one around you understands four-way stops. You don’t trust anyone, you’re impatient, but you have to sit there and wait it out until you can finally cross. Or else, you know – you’ll die. (Yeah, I know the stakes aren’t actually that high with jumpscares, but you try telling that to my fight or flight response.)
That said, even though our characters weren’t given much plot to chew on, the performances were definitely The Curse of La Llorona’s highlight. Linda Cardellini delivers as the worn and strained single-mother – which is a tired trope – but through her caring and warm performance, we are able to maintain our sympathy and empathy for not only her character, but the whole squad. As a huge fan of The Mummy franchise, I was giddy to see Patricia Velasquez as the grieving mother. I only wish her character’s arch was allowed more room to breathe. It would have been great to explore her character’s origins with La Llorona – we never actually learn how the spectre even comes into play in Curse of La Llorona. She simply popped into everyone’s lives and refused to leave. Raymond Cruz struggles with the comedy of his zany religious figure, but his character does offer some refreshing twists on the traditional “faith vs. evil” battle. His quirky arsenal of demon-busters do not disappoint.
At the end of the day, The Curse of La Llorona took a genuinely haunting legend and churned it for shock and awe. Sometimes subtly is better, even when your ghost is known to wail.
The Curse of La Llorona is in theaters now. Have something to say? Share your thoughts with the Nightmare on Film Street community over on Twitter, Reddit, and the Horror Movie Fiend Club Facebook Group!