REVIEW: The Curse of La Llorona [2019]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½


Rating: R | Runtime: 93 minutes | Release Date: April 19th, 2019 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Michael Chaves
Writer(s): Mikki Daughtry & Tobias Iaconis

“She’s already here”

When Warner Bros. decided to capitalize on the box office and critical success of James Wan‘s The Conjuring by crafting an extended universe of creepy spirits with a feature length tale born from that film’s prologue, the results were not great. Annabelle felt rushed at best and retrofitted at worst—a generic horror injected with a popular character for no reason other than selling tickets. If not for Wan going back to the well for The Conjuring 2 to remind audiences of the potential this franchise possessed, the whole thing might have died right then. Thankfully the studio retooled a bit and made certain its follow-ups used their spin-off demons with intent rather than aesthetic, a fact that renders The Curse of La Llorona‘s somewhat out of place.

The titular folktale (a Mexican myth parents use to scare children into listening to them about a scorned woman who drowned her children before succumbing to the guilt and forever being cursed to search for their bodies that washed away) was never to my knowledge mentioned in any of the previous five out-of-order chapters. No, the only concrete connection to this 1970s-set endeavor is Father Perez (Tony Amendola), the priest who also helped battle Annabelle six years prior. So Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis‘ script isn’t tethered to any previous iterations of an entity and thus not forced to shoehorn anything in that isn’t necessary to the topic at-hand. It’s a shrewd maneuver by the studio as they can now slap the Conjuring label onto anything.

Much like Annabelle, this isn’t an origin. Rather than give the folktale its historical due, the filmmakers use it to strike fear into the hearts of single mothers desperate to protect their children from unknown darkness. As such, the result proves almost as generic as that sub-par entry in scope despite being much more assured in its motivations. La Llorona is the main force at play and her involvement is in line with her legend. She’s attached herself to two innocent boys and their mother Patricia (Patricia Velasquez), seeking to kill them like her own once her rage again overpowers her tearful remorse. Tragic circumstances leave her free to find two more with proximity and fate leading her towards Anna Tate-Garcia’s (Linda Cardellini) son and daughter.

La Llorona burns young Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha’s (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) arms, marking them as her latest victims to torture and steal in the night. What follows is a series of jump scares reliant on an atmospheric mood director Michael Chaves cribs directly from Wan’s own predecessors (it’s therefore no surprise that the latter has tapped him to helm The Conjuring 3 next year). Dread becomes a major part of the whole as every billowing curtain and open window could find itself holding La Llorona’s visage readying to pounce. Most of the film takes place within Anna’s home (its first floor rooms have multiple doorways to facilitate long tracking shots of diverging and converging characters), the simplicity of which provides a welcome reprieve from wild swings of excess.

That doesn’t mean Chaves and company isn’t allowed to shake things up, however. They still add intrigue by presenting Patricia as an antagonistic force to worry about alongside the spirit and humor courtesy of Rafael Olvera (Raymond Cruz), a former priest turned shaman who isn’t confined to the Catholic severity of your usual exorcist. Introducing them into the Garcia family’s singular environment instead of branching out to where they are keeps things moving naturally because we’re allowed a base of operations with which to familiarize ourselves. We know where characters can go, what they’ve done before, and what matters to them most. How these rooms and objects are utilized becomes paramount to random surprises so everything remains grounded to build tension rather than manipulate it more than necessary.

We still get the intrusive score and clichéd frights, but the film doesn’t feel like it thinks its pulling one over on us. Just because it doesn’t pave new ground in the genre doesn’t mean it isn’t effective in what it does. When a character needs to do a stupid thing to advance the plot, Daughtry and Iaconis smartly let the patsy by a kid because they don’t know better. (At one point someone in my theater yelled, “What are you doing Sam? You’re better than this!”) Nobody goes against his/her identity whether it be the social worker following protocol that doesn’t factor in the supernatural, a grieving mother willing to sell her soul to make things right, or a jaded man of faith taking risks to win.

The exposition is thus brief and to the point. Some emotional heft is lost due to this pragmatism (Anna’s co-workers and friends all have specific roles that overshadow their relationship and eventually disappear completely once they’re served), but the leanness is worth it because it lets the last stand against La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez) unfold without much distraction. Anna’s maternal love for Chris and Sam is key and it does shine bright thanks to an effective performance by Cardellini. A lot of the film’s success relies on acting because it’s crucial to jump-scare horror that’s uninterested in graphic violence as a means to mask deficiencies in plot. With such a streamlined progression, there’s little room for holes. You either believe these characters want to survive or you don’t.

Is it perfect? No. The decision to cast a white actress in the lead role when practically everyone else is Latino (minus Sean Patrick Thomas as Anna’s late husband’s former partner with the police force) is highly suspect considering Cardellini is hardly a “box office draw.” And pushing the folktale itself to the background in order to exploit its supernatural potential is lazy, but hardly unusual (there’s always a chance La Llorona: Creation is green-lit in the near future). Do those things negate what’s delivered on its own terms, though? I don’t think so. The final product might be slight, but the suspense is palpable enough to make the journey worthwhile. After Annabelle, this being better than it probably should be is a victory no matter how small.


photography:
[1] © 2019 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. Photo Credit: Scott Patrick Green Caption: MARISOL RAMIREZ as La Llorona in New Line Cinema’s horror film “THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
[2] © 2019 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures Caption: (L-r) ROMAN CHRISTOU as Chris, JAYNEE LYNNE KINCHEN as Samantha and LINDA CARDELLINI as Anna Tate-Garcia in New Line Cinema’s horror film “THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
[3] © 2019 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures Caption: RAYMOND CRUZ as Rafael Olvera in New Line Cinema’s horror film “THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

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