★★ out of ★★★★★
A couple of good set pieces and a solid premise can’t overcome a jump-scare laden and predictable plot. Unfortunately, The Curse of La Llorona pulled its punches.
Directed by Michael Chaves
Maybe it should have been titltled The Curse of The Scariest Things. If a film ends up on the “Most Anticipated” list, it’s doomed! Last year we had pegged The Winchester, The Nun, The Meg, and Day of the Dead Bloodline. You get our hopes up with some nifty trailers and then FLOPPO!
I was very much looking forward to this movie that came out of last year’s San Diego Comicon with some good buzz, and was going to be a showcase for an under-served corner of the horror-verse: Latino Horror. The movie is based on an old Mexican folk tale of The Crying Woman (La Llorona) a ghost of a 17th century beauty who in a jealous rage drowned her own children, and is now doomed to track down and kill children to feed her own grief. Solid, solid idea. That’s the foundation of a great story, and her backstory is executed beautifully by Michael Chaves.
We are introduced to Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) a social worker, and a widow who struggles to support herself and her kids after her husband was killed in the line of duty as a cop in the LAPD. She is called to follow up on a couple of young boys who have been reported truant by their school, and she pays their home a visit, and discovers that their mother Patricia (Patricia Velasquez) has locked the boys padlocked into a closet.
Patricia attacks Anna, claiming that the boys are being protected (of course), and she is subsequently is arrested. Anna places the two boys in the care of a charitable catholic shelter, which also resembles an insane asylum, and the boys are visited upon by the titular ghost, stalking them in their boarding center.
Anna is summoned by the police to the LA River, where the boys are found drowned, which is quite a feat, given that the LA river is little more than a drainage ditch and rarely has more than a few inches of barely running water in it. Then again, the movie unleashes a whole lot of rain, given that it’s LA, so perhaps the storm water is up.
Being a single mom, Anna has brought her children Chris (Roman Christou) and Sam (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) to the crime scene. Really, who does that? Chris is a curious kid, and wants to follow in his father’s policeman footsteps, and against his mom’s directions, leaves the car to check out the crime scene. He finds La Llarona weeping below an overpass, and she grabs him, marking him as a target. The sequence following this, where Chris and Sam are stuck in the car and trying to fend off the ghost is one of the best scenes, and it is also is prominently featured in the first trailer. Of course, in a moment of false jump-scares, Anna comes back in the car, and finds the kids rattled, but uncommunicative.
La Llarona, with the cooperation and abetting of Patricia, tracks down the Garcia family, and begins a proper haunting. Naturally the tables turn on Anna, as she is ratted out as a possible child abuser, and she is forced to look for assistance from a local shaman, Rafael (Raymond Cruz) who has spurned the ways of the church, and has become something of an exorcist. Rafael has been chasing La Llorona, and takes the opportunity to track her down and banish her.
The plot premise here is interesting, but it is not handled well. The movie has some terrific moments… the bathtub scene, the aforementioned kids in the car scene, and a nifty bit with Sam and an umbrella. But overall, the movie suffers from what a lot of PG-13 movies succumb to: Jump cuts and loud noises to create jump scares… and yet it’s an R-rated movie. R for jump scares? C’mon MPAA! That’s weak! This movie could really have leaned into the R-rating; they could have gone full “It” and let the ghost really let the kids have it. The consequences, though dire, are not really felt strongly, as we only see two little bodies wrapped in sheets. All that said, when this movie does decide to go with the jump scares, some of them are pretty effective.
Unfortunately the story is burdened with plot inconsistencies and characters acting like idiots. So many of the strategic moments are telegraphed, like a brass band coming down Main Street, and then we watch as the characters violate the rules described in the exposition. Twice, I got so frustrated, that I said out loud, “Yeah, (For this stupid action) you deserve to get taken by La Llorona.” The woman sitting next to me told me, “That’s what I said!” A good bit of preparation appears to be made, but when each trick fails to foil the ghost, a new plot device comes out. It just felt clumsy.
The movie is also really predictable. The foreshadowing is unsubtle. The use of the exorcist/shaman is an old retread, though I did enjoy Cruz in the role (Ta Da!). The fact that this is Los Angeles, also makes it compare to films like Poltergeist, and Paranormal Activity, by which this film pales in comparison. It’s too bad that they didn’t follow up on the beautiful Mexican origination tale, and do a period piece film, a horror western. That could have been special. Instead, it’s pretty conventional fare.
We have gone on the record on this site many times to praise child actors in horror movies. It’s odd. The kids just don’t seem afraid enough, given the circumstances. They don’t cry out for help. Hell, they don’t even cry. The two boys, Carlos and Tomas understand their plight, should be scared shitless, but instead play out like the plot MacGuffins that they are.
Sam, in particular, is wholly underplayed. It’s as if Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen on sedatives the whole time, slack-jawed and not apparently scared of much. She gets spooked, but she never appears terrified even after being attacked. If she’s not scared, why should we be scared? Roman Christou fares a little better, as he gets a chance to run around screaming for a while, but when a movie has to rely upon the kids to sell the horror, it didn’t quite get there. Also, it’s REALLY frustrating when the kids clam up and don’t share their trauma, even at the risk of not being believed.
This movie is part of the Conjuring Universe, as Father Perez (Tony Amendola) from Annabelle shows up here, as well as Annabelle very briefly as a reference. I don’t see the connection, really, and that seemed to be a forced move. So much so that when I suspected Father Perez to assist in an exorcism he essentially punts it to Rafael. We get a two second image of Annabelle, but it really is out of context.
I enjoyed this movie, in parts. But I think the overall sentiment I have coming out of it is frustration. I really wanted to get a Latino American horror original, but though it hit some themes well, it could have been much smoother than was actually delivered. For great Latino Horror fare I think you should look to Terrified, Tigers are Not Afraid, and the works of Guillermo Del Toro. And for a similar, but better executed tale, I would recommend the Indonesian film Satan’s Slaves. This was a golden opportunity missed.
The Curse of La Llorona is finishing out its run as a first run movie, and is probably working its way to a second screening theater near you. It is likely to be on streaming in about a month.
For those of you curious, the final trailer, which details more of the plot than the first trailer can be watched here: