SXSW 2019 Review: THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA Turns A Beloved Folk Horror Into A Cookie Cutter Gag Factory
Is nothing sacred in the Conjuring universe?
With The Curse of La Llorona, producer James Wan and director Michael Chaves have taken a beloved story from Mexican folklore and stripped it of everything that makes it scary in order to cram it into their well-established formula, and the result is really disappointing. Rather than mining the emotional wealth of the legend of the Weeping Woman, the most common English translation for La Llorona, Chaves and his writers have instead made a generic ghost story that fits the LOUD-quiet-LOUD pattern set by the previous Conjuring universe films. I actually really like many of those films, but in this case it feels like the connection to La Llorona was an afterthought, and that's just the beginning of the film's problems.
Anna (Linda Cardellini) is a recently widowed mother of two who works in child protective services. When one of her old cases starts to throw up warning signs of neglect, she visits the home of Patricia Alvarez to find she's locked her children in a closet behind a bunch of what looks like angrily scrawled eyeballs. Anna does what any sensible person would and releases them from the closet against Patricia's wishes. Unbeknowndst to Anna, she's put the children in even greater danger now, as those eyes were the only thing keeping the kids safe from La Llorona, and now things are about to get very bad for her.
The boys are sent to a local hospital for observation while Patricia is taken away to jail while the case is under investigation. Soon after, the boys are found drowned in the L.A. River, Patricia vows revenge, and Anna and her kids spend the rest of the film fending off an angry spirit determined to take her children.
After the ghost takes a few stabs at grabbing the children, leaving them with telltale bruises and burns on their arms, Anna starts to realize that something otherworldly is at play. This leads her to enlist the services of a curandero, a traditional Latin American shaman. Rafael (Raymond Cruz) takes on the task without much hesitation, in spite of the family mocking his methods, taking up the role the Warren family serves in the other Conjuring films. From here on out it's lurk-shadows-scream repeat for an hour as La Lorona stalks the family in their home, hellbent on claiming Anna's children.
Perhaps the most aggressive of the films in the Conjuring-verse, The Curse of La Llorona abandons all of the inherent compelling pathos of the original folk story at this point to turn the film into a supernatural home invasion story. The traditional story of La Llorona is a tale of a grief stricken woman who'd drowned her own children in a fit of jealous rage who then seeks to replace them by abducting and drowning children who wander too close to the river. She gets her name from the sound of the weeping that her victims hear before being snatched. She's not a vengeful killer, she doesn't lay in wait in the closet, and she doesn't follow victims to their homes. In fact, she's used as a deterrent by Mexican and other Latin parents to scare their children from wandering alone after dark. If they are safe in their bed, they are in no danger, which is directly opposite of the story told by this film.
Some could argue that this is nit-picking, why would an American film audience care about these differences as long as they get a good scare out of it? Well, the problems go even deeper than that. La Llorona is a tale about grief that evolved into a boogeyman, this film ignores the potential for true story craft in exchange for cheap thrills. What's most frustrating to me is that the film begins with great promise, Anna's character has just lost her husband, so she and her family are already in the midst of grieving, there was emotional pay dirt sitting there waiting to be mined by steering Anna's conflict with the Llorona in a direction of compassion or at least understanding, however, the film chooses to play to the cheap seats and completely ignore that potential.
The Curse of La Llorona is a cheap attempt to capture a minority audience with a familiar folk tale that then bait-and-switches that audience into watching a regular-ass spook story with accents. One of the things that bothers me is that the segment of the audience that is not familiar with the folklore will likely eat it up; the film is a gag machine, throwing one jump scare after another at the audience without much interest in building tension.
In everything it does, The Curse of La Llorona is predictable as hell, every gag is telegraphed well in advance, and if you think the ghost is gonna do a thing, you can bet your ass she's gonna do that thing, and exactly when you think she will. It is lazy filmmaking, it is disrespectful of the culture - and I'm not even going to go into having the lovely Linda Cardellini in the leading role - and it's an unnecessarily wasted opportunity to bring a real new flavor to the screen, instead making what could've been a delicious fear-flavored elote of Latino terror into a boring ass mayonnaise sandwich. ¡Que lástima!