4 out of 10
Linda Cardellini as Anna Tate-Garcia
Raymond Cruz as Rafael Olvera
Patricia Velásquez as Patricia Alvarez
Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen as Samantha Garcia
Roman Christou as Chris Garcia
Marisol Ramirez as La Llorona
Sean Patrick Thomas as Detective Cooper
Tony Amendola as Father Perez
DeLaRosa Rivera as David Garcia
Madeleine McGraw as April
Sierra Heuermann as Sam
Irene Keng as Donna
Directed by Michael Chaves
The Curse of La Llorona Review:
The Curse of La Llorona is everything good and bad about James Wan’s particular corner of the horror film universe, a technically astute scare-by-numbers which risks nothing and offers little. It’s tempting not to even categorize it as horror as there is nothing even vaguely terrifying in it – that requires peril and no one is ever in any, physically or spiritually. The characters undergo the trauma of having a ghost haunt them but at no point does the reality of that seem to affect them. Nor does anyone ever seem to be in any real danger, for all the screaming and running they do, creating a world without stakes. The only thing anyone is likely to die of is boredom.
A nominal extension of the popular Conjuring universe of films (the tie-in is limited to cameo appearance in a flashback halfway through the film), La Llorona extends the franchise to Mexico where it brings the titular ghost story into its mythos. A popular Mexican folk tale, La Llorona was Latina Medea — a spurned wife who drowned her sons who wanders the land in eternal agony, crying out for his lost children. La Llorona moves the action north to Los Angeles circa 1973 (because that’s when all the other Conjuring films are set, for whatever effect the period has on this film) where it falls on recently widowed CPS case worker Maggie (Cardellini). Already hanging onto her two children (Kinchen and Cristou) with both hands – and all too aware how quickly they can be lost after years working the system – now she must contend with an angry ghost for their lives. Trapped in her own home and with no one to count on but a crazed spiritualist (Cruz), Maggie’s only hope is to do what no one has ever done and break the curse of La Llorona.
It’s really typical modern horror movie stuff handled in a very modern horror movie style. Being a ghost story, it offers plenty of opportunities for strange noises and startling sights and director Michael Chaves (in his feature debut) refuses to let a single one go by. Floors creak, doors open, umbrellas blow away, the soundtrack swells with ominous noise, occasionally La Llorona herself appears and does … nothing. She is an almost all-powerful spectre who can reach from beyond the grave to exert her will on the world, but she can’t go through doors. Except when she can. The filmmakers break the first rule of fantasy – set your rules and then obey them – repeatedly, with no care for anything except for what will work in the moment. La Llorona has the memory of a goldfish, and hopes its audience does as well.
Not that there aren’t some purely aesthetic pleasures to take from it. Chaves has a solid eye for tone and working with cinematographer Michael Burgess (son of the famed Don Burgess) develops more than a few superior compositions. La Llorona’s arrival in the 70s begins with a spiraling oner following all the characters of the Garcia household through their morning routine, laying out both the geography of the main setting for most of the action and the major player’s relationships to one another with economy and style. It’s an excellent intro, as if to say ‘look what I can do with a feature budget’ but the script never offers him a chance show what else he can do. It follows a listless pattern with the certainty of the cuckoo in the clock; characters see La Llorona just enough to get a glimpse at her ghost makeup, run, slam a door, and then repeat. It’s also hopelessly mechanistic, requiring just the right ritual or artifact at just the right time to send the ghost off once and for all. But worst of all, there is no danger; the filmmakers seem to think their job stops at startling the audience for a moment, but doesn’t want to go any further than that. When there is no sacrifice or loss for any of the characters there can be no real horror.
The Curse of La Llorona is a Disneyland ride of a horror film. It’s got the contours of the big, scarier thing but it’s been safely neutered to make it digestible to riders of all ages. There are times and places when that is perfectly fine. But probably not when you’re trying to scare people.