By Liam Lacey
Perhaps the only scary thing about the new horror movie The Curse of La Llarona is the fear of mispronouncing the title. (That Spanish double-L sounds like a Y, as in Yarona). After that, everything else about this film, part of the “Conjuring universe” — The Conjuring, The Nun, Annabelle — of horror films affiliated with producer/director James Wan feels muy familiar.
The title means “the weeping woman” and refers to a Mexican legend, previously the subject of a couple of vintage Mexican horror movies, about a ghostly bogie-woman who snatches wandering children.
The current film, directed by first-time feature director Michael Chaves is set in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, which is obviously not just an opportunity to show landline phones and boxy TV sets but to set up a series of sequels to come.
The film stars Linda Cardellini (following her sympathetic mother role in Green Book) as Anna Garcia, a social worker and widowed mom. Anna discovers one of her cases, a mentally unstable mother named Patrica Alvarez (Patricia Velasquez) has locked her two young boys in a closet. The kids are removed to a Catholic orphanage for their safety and, later that night, are found drowned, next to a reservoir.
No suspense here. We know the culprit was La Llorona, a.k.a. The Weeping Woman, a 17th-century spirit in a white dress and veil, who drowned her children to punish her unfaithful husband, and now walks the Earth finding new child victims. Though remorseless, she is, apparently, not immune to special appeals: Patricia blames Anna for her children’s deaths, and prays to the demoness for revenge.
In short order, La Llorona is on the hunt for Anna’s kids, Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) and Chris (Roman Christou). From then on, La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez) in her white wedding outfit and rotted face, pops up at various places, including Anna’s palatial home and even in the backyard pool. Typically, she screams and occasionally grabs someone’s wrist before disappearing again though the inconsistencies in her behavior are more annoying than frightening. Sometimes she walks through walls; sometimes a car door can keep her at bay.
After an unaccountable length of time, when every member of the Garcia family has had an experience of the demon and failed to share the information, the family recognizes their predicament. Anna finds her way to Rafael, a former priest turned folkloric exorcist whose “methods are unorthodox,” like that needs saying. He’s played by Raymond Cruz, best known as Tuco Salamanca of TV’s Better Call Saul, who provides some very mild comic relief, and then repeats the jokes until they get tiresome.
Tempted as I am to find something meaningful in this tale of child separation, Hispanic immigrants and malevolent influences from south of the border, there’s not much here. As my colleague Jim Slotek cheekily noted of last year’s dismal horror-from-Mexico movie, Truth or Dare: When Mexico sends us their demons, I’m not sure they’re sending their best.
The Curse of La Llorona. Directed by Michael Chaves. Written by Mikki Daughty and Tobias Iaconis. Starring Linda Cardellini and Raymond Cruz. Opens wide April 19.