It was a risky move by James Wan to release two horror films set in the same universe about two pale-faced bogeywomen mere months apart. His ever-expanding world, kick-started by The Conjuring back in 2013, is adding more and more ghouls to its Avengers-style roster and it was only time before there were similarities. Fortunately, The Nun and The Curse Of La Llorona are unique enough in spirit (though, um, not unique in their identical looking spirits) to never feel like carbon copies of each but that doesn’t stop The Curse Of La Llorona from feeling more than a little bedevilled.
Using the Mexican folk tale of La Llorona as the basis for a mainstream American horror was never an inherently bad idea. It’s a fascinating enough old wives’ story, about a woman who drowned her children in a fit of rage and now roams for eternity spitefully targeting other people’s offspring. Where The Curse Of La Llorona really struggles is in both retaining the Latin American roots and connecting it the present day.
Linda Cardellini, a terrific actress who has played second fiddle to a slew of Hollywood men for the last five years, finally gets a lead part as Anna Tate-Garcia, a widowed social worker in the 70s trying in vain to juggle her work and her two children. While Cardellini nails the few moments Anna is allowed to grieve, it’s hard to feel like this is her story. La Llorona is not an insignificant legend and despite placing its lead character adjacent to Latinx culture Anna always feels like a trespasser in someone else’s story.
The period setting, like in The Conjuring and the majority of its offshoots, adds a bit of visual freshness when The Curse Of La Llorona insists on deploying a lot of classic jump scare tricks. Additionally, Michael Chaves, in his directorial debut, keeps things lively enough – a long, establishing Steadicam shot of the Tate-Garcia household soundtracked to Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly springs to mind – even when the aggressively CGI’d shots over 1970s Los Angeles evoke video game cut scenes.
With her job centring around helping displaced children, it’s quickly apparent where La Llorona appears in the Venn diagram of Anna’s professional and personal lives. Her path soon crosses with that of Patricia Alvarez, a fellow single mother of two who knows La Llorona’s wrath all too well and warns Anna that La Llorona will soon have her gimlet eyes set on her kids. It’s a solid basis for a horror movie – after all, some of the best horror uses motherhood as a starting point – but The Curse Of La Llorona never capitalises on Anna and Patricia’s parallel paths, and thematically it doesn’t go anywhere.
It’s fortunate, then, that The Curse Of La Llorona’s final act lifts a mediocre horror into something rather thrilling. Chaves parcels out his moments of horror rather haphazardly, at first utilising jump scares for the most part before changing tact during the climactic battle against the ghost. After enlisting the services of curandero Rafael (played by Raymond Cruz, who adds a wholly inappropriate dose of raffish, comedic charm that somehow works) at the eleventh hour, Chaves ups the intensity and allows everything to hit the fan. There’s a lot of buttock-clenching fun to be had in that last half hour and it’s just bananas enough to elevate the whole thing.
The Curse Of La Llorona initially struggles at distinguishing itself from its peers in the Conjuring stable, with its familiar veiled phantom, but there’s enough of a hook to keep you invested. Linda Cardellini is characteristically excellent value and the finale is a rollercoaster so jump scares be damned, The Curse Of La Llorona just about works.
The Curse Of La Llorona is in UK cinemas now.