Do you remember the first time as a child you got frightened by a nightmare? Or maybe the hundredth? It’s a common experience for most humans, just as it is for the parents who have to calm them down. Which is one of the many reasons you’re left to wonder if the characters in The Curse of La Llorona are in fact that… human? They may look like you and I, and they might be played by members of the homo genus class, but don’t let looks deceive you. These blank automatons behave with about as much humanity as HAL 3000 on a short circuit—stony faced cattle who as children keep their literal ghost-inflicted scars to themselves, never mind the knowledge they’re being stalked by a crazy, crying gal, until the plot needs them to approximate the human need to tell their parent there’s a problem. (This conveniently occurs somewhere between the transition of the second and third act.)
And that’s the problem with La Llorona: no one acts like a real person, so it’s impossible to invest in their routine and fairly boilerplate haunting. As the cat’s out of the bag, you should know this whitewashed take on Mexican folklore is part of The Conjuring Universe. Like the Annabelle movies and The Nun before it, The Curse of La Llorona is set in the same universe of James Wan’s still wildly entertaining Conjuring originals, but like so many of the other “shared universe” spinoffs, La Llorona is an exercise in formulaic filmmaking that reminds you there is only one Wan. Whereas his films focused on building up the sentimental family dynamics of his protagonists as much as the finely tuned jump scares, La Llorona is a series of uninspired “boos” and one very boring take on a family with the worst survival skills this side of Camp Crystal Lake.
Set in 1973, The Curse of La Llorona appropriates the legend of Central American campfire goosebumps. La Llorona was said to be a beautiful woman from rural Mexico in the 17th century who, after finding out her husband has left her for a younger lady, drowns their sons in a blind rage. Afterward she commits suicide due to her guilt and has spent the centuries since wandering the world as a ghost, doomed to look for her children in the form of others—and drown whatever youngsters she does find within her grasp. It’s also a way for parents to convince their children not to stay out too late.
In the film, however, it is an excuse for a woman in white to jump out from behind curtains, umbrellas, or various other household items and to scream a lot more than wail, often with a crashing musical crescendo as she grabs not one, not two, but three characters across the arm in the same exact jump scare. The poor souls being harassed by the handsy spirit are Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) and her children Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen). Anna, you see, is a 1970s social services worker in Los Angeles who mistakenly believes single mother Patricia (Patricia Velasquez) is abusing her two sons. Rather Patricia is trying to hide them from La Llorona, and after Anna puts them in social services and makes them sitting ducks, her punishment is that the weeping woman in white has now come for her own babes.
It’s actually a pretty solid setup for a ghost story, not least of all because there is a twisted level of guilt in Anna having allowed this to happen to one parent, so as divine (or devilish) retribution, it must now happen to her. Nevertheless, the film suffers from the fact that it is clearly appropriating this piece of Mexican heritage so that American suburbanites can have a comforting, middle class heroine as white as fresh snow. This, however, is not Candellini’s fault, nor really any of the actors. They offer serviceable performances, albeit the children are left to blankly stare in fear or wander around in the margins with type of idyllic laughter usually reserved for a Lifetime holiday movie.
Most of the film’s problems fall on director Michael Chaves and screenwriters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis. Checking off all the boxes that Wan and Leigh Whannell created between The Conjuring and Insidious movies, there is barely a single creative spark or moment of ingenuity in the whole process, even as they force their characters to behave like fools to justify the alleged scares. Despite having an intriguing piece of Mexican lore, the film is streamlined of most of its appealing flavor so it can be… well, just another Conjuring spinoff. And like those films, the grace of the Warrens is literally and figuratively far removed from this house.
With one mechanical “gotcha” after another, it is a shame there are not more moments as chilling as the one genuinely creepy segment of the film which is in the trailers: As young Samantha is taking a bath, she assumes her mother has come to help clean her hair and massage her head, yet we know what the happy little girl can’t see is that behind her, the clammy hands of death are getting ready to push her under. It’s an exceptional sequence in an otherwise unexceptional film.
Late in the movie, things liven up when a character named Rafael Olvera (Raymond Cruz) is introduced as a former priest and current Shaman. Essentially presented as a slightly funnier and Hispanic Max von Sydow come to rescue us from the demon, he provides some color to the proceedings, particularly since several of his rituals are presented with a tongue firmly planted in cheek. However, it is no longer 1973—the year the film is set and the year The Exorcist opened—and after The Conjuring movies, we’re ready for the spiritual warrior to do battle before the last 20 minutes. Perhaps because it’s a battle to get to them.
For all the talk of weeping women in The Legend of La Llorona, you might be wiping a different type of yawning tear away when it’s over.