The spirit of a Mexican bride who murdered her two young boys in the 17th century is back for more children in 1970s Los Angeles in The Curse of La Llorona, the latest addition to an extended universe of horror films that now includes two Conjuring movies, two Annabelle movies, and last year’s The Nun.
All these movies are essentially the same: a supernatural ghost/demon haunts a family until the characters accomplish some arbitrary plot device and banish the evil for good. Or do they?
In that narrative regard, The Curse of La Llorona is cookie-cutter retread of not only the previous Conjuring franchise films but nearly every supernatural horror movie that has come out over the last four decades in the wake of films like The Exorcist and Poltergeist.
If you’ve seen any of these movies, you know exactly what’s going to happen in La Llorona. Every minute these films spend setting up their formulaic, arbitrary storylines, they’re wasting our time.
But that’s not why audiences go to see movies like The Curse of La Llorona, and thankfully, that’s something of which the producers of this movie are acutely aware. Roughly half or more of this film is nothing but characters wandering around in the darkness while we wait for something to jump out and yell “Boo!”
And in that regard, La Llorona is as spookily efficient, and as expertly shot and staged to maximize scare value, as the Conjuring films that preceded it.
Linda Cardellini, fresh of her role in the Oscar-winning Green Book, stars here as the mother who ultimately discovers the titular ghost is after her children; Raymond Cruz (Breaking Bad’s Tuco Salamanca) is the former priest she turns to for expert advice and ghost-busting aid after a proper Catholic priest (Annabelle’s Tony Amendola, in this movie’s lone connection to the rest of the franchise) turns her down.
Cardellini makes for an engaging mother, and it’s nice to see Cruz in a sympathetic role, but the adult characters are going through the same tired motions – and we simply don’t care about their journey.
But where La Llorona has it going is scenes of the children (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou) being absolutely terrified by the demonic woman in white. La Llorona plays by no rules and pops out of nowhere to scare these poor kids to tears before trying to straight up murder them by drowning, and by the end we are well invested in their survival.
Like Annabelle: Creation, and the best scenes in the two Conjuring movies, the stakes are raised here because it’s the children who are being terrorized, and our sympathy for them is naturally higher. It’s a cheat, perhaps, but we really do want to see these kids through to the end – and Kinchen and Christou are both terrific and engaging as the objects of terror.
But because the narrative (credited to Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis) is so resolutely banal, The Curse of La Llorona isn’t quite as good as the movies the preceded it; still, this expertly-crafted scare show is a notch or two better than the first Annabelle film, or last year’s The Nun.
The Curse of La Llorona was directed by Michael Chaves, who (like Annabelle: Creation director David F. Sandberg) was plucked from obscurity after making an effective short that was a hit on the ‘net. Chaves’ The Maiden, from which La Llorona freely borrows, accomplishes roughly the same thing as his new movie in a tenth of the running time, and can be viewed for free on Vimeo.
But to truly appreciate the kind of grasp a film like The Curse of La Llorona can hold over its audience, a trip to the cinema – where this kind of thing still plays out like gangbusters – is a necessity.