[This is a repost of our review from the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. The Curse of La Llorona opens today.]
La Llorona, aka the Wailing Woman, is one of the most popular folklore figures of all time. A ghoulish, cautionary tale whispered into children’s ears to keep them from straying at night or playing in dangerous waters, La Llorona has haunted kids’ nightmares for generations. The story goes that La Llorona, a woman of renown beauty, learned of her husband’s infidelity and in a fit of grief and rage took from him the thing he loves most — his children — drowning them in the river. Realizing what she’s done, she prowled the riverbank for days after, looking for her sons, only to be found dead on the banks days later. Now, caught between the world of the living and the dead, she eternally searches for her children, kidnapping any wandering child she finds and drowning them. The horrors of her grief are such that, even the sound of her cires are said to bring death and misfortune to those who hear her.
Now doesn’t that just give you a case of the shivers? Hide your kids, hide your wife, La Llorona’s drowning everybody out here. Naturally, it was only a matter of time before La Llorona’s spooky tale got the Hollywood treatment (frankly, I’m shocked it took this long), and she’s shacking up with her fellow ghouls in New Line and James Wan‘s ever-growing Conjuring universe in The Curse of La Llorona.
The film begins with a brief establishing sequence set in 1673 Mexico, introducing audiences to La Llorona in the heat of her infanticidal rage — dressed head to toe in her veiled gown, she struggles to hold her son’s head underwater as her other child looks on in terror. It’s a brief but effective sequence that sets the tone of the film well. This is a studio horror, a popcorn fright fest that’s right at home in the Conjuring-verse, and drowning children is dark stuff, naturally, they’re going to play it for thrills over ponderous existential horrors. That makes for a film that’s never quite as scary as the nightmares I grew up having of La Llorona, but one that will provide audiences with plenty of easy, breezy thrills and a movie that practically invites you to scream and groan in unison with its familiar set-ups and scares.
Jump forwards to 1970s Los Angeles, where the film picks up with Linda Cardellini‘s Anna Tate-Garcia, a Child Protective Services social worker raising two sons on her own after the death of her husband. Running parallel to her story is that of Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Valasquez). Anna receives a call and journeys to Patricia’s home, where she finds the mother frazzled and frantic — terrified — with her equally frightened two sons locked in a closet. Of course, Anna thinks it’s her job to rescue them from an abusive situation, but we know full well that Patricia was trying to protect them from La Llorona. As soon as Anna takes them away, the weeping ghoul comes calling, drowning both boys before a new day breaks. And just like that, Anna and her family are caught in La Llorona’s weeping nightmare, and suddenly she’s the one getting strange looks from her CPS co-workers.
That’s the basic set up and, it’s a good one! Unfortunately, the film is hamstrung by a script from Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (who’s only other feature credit, the YA drama Five Feat Apart, just hit theaters) that does absolutely nothing with all its potential. The themes of child abuse — a particularly relevant subplot in a film about La Llorona — are all but ignored, and the characters are often written dumb as posts in order to facilitate the next scare. One scene is so egregious in that regard, it’s becomes hard to care about that character again.
Worse yet, the script seems to have little to no interest in the culture from which it mined it horror story, and while framing the narrative around a white woman out of her depths allows the characters to explain everything to her (and the audience), it’s a sloppy, culturally exploitative setup, and on a pure filmmaking level, it means characters are constantly telling you things that would be better of being shown. The best element in the script is the introduction of Raynond Cruz‘s Rafael Olvera; a former priest turned Curandero, who livens up the material with his bristly demeanor and unique forms of exorcism, but his late film arrival is too little too late to save the story.