SXSW 2019 Review: The Curse of La Llorona
The legend of the supernatural La Llorona (pronounced “la yoh-roh-nah”), Spanish for the Weeping Woman, has been a part of Hispanic culture since the days of the conquistadores. The phantom is described as hauntingly beautiful, with long black hair and wearing a flowing white wedding gown over her wraithlike frame. Wailing, she roams the rivers and creeks at night as she searches for children to drag to a watery grave… just like her two sons, whom she murdered as a young wife.
The Curse of La Llorona starts off with this history, then segues into East Los Angeles in 1973. Here we meet a caring but harried social worker named Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini, “Dead to Me”). Anna is struggling after her police officer husband was killed in the line of duty: she’s got a huge old house to maintain, a full-time job that’s in danger of disappearing, and most important, two children to raise by herself. April (Madeleine McGraw) is a sweet, introspective girl, while her brother Chris (Roman Christou) is more curious and boisterous. In spite of their troubles, the family is happy. That is, until La Llorona shows up.
Anna is on the case of a seemingly unbalanced mother of two young boys when she unwittingly unleashes the creature from their rundown apartment. La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez) attaches herself to the Garcia family, intent upon taking April and Chris to the underwater underworld. Anna turns to her priest, Father Perez (Tony Amendola, Annabelle) who explains that La Llorona must be vanquished by a certain kind of holy man who has a working knowledge of both the Catholic religion and witchcraft. There just so happens to be a Botanica nearby, where Anna meets and employs a faith healer (Raymond Cruz, “Sons of Anarchy”) to exorcise the demon.
Produced by James Wan – the powerhouse who created the frightening franchises of Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring– The Curse of La Llorona is a solid thriller with well-drawn characters, a compelling backstory, and a creepy atmosphere. What’s missing is a sense of directorial style. Michael Chaves, making his feature debut here, plays it safe in what seems like a paint-by-numbers approach. Or maybe his creativity was curbed by studio executives; one never knows. As a consequence, there’s a lack of panache and precious little suspense. The cinematography is standard-issue as well.
That’s not to say The Curse of La Llorona is a horror movie that’s not worth your time. It’s a cut above many recent releases reviewed here. The acting is excellent (in spite of a couple of clunky one-liners foisted upon Amendola) and the narrative explores a relatively unique legend (for U.S. audiences, anyway). The film score, by Wan favorite Joseph Bishara, is appropriately unsettling and has a distinct period feel without being gimmicky. The production/set design and locations also help to immerse one in the early 1970s without going overboard. There are some good scares that have a throwback feel – devotees of the original Poltergeist will enjoy a nod to that film’s iconic pool scene.
The villain has just the right amount of backstory juxtaposed with mystery, and will no doubt spawn a sequel or two. Who knows? Maybe she’ll team up with her counterpart from The Conjuring universe, The Nun. In any case, the sequences involving the guilt-ridden ghost who’s doomed to repeat her sin over and over again are well-timed and feel organic to the story as it unfolds.
Overall, The Curse of La Llorona is a decent diversion that’s worth catching on the big screen for those who can’t get enough of ghostly tales; casual horror fans may want to wait until it’s on home video.