As with all review-caps, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. You’ve been warned.
James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013) is one of my favorite flicks of all time. Scared the living s**t out of me. Still does. And it’s become one of the latest flicks to spawn its own “universe” – that is to say, it’s a blockbuster Hollywood can tie untold spin-offs and barely-related material to for however long the name provides the mileage. The Curse of La Llorona falls squarely under barely-related material – its only link being the involvement of a single character who also appeared in Annabelle (2014). So let’s get that out of the way immediately. You aren’t going to see The Warrens kicking demonic butt in this one, or even see that grimy, butt-ugly doll.
What you will see is a pretty mediocre version of the “Weeping Woman” folktale that has frightened kids all over the world into behaving for ages. This flick uses the Spanish/Mexican/South Texas version, which plays out in the film’s prologue. In Mexico in 1673, La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez) and her two boys play in a field on a lovely, sunny day, starting a game of hide-and-seek. But when the youngest boy (Jaydan Valdivia) uncovers his eyes, he’s alone. He goes looking for his brother and mother in the nearby woods by the river, passing a tree with red blossoms that look like fire in the sunlight. (More on that later). The poor kid finds his mother drowning his brother in the shallow water and tries to run away, but to no avail.
Cut to Los Angeles in 1973, and we’re flying on a crazy camera move through the home of widowed, single mom Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini). It’s a typical chaotic morning for her and her two kids, Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), as they scramble to dress, eat, pack lunches and make it out to the school bus on time.
Cut to Anna filling out paperwork at her job as a social worker with the Dept. of Children and Family Services. Her boss (John Marshall-Jones) wants to pass some of her workload off to another less experienced colleague (Irene Keng), not-so-subtly suggesting that Anna can’t cut it, especially now that her husband has passed away. Anna fights to stay on her current case though, saying that the Alvarez family won’t trust anyone but her to help them. The boss reluctantly agrees, but makes it clear she must take a police officer with her to do the welfare check on the Alvarez’s.
When Anna and the officer show up at the dark, squalid apartment building, Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velasquez) barely opens the door, looking paranoid and terrified but insisting everything’s fine. Anna negotiates her way in, promising that the officer will stay outside. Anna finds a creepy scene of folk superstition gone haywire when she starts walking around the apartment – but not Patricia’s two sons. Anna finally happens on a locked closet with eyes drawn all over it and Patricia gets violent when Anna tries opening the door. The officer busts in just in time and, Anna gets the key away from her, finding the two boys (Oliver Alexander, Aiden Lewandowski) inside.
While the cop takes Patricia away, Anna takes the boys to the local mission, where she does her best to comfort them, promising they’ll be safe there. She notices burn marks on the boys’ wrists that they’re quick to hide. The abuse is worse than Anna thought and she’s reluctant to leave them behind. But of course she does, and of course La Llorona shows up that night in all her creepy, now-you-see-her-now-you-don’t glory, luring the boys out of bed and kidnapping them.
Anna tries to get back to normal at home, giving Sam her nightly bath to establish the “Rinsing!” thing. (More on that later.) But it’s clear they’re all struggling with their grief. The kids miss their father terribly – especially Chris, who plays cop all by himself, pretending to bust bad guys just like his dad used to.
Then Anna gets a tragic phone call in the way-too-early AM from her boss telling her to get down to the L.A. River flood channel, where the cops have found the Alvarez boys dead. Anna takes her kids with her but parks a good way back from the crime scene, telling Chris to make sure they both stay in the car – like that’s gonna happen.
Anna meets her late husband’s buddy, Detective Cooper (Sean Patrick Thomas), who asks for her input on the terrible scene. Both Alvarez boys drowned, but the most likely suspect – Patricia – wasn’t anywhere near them. But she’s there now, and the cops let her out of the cruiser long enough for her to shout accusations of blame at Anna – that because of her interference, “La Llorona” found her boys and killed them.
While all this is going on, Chris has done exactly what he was told not to do and left the car. He watches the cops work a real crime scene, just like his dad used to. Then he hears someone crying nearby and sees a woman in a bridal outfit, weeping – and she sees him too, calling him her son. She grabs his wrist, leaving the same burn marks the Alvarez kids had, but Chris gets away and books it back to the car. Then he and Sam spend the next few minutes wasting valuable screen time in a goofy game of try-to-keep-the-ghost-out-of-the-car that’s supposed to be scary but just comes off as really, really dumb.
If you’ve seen any horror movies, like, ever, you can pretty much guess how it rolls on from here. La Llorona attaches herself to the Garcias, and the film racks up the jump scares as she tries to nab both Chris and Sam (in another goofy scene of chase-the-umbrella to the pool). Both kids end up with the burn marks of course, and when Det. Cooper shows up to try and cheer everybody up with pizza, the kids aren’t acting like themselves. Anna chalks it up to a bad day/week/month/year and then Cooper asks her to review the case file and then talk to Patricia to find out what the hell happened. But when Anna goes to talk to Patricia in jail, all she gets is more of the same La Llorona story – but with a more ominous tone now, with Patricia saying Anna will suffer and lose her kids, just like she did.
Anna goes to the memorial for the Alvarez boys and runs into the local Catholic priest, Father Perez (Tony Amendola) – remember him? He’s our vague link to The Conjuring! He’s that priest who made the mistake of getting involved with that nice couple with the creepy-a** Annabelle doll, remember? Yeah, that guy. So Anna talks to him while she watches some folk-magic weirdness going on – people getting sage smoke wafted in their faces by some weird dude Father Perez calls a “curandero,” but who could also be called a shaman or even a witch doctor.
Anna asks Father Perez if he’s ever heard of La Llorona – and in the subsequent info-dump scene, Perez explains the story but says that it’s only a legend to some. To others, La Llorona is very real – which is why the curandero, named Rafael Olvera (Raymond Cruz) was there at the memorial.
Anna doesn’t get it – but oh, she will. Because things start to get worse at home, as La Llorona messes around with the family some more. She nearly drowns poor Sam in the tub (“Rinsing!”). And then in another unsuccessful attempt to nab Chris (because La Llorona really sucks at her afterlife job), the poor kid falls down the stairs.
At the ER, when the doctor (Andrew Tinpo Lee) spots the burn marks on Chris and calls DCFS. Things start looking eerily like the Alvarez case – except this time Anna’s the one being looked at as the abusive parent. Her co-workers and even her buddy Det. Cooper start treating her like a criminal.
Knowing what’s she’s in for, a desperate Anna goes to Father Perez for help but he says the Church takes a long time to evaluate cases like hers. Way too long. So who else can poor Anna possibly turn to? Dun-dun-DUN! Enter Curandero Rafael. But Father Perez warns Anna that if she goes to him for help, the Church can’t be involved at all.
So it’s buh-bye Father Perez and hello Rafael. Anna takes the kids to his shop, but she’s totally weirded out by all the ritualistic gear. Raf isn’t the friendliest guy, either, telling them all if they’re just there to gawk they can get lost. But sweet little Sam asks him for his help – and when he sees the signature burns on her wrist, he knows what the deal is. He gives Anna the basic Poltergeist-y type rundown on how Curanderismo works as he gathers up the essential gear – including a precious vial of La Llorona’s goopy “tears” that he collected at the Alvarez’s place. (More on that later.)
So then it’s off to the Garcias’ place and Rafael has them run eggs over all the surfaces in the house, telling them it’s a test to see if there’s evil present. Well, gosh-golly-gee, Raf…I would think that would be a foregone conclusion at this point. But hey, we get to see some cool visual effects when the eggs start spinning on their own, blow up and splatter poor Anna in the face with the black goop of evil.
Then it’s montage time! Everybody pitches in to light hundreds of white candles and hang noisemakers and spread lines of seeds across the door and window frames. Night’s fallen by the time they’re all done, and then there’s nothing to do but wait. Rafael starts beating some more eggs and Anna asks him what kind of test this one’s supposed to be. He says it’s not – “it’s breakfast for dinner.” Anna smiles and says her late husband used to like to make breakfast for dinner too but only because “cereal was the only thing he knew how to cook.” They then have a short but effective character moment discussing his history as a former priest. Really nice, and way too short.
But of course no one gets their breakfast for dinner because La Llorona’s finally decided to show up. Anna and the kids huddle inside a protective circle of the white candles while Rafael stands at the ready. La Llorona decides to come in through the upstairs windows – and I think the only reason why was so that everybody could stare at the ceiling while listening to creepy noises. Then of course, all the candles go out.
And then it’s on – and crafty ol’ Raf uses the family as bait to lure La Llorona in, actually letting her get a hold of Chris just so he can get close enough to whip out that vial of her tears, bless it and use it as a weapon on her. La Llorona retreats outside the house, unable to back in because of the line of seeds across the door frame. Although she somehow managed to get in through the upstairs window just fine – which makes no sense, but at this point in the film, it’s what I like to call “yeah-okay-whatever” time: the point at which the filmmakers basically tell you to stop thinking logically, shut up and just accept whatever nonsensical thing they’re shoving at you.
So remember that fiery-looking tree from the prologue? Turns out the seeds and the wood of the “àrboles de fuego” have special power over La Llorona – because the trees were “the only witnesses to her crime.” Uh-huh. That seems like a really weak connection to me, but once again, it’s yeah-okay-whatever time.
Now comes undoubtedly one of the absolute worst scenes in the film. After all the times La Llorona has tried to nab these kids (however lame the attempts), you would think that a smart little girl like Sam wouldn’t fall for such an obvious trap as placing her favorite dolly on the porch just beyond her reach. Well, you would think. But you’d be wrong. Little Sam dumps her brain in favor of trying to get her dolly back, even though that means breaking the protective line of fire-tree seeds.
And by the time Anna sees what’s going on, it’s too late. La Llorona nabs Sam and disappears with her – but where to? Oh, right, the Weeping Woman’s all about drowning, isn’t she? So Anna jumps into the pool and has an underwater fight with her (nicely shot, by the way) where she not only manages to get Sam back but also snatch La Llorona’s necklace. (More on that later.)
But once they get everyone back in the house, Sam gets all glazy-eyed and keeps trying to go back out. Raf says poor Sam’s under La Llorona’s spell and will keep trying to go to her when she calls. So what’s the solution? Well, of course, it’s to do what Patricia Alvarez did and lock the kids in the closet. Anna’s reluctant to do it, but Chris tells her it’s okay and Sam (who’s suddenly clear-eyed and not under a spell anymore) agrees. Anna says they’re all scared and that it’s okay to be scared. Their Dad used to get scared too. “Even Rafael?” Chris asks – to which Raf immediately replies, “No.” Nice moment there, too. Raf then says they just have to make it to sunrise and they lock the doors.
So you would think the adults would stay in the room, right? Well, again, you’d think – but you’d be wrong. They leave the kids to go downstairs and make coffee. And guess who manages to break in? Amazingly, it’s not La Llorona. It’s Patricia Alvarez! Which is a great surprise until you start thinking about it for more than two seconds – I mean, the idea that she’s somehow managed to escape police custody and get a gun…? Yeah, it’s gone to a whole new level of yeah-okay-whatever at this point.
Patricia’s so hellbent on vengeance that she does exactly what Anna did to her and drags the kids out of the closet. And by the time Anna and Raf realize they should’ve skipped the coffee, whoops, too late – La Llorona’s back and badder than ever with Patricia’s help. Patricia shoots poor Rafael (not fatally, of course) and La Llorona tosses Anna into the basement stairway, trapping her there.
So now it’s up to Chris and Sam to save themselves, and they decide to hide in the attic. But they’re no match for La Llorona, who traps them in a maze of dusty furniture. She’s about to strike the fatal blow – but then sees that Chris is holding her necklace. Somehow or other (Yeah, I don’t know how. Remember, you’re not supposed to be asking sensible questions.), the necklace turns La Llorona from an ugly ghoul into her former self, a beautiful woman and a loving mother. But then she catches sight of herself in the mirror and it’s right back to homicidal ghoul. Anna and Raf show up just in the nick of time, Raf slides his cross made of the “àrboles de fuego” to Anna and she kills (the already dead) La Llorona with it, disintegrating the Weeping Woman into millions of visual effects debris particles. Boom. The sun’s up and our heroes are safe.
As Anna, Chris and Sam see Raf to his cab, he tells the kids how brave they were – and that he was even scared for a minute there. “Really?” they ask. “No,” he replies. Aww. Hugs all around and he’s headed back to the shop. The kids go back in the house, and all is well – until Anna notices a puddle on the sidewalk. Water plus reflective surface equals…CUT.
The ages-old ghost story of the Weeping Woman searching for her children is one that’s known worldwide – and thus has built-in, widespread appeal and the potential to be a wonderfully scary flick if done right. But The Curse of La Llorona suffers from the decision to just churn out another chapter of a moneymaking “universe” over proper storytelling. And it’s a shame because there are some real bright spots in and among the mediocrity.
While the film has gotten legitimate flack for whitewashing the heroine role, I have to say I loved Linda Cardellini’s Anna. She brings an every-woman feel to the character, as well a consistent undertone of grief and loss that’s always present but subtle. That’s not easy to pull off. Same goes for Raymond Cruz – he brings a savvy world-weariness to Rafael that makes him prickly and endearing all at the same time. Again, not easy to do. The moments between them are the best ones in the whole film – unfortunately though, those moments also serve as reminders that you’re not watching the great story La Llorona could have been.
Even more infuriating than all that – and the flick’s most heinous offense – is that it just isn’t scary. Not at all, and I’m pretty easy to scare. The flick’s rated R, but there’s no reason for it to be. It never once takes advantage of that freedom. It’s so lazy about relying on atmosphere and jump scares that the whole thing just becomes a series of strung-together horror clichés – making it more like a 90-minute long, unfunny joke than the truly frightening ghost story it could have been.
Directed by: Michael Chaves
Written by: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis
Release Date: April 19, 2019 (Wide – premiered at SXSW)
Run Time: 93 min
Distributor: Warner Bros./New Line Cinema