The Mexican-accented ghost story The Curse of La Llorona is the latest horror feature cranked out by Warner-owned New Line Cinema under director-producer James Wan's The Conjuring branding. Like viritually all such films, it takes pains to underline its connections to the Conjuring-verse (ugh), both in its marketing materials and in the text of the film itself. Unfortunately, Wan's franchise has set the bar so spectacularly low in terms of novelty, pathos, and genuine chills that a modestly moody and well-executed entry like David F. Sandberg’s Anabelle: Creation (2017) looks like a soaring achievement. Last year, Corin Hardy’s listless, illogical The Nun did nothing to redeem the series, but at least that film possessed a heightened design sensibility perched somewhere between classic Universal horror and the vivid lunacy of Mario Bava.
When compared to The Nun and its misty graveyards and cobwebby catacombs, director Michael Chaves’ The Curse of La Llorona has all the personality of a wadded-up snotty tissue. It’s a case study in how ruinously bland and boring 21st-century studio horror can be while still doing the bare minimum to function as a story. Granted: Curse isn’t technically incompetent or laughably nonsensical in the manner of so many contemporary low-budget, direct-to-streaming horror offerings. The visual-effects work is solid for a lesser Conjuring-verse entry; the performers wring some believable emotions out of the thuddingly obvious character beats; and the story evades the standard Screenwriting 101 pitfalls. It’s not amateurish – just dull, plodding, and criminally un-scary. The fact that this is the first Latinx-flavored horror feature in the franchise just makes Curse’s failings sting that much more acutely. If this is what representation looks like, Latinx horror fans could be forgiven for taking a hard pass.
Things start off poorly from the jump, with a confusing prologue allegedly set in 17th-century Mexico, which looks a hell of a lot like 19th-century Mexico. Dreamy flashes of a father, mother, and two young sons happily cavorting in the grass are abruptly interrupted by a scene of horror: One of the boys witnesses a white-veiled figure violently drowning a child in a creek. (The folk-tale provenance of this opening scene is eventually explained by an Exposition Character, but their account doesn’t remotely jibe with what’s shown on screen, and in fact retroactively makes it more perplexing.) Flash-forward to 1970s Los Angeles – and the non-diegetic thump of “Superfly,” because the ’70s! – where the viewer is introduced to middle-aged widow Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) and her young children, Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchem). Anna’s late husband was a Latino LAPD officer slain in the line of duty, and his presence continues to haunt their household, at least in the figurative sense.
Anna works for a child-protection-services agency, and in that capacity, she is dispatched to the home of Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velasquez), whose two young sons haven’t appeared at school in several days. Anna has encountered Patricia before, but she is shocked by what she finds in the woman’s apartment: the frightened Alvarez boys, padlocked into a closet that is covered with scribbled mystical wards against the evil eye. Patricia attacks Anna when she attempts to extricate the boys, and that assault plus the child-neglect charges land the former woman in jail. The boys – who insist that an ambiguous “She” is responsible for the ugly burns on their arms – are placed into the custody of a Catholic charity for the night.
A few hours later, the Alvarez boys are dead, inexplicably turning up drowned in the shallow, murky water of the Los Angeles River channel. Even though it’s the middle of the night, Anna rushes to the scene in disbelief, leaving her bleary-eyed kids in the car while she confers with the police. (Perhaps not an ideal decision, but half a point to Curse for depicting how logistically difficult it can be to be a working single parent.) It’s at this point that Chris hears what sounds like sobbing coming from an overgrown passageway, and it’s there that he first catches a glimpse of a spectral, weeping woman (Marisol Ramirez). This wraith terrorizes Chris with the sort of aimless funhouse tactics that typify these films, only to vanish when his mother returns to the car. Over the course of the ensuing days, this tearful apparition – which a venomous, glassy-eyed Patricia calls “La Llorona” – appears to both Chris and Samantha on several occasions, frightening the bejeezus out of them and leaving burns on their bodies. Then Anna herself encounters the entity in all its screeching glory, and from there the story proceeds along the well-worn path laid out by The Conjuring and its ilk. (Is there a third-act exorcism set piece that concludes in a gout of murky digital effects? You bet there is!)
Curse doesn’t have much going for it beyond the ostensible distinctiveness of its Mexican mythos. Not lived-in period detail, certainly, of which there is little beyond Cardellini’s feathered hair and tin-foil TV dinners. Not the grounded specificity of its setting, given how shallowly the film regards its multicultural Southern California milieu. (Also: In what universe is it always raining in LA?) La Llorona herself is a ghost in the tragic gothic mold: Having murdered her own offspring in an appallingly misdirected act of retaliation against her adulterous husband, she wanders in search of “replacement” niños y niñas. Unfortunately, the Conjuring-verse – Curse included – tends to treat its specters, even the ones with vivid backstories, as little more than animatronic haunted-house props. They spring out at regular intervals, shriek horrifically, and toss objects and people around with their telekinetic powers, all without any discernible goal. It’s industrial scare-generation that’s entirely audience-directed, and although ancillary characters may show up to elucidate the motivations of the unquiet dead, as Tony Amendola’s priest does here, it never enriches the story. It’s just a cursory excuse for the same old tired theatrics.
Even the film’s basis in real-world Mexican and Mexican-American folk traditions – the only mildly novel thing about Curse by a substantial margin – doesn’t amount to much in practice. There’s no substantive engagement with real-world Latinx family or religious life, or any suggestion as to how Anna’s mixed-heritage children think about their identity, if they think about it at all. The only cultural insight the film seems to proffer is the suspect generalization that Latinx people are highly religious and/or spiritual, in contrast to faithless gringos like Anna. (There’s that dose of The Conjuring’s smug, idiot-simple religious apologetics.) Curse’s scripters – the Five Feet Apart writing team of Mikki Daughty and Tobias Iaconis – seem to think that sprinkling a dash of un-subtitled Spanish into the dialogue and swapping post-Exorcist Jesuit trappings for syncretic Mexican ones makes the film “diverse.” (Coco, this is not.) At least when Raymond Cruz’s curandero finally shows up to battle La Llorona, he brings a little deadpan levity to the proceedings. Otherwise, Curse is a thoroughly joyless piece of work – not to mention monotonous and mechanical.