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Friday, April 19, 2019

The Curse of La Llorona

Even if it's not being advertised as such in the trailers, The Curse of La Llorona is the latest entry in the expanding Conjuring Cinematic Universe.  The head mind behind the franchise, James Wan, is the lead producer, and the movie shares his love for atmospheric horror based in a 1970s setting.  Even the infamous Annabelle doll makes a brief cameo, and there is a callback to one of the earlier films.  Compared to some of the other entries in the series, this is a passable installment that doesn't do anything wrong, but never truly stands out.  It will provide some quick jolts for jumpy teens, and that's it.

At the very least, the movie has an interesting angle that held my attention.  The story of La Llorona, or "The Weeping Woman", is a Mexican folk tale of a beautiful woman married to a wealthy and powerful man who was driven to madness when she found her husband was unfaithful, and out of despair, she drowned their two children in a nearby river.  When she realized what she had done, she took her own life, and she now haunts the streets, looking for children to snatch away from unsuspecting parents.  It's a good idea to build a horror film around, and it's too bad the movie doesn't rely more on the story than it does.  What's here is good enough, but the creepy story promises so much more.  Here, the evil spirit (played by Marisol Ramirez) mostly pops up a lot and screams at the camera, before disappearing again.  When you consider the tragic and terrifying angle this movie could have gone with, it feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity.

Still, director Michael Chaves does create a very strong foreboding atmosphere, and he throws in a lot of effective period details of the time the story is set in, without being distracting.  His story focuses on a widowed social worker named Anna (Linda Cardellini), who is raising two kids (Jaynee-Lynn Kinchen and Roman Christou) on her own after her police officer husband was killed in the line of duty a year ago.  On her latest case, she investigates two children who seem to be abused and locked away by their mother (Patricia Velasquez), who claims that she is trying to protect them from the spirit of La Llorona.  The children are separated, but both turn up dead from drowning, even with their mother locked away.  As Anna tries to investigate the truth behind the murder and the story behind the spirit, she inadvertently winds up putting the lives of her own kids in danger from the ghost, and must now seek help from the church to battle the evil that is haunting her home.

Much like the last Conjuring spin off we got, The Nun, this is a movie that is rich in colors, detail and period settings, but the story never quite builds to the momentum that we hope for.  I was never bored, but I also felt like the whole thing should have been more successful.  The movie is at its best when it is building tension, but the payoff is never as good as it should be.  Like I said, the movie basically treats the titular spirit as a jump scare machine, rather than the sad, tortured and twisted ghoul that she needs to be in order to truly get under the audience's skin.  But what seems worse to me is how the screenplay by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (Five Feet Apart) throws in so many moments where characters have to act clueless in order for a scene to happen or continue.  It gets annoying, as is a major plot hole that occurs near the end of the film, where a major character simply disappears from a scene without any explanation as to why, or even what happened to them.

And yet, I found quite a few things to admire here.  I liked all of the performances, many of whom are giving these characters more life than they probably had on the page.  I especially enjoyed Raymond Cruz as the man the family turns to to combat the evil spirit.  He brings a certain sense of humor to his performance, and it's a shame that the movie waits so long to introduce him into the story, as I wanted to see more of him.  Linda Cardellini, as always, is effective as the mother trying to protect her children, but I'm kind of disappointed seeing her stuck in yet another "mom" role, which seems to be what she's being mostly cast as the past few years.  I wish she would branch out a little.  Regardless, the performances, combined with the film's strong visuals, kept my attention, even if I was conscious about the film's problems.

The Curse of La Llorona could have and should have been a lot creepier, but what's here does work to a certain extent.  Not enough that I can give it a full recommendation, but I also can't say I regret watching it.  If you want an atmospheric horror movie where you don't have to do a lot of thinking, it will probably do the trick.  But James Wan and his team can do a lot better, and likely will soon.

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