‘La Llorona’ doesn’t stand out, never wanted to

Oh god, she looks so bad! Why does she look so bad! Images courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

3/10 The Curse of La Llorona doesn’t go far enough. It’s the same tame, predictable movie-product the Paranormal Activity/Insidious/Conjuring super-brand has been churning out for more than 10 years now, this one vaguely Mexican-themed.

In 1973 Los Angeles, because everything in this series absolutely must be set in the mid-late 20th century, Child Protective Services case worker Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) mourns for her recently dead husband with their two children, Chris and Samantha (Roman Christou and Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen). Grief and increased parenting workload affects her work, a fact which only adds to her distress.

After a strange case that ends in the drowning of two children and their delinquent mother, Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velásquez), claiming the involvement of the supernatural, the Gates family is haunted by a powerful door lord called La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez), the weeping woman, a ghost in Mexican folklore who murdered her own two children in life and was cursed to walk the Earth looking for others to take their place.

The Curse of La Llorona has the skeleton of a good horror movie in place, with La Llorona as a metaphor for parental abuse for Alvarez’ family, though she quickly becomes a standard “family sad” ghost for the Garcias. There are some solid jumps and visual theming around doors and mirrors. La Llorona does a lot of appearing across screens and entryways. In many scenes, she’s only visible to certain characters or there’s only one camera setup that she’s onscreen in, and she becomes more consistently corporeal as the haunting intensifies.

There’s one shot in the climax, easy to miss but probably my favorite shot in the movie. It’s simply a panning shot of the ghost outside the house, visible for the one of the first times in a shot that’s not explicitly from a single character’s perspective. The shot marks a clear transition between the “divide” and “conquer” phases of the haunting– now, La Llorona is locked-in, fully committed to the material plane. It gives her this firm sense of being something beyond the physical, but one that is slowly descending into the physical to take care of business, her very presence a ticking clock toward the children’s doom. It’s one of many nice ideas from freshman director Michael Chaves, who is clearly doing his best to make this movie distinct.

The Curse of La Llorona was always virtually guaranteed an R-rating because it involves murdering children. It’s a double-whammy, because dead children isn’t a really shocking thing in movies anymore, and the movie doesn’t do much of anything to replace the extremity that’s perceived to be inherent in the subject matter. The result is a movie limited by an extremely soft R rating that doesn’t take any of the leeway that gives it.

There’s a void in this movie where there should be some factor to elevate the stakes. If you wanted to go for something really dark and transgressive, instead of using a standard “family sad” metaphor that seems to have had no thought put into it, the La Llorona legend is ripe to explore challenging and taboo topics like post-partum depression or abortion.

My instinct is to make fun of any movie that comes it at less than 100 minutes – The Curse of La Llorona punches out at 93 – but in La Llorona’s case, the movie feels more like it’s been streamlined than a ripoff. The movie is about 70 percent scares by volume, which is nice given that it has basically nothing else to offer.

But horror as a genre has been steaming down two distinctly different sets of tracks in recent years, and this isn’t on the “dark and transgressive” track. This is on the “spooky costumes and loud noises” track. It was never going to be particularly interesting, it was never intended to be particularly interesting and it doesn’t get bonus points for unrealized potential.

Latinx audiences have had a remarkable fascination with the Paranormal Activity/Insidious/Conjuring franchises going all the way back to the first Paranormal Activity in 2007, mostly attributed to the influence of Catholicism in Mexican and Central American culture and particular interest in the occult aspects of the mythology. There was a Latinx-themed Paranormal Activity spinoff called The Marked Ones before that series petered out, and the Conjuring gaggle has already done a Catholic-themed movie in The Nun – one which saw a huge spike in Hispanic viewers by percentage. La Llorona itself strongly overperformed with an estimated $26.5 million over Easter weekend, with the Southwestern U.S. accounting for an astonishing 73 percent of that total.

It’s great that they’re pulling actual Central American culture into this – as a rule, I’m a huge sucker for supernatural movies that draw from real folklore, which are much more rare than you’d think – but this movie isn’t nearly as Mexican as it could and should be. There’s a white lady in the lead, for one thing. There’s even a beat at the beginning, when Tate-Garcia fights to remain on Alvarez’ case, saying that Alvarez wouldn’t work with “someone like” the East Asian co-worker who was taking over for her. It’s a weird and vaguely racist moment that misses its obvious follow through – why doesn’t Alvarez only speak Spanish? Why not position Tate-Garcia as her department’s only Spanish speaker, which would heighten the pressure on her professionally and give the movie an excuse to go full bilingual?

It’s another way The Curse of La Llorona could have simply decided to be much better than it is.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook,  follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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