AUSTIN — Whether the latest addition to The Conjuring universe turned out to be good or not, Warner Bros. Pictures did a hell of a job sending cold shivers down audiences’ spines at the world premiere of The Curse of La Llorona. During the film’s introduction at the South by Southwest Film Festival on March 15, director Michael Chaves (next year’s The Conjuring 3) greeted festival-goers and warned audiences about possible bad omens that could follow everyone home. Chaves brought up legends about spooky happenings that took place on movie sets, so he wanted to take extra precautions to ensure audiences could enjoy a scary movie and go home peacefully.
After buttering us with a thick layer of the creeps, Chaves invited a faith healer on stage to bless the audience against paranormal activity. The healer had spectators stand up as he recited prayers in Spanish and had everyone hold a red cloth (that was handed out upon entry) so that any potential misfortunes could be absorbed by it. He instructed everyone to throw the fabric away after leaving the theater. If anyone were to keep it or give it to someone else (if you were feeling devilish), evil could stalk them. For anyone catching the film in theaters this weekend, might want to consider bringing a rosary or a vial of Holy Water.
It was a wild experience and had everyone’s palms sweating as anxiety spread across the theater like a virus.
Then, the movie started. The Warner Bros. logo came across the screen, which, like all the Conjuring films, was altered to match the mood of the film, with dark skies and shades of green and blue to let you know it’s about to go down.
After a genuinely creepy opening sequence (that gives us the story behind the titular female ghost of the Latin Americanfolklore, also known as “the weeping woman”), SXSW was fully prepared for producer James Wan (director of the Conjuring films) to deliver a film on par with his directed works and Annabelle: Creation. However, aside from a few effective jump-scares, The Curse of La Llorona is another film in the Conjuring universe that suffers from idiotic characters and a lack of genre innovation.
Written by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (Five Feet Apart), and set in 1970s Los Angeles, La Llorona revolves around the family of a social worker and widow named Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini of Green Book). She is called to look into one of her cases and later suspects foul play after finding that the mother (Patricia Velasquez of The Mummy franchise) has been locking her two young boys inside a closet. The mother warns against freeing them, but Anna takes the children to a safe place while the police investigate the situation. However, all Anna’s worst fears surface as the mother’s two children are drowned in a river by the evil La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez) and is set to haunt Anna’s two children (Roman Christou and Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) next.
The film lays down a solid foundation. The opening scene will undoubtedly get your blood pumping and proves to be one of the most haunting sequences of the film (next to a scene featuring an umbrella next to a swimming pool). And from there Chaves does some exceptional camera work by following the Garcia family around their house as the children get ready for school. It’s shot in one three-minute sequence similar to what Wan did in 2013’s The Conjuring. We get an idea of what the geography of the house is (which will come in handy later) and a feel for how the family lives their lives. The use of Curtis Mayfield’s 1972 track “Super Fly” also helps to get audiences into the film’s groove.
Once we meet La Llorona herself — who will no doubt give you a mad case of the heebie-jeebies, especially after one of Anna’s kids, Chris (Christou), meets the evil entity — the film picks up some momentum. Chaves effectively builds up an intense feeling of dread. But it’s after the weeping ghost arrives at the Garcia house, it releases all the air out of the balloon. We see her too often and all the corners the Garcia family is backed into are too familiar. Most of what we see happen in the Garcia household are moments we’ve seen before in the Conjuring franchise, but not done as well.
A big issue is how all the characters don’t seem to want to be honest with each other. Whenever La Llorona grabs hold of you, she leaves a burn mark. Anna asks her children where they got their marks, but they don’t seem to be bothered by the fact they were attacked by the evil ghost and don’t dish the details. Maybe it was out of fear of what the spirit would do them if they confessed, but Chaves doesn’t make it clear enough. Even when Anna gets the same mark and is scared near to death, she doesn’t tell her children. So, the whole family is dishonest with each other, and it’s frustrating.
When the hauntings worsen, they finally open up and bring in one of the franchise’s best characters, former priest Rafael Olvera (a scene-stealing Raymond Cruz). Olvera is like imagining Clint Eastwood’s character from Gran Torino in a horror film. He often jokes to the children how he is never scared and is a no-bull kind of guy. Rafael shows no fear in telling La Llorona to get off the Garcia family lawn. He’s the smartest character in the film, while everyone else does dumb stuff like reaching for a stuffed animal in an area they definitely shouldn’t.
The Curse of La Llorona is not a complete waste, but one expects more from Wan and the filmmakers he hires to develop the universe’s arc. It’s merely more of the same. It’s better than The Nun, I will admit. So, that’s something.