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The Curse of La Llarona (15)

Director: Michael Chaves

Screenplay: Mikki DaughtryTobias Iaconis

Starring: Linda CardelliniRaymond CruzPatricia Velasquez

Review: David Stephens

Modern folklore and FOAF tales (it happened to a “Friend of a Friend”) make great subjects for genre cinema. Bernard Rose’s “Candyman” (1992) is probably the most successful example of a horror film exploiting the potential of the modern Urban Legend, with its canny adaptation of Clive Barker’s “The Forbidden”. “The Blair Witch Project” (1999) is another famous example of manufactured mythology becoming the catalyst for the terrorisation of its protagonists. Sometimes the subject matter can spin off from IRL well-documented cases such as “The Mothman Prophecies” (2002) and (arguably) last year’s “Slender Man”. The origin of La Llorona is similar in the way that it has existed in some form or another for many years, and originates from a 17th Century Mexican ghost story about a weeping woman bringing bad luck, much in the same way an Irish Banshee is supposed to. What made this particular update interesting though was the long gestation period, and the fact that it was surprisingly inducted into the “Conjuring Universe” (ConjureVerse) at a very late date during its promotion. It was produced by James Wan via the “Atomic Monster Productions” label, and was directed by Michael Chaves as his feature length debut. Chaves quickly moved on to helming “The Conjuring 3” for 2020, so Wan must have liked what he saw in the rushes. After premiering at SXSW earlier this year and debuting in U.S. theatres mid-April, “The Curse” has just crossed the Atlantic for U.K. screens. So YGROY goes to the local multiplex… and we’ll cry if we want to.

A brief prologue plays out in sun-dappled Mexico during 1673 and a happy family frolics in the meadows. The film soon puts a stop to that malarkey though, as the two young boys are summarily (and fatally) dunked in the river by their jealousy-ridden Mother, henceforth known as La Llorona. You’ve just had Mexican Folklore 101 and we’re now in 1973 Los Angeles. Anna Tate-Garcia (a really rather good Linda Cardellini) is a recently widowed and loving Mother to Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen). In her job as a social worker, she learns that a recent charge has been keeping her two sons from school. When she visits Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velásquez), there seems to be a clear case of abuse and neglect as she raves about a Mexican myth. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as that, as the demonic La Llorona is more than just a fictional boogey(wo)man, and she’s just set her sights on the children of Anna…

Seeing as the production of “La Llorona” started back in Oct 2017 and went through a couple of name-changes (“The Children”), you might be concerned at the quality and perplexed at the sudden revelation that it’s a ConjureVerse Movie (officially the 6th instalment). Well, yes there is a link, but it boils down to a shared character and an offhand remark… so you won’t miss much if you’ve never seen any of the other films, and the connection is pretty tenuous to say the least. Cynically, it probably boils down to some clever promotional decisions, but to also be fair it does “feel” like it could easily belong in the same Universe as the (dramatized version of) The Warrens. The mixture of old IRL mythology and “modern” urbanites being terrorised by an otherworldly villain, still remains the core concept of the plot. There is some clumsy exposition that points to some typically sexist treatment at work (“Her Husband isn’t dead!”), and whilst it doesn’t make a lot of difference, at least the 70s setting keeps in with the franchise so far and makes for an interesting backdrop. It also, and depending on your point-of-view this could be a “pro” or a “con”, sticks to the main trademarks of the ConjureVerse. Namely the long-drawn-out scenes of tension, leading to in-your-face “Boo!” scares, accompanied with loud audible cues. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with that on a technical or narrative basis… and admittedly “La Llorona” has some cracking examples of that. It’s just that when Anna gets knocked out for the second time, or struggles with a third supernaturally-locked door, you occasionally wish for something a bit fresher or original. Even “Llorona” bears some resemblance to “Valak” (“The Nun”), with her ghoulish features. Luckily though, despite that familiarity or lack of ambition, the film still manages to rise above the lowest points of the “Conjuring” franchise. And “Annabelle” and “The Nun”, we’re looking at you…

There are a few reasons for you to consider giving “La Llorona” a chance, not least of which is a much-better-than-needed performance from Cardellini. The reliable actress gives a genuinely natural and effective emotional layer to her character. Whereas the clunky background story has her husband as an expired cop, the moments where she softly cries or reacts to her son playing in his Father’s room, gives some real depth to the otherwise flimsy characterisations. She also has a fantastic celluloid scream and sells the moments of terror, whether it’s for her or her kids. (NB: Fans of her performance as Velma Dinkley in the live-action “Scooby Doo” movies will get a kick out of a TV Easter Egg that pops up as well). Secondly, and seemingly in common with most of the “Conjuring” films, the younger actors are also pretty good and portray their imperilled status well. The introduction of prolific TV actor Raymond Cruz as “Shaman” Rafael Olvera is also played out nicely, with some reactions from him not occurring as expected and a deadpan personality that gives the most sarcastic delivery of “Tah-Dah!” put to film. Ever. Twice. Add to that some really good camerawork from Chaves; the opening 70s shot has the family (fail to) catch the school bus during one continuous take set to Curtis Mayfield’s “SuperFly”, and there are cool Sam Raimi-type POV zooms and hinky camera angles. One or two sequences imaginatively deliver the chills as well, with the “Umbrella” and “Billowing Curtain” set-pieces being particularly well filmed for maximum jolt effects.

It does feel a little disappointing that the juxtaposition between ancient Mexican folklore and 70s U.S. beliefs aren’t examined much. If Llorona is that persistent, why is the myth not better known and what are the circumstances needed? There’s a tease that she could possibly be summoned or “aimed” like a weapon, but this is glossed over. As is the annoyingly predictable narrative development for close friends of Anna to immediately assume her capable of abuse. But as long as you accept the studio credentials and its affiliation with the ConjureVerse, you may well be fruitfully entertained and chilled by the Weeping Woman. It’s well-made and well-acted, and if it doesn’t exactly push the envelope for studio horror, well… not all films have to. In terms of its movie companions, it’s certainly much better than “The None”… sorry, “The Nun” and the first “Annabelle”, even if it doesn’t quite scratch the itch that the two “Conjuring” films did. There are certainly lousier films out there to cry over, and the fact that it’s already made a healthy profit would seem to suggest that it’s hit a nerve with a global audience. Cool Cardellini and some creative chills, you could do worse.

It’s a solid and entertaining mainstream horror. The film benefits from a great lead performance from Cardellini, a genuinely creepy antagonist, and good camerawork from Chaves. However, bar one or two very clever sequences, the staple diet of jump-scares and grabby ghosts is still very much in evidence and there’s little new here. Efficiently made and often above-average, but don’t expect to be surprised.
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