IN CINEMAS: 3rd May
RUNNING TIME: 93 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Mexico 1673: two children are drowned by their mother. Los Angeles 1973: social worker Anna Tate-Garcia investigates the disappearance of two children belonging to a client named Patricia Alvarez and frees them from the cellar in which she’s locked them. The two boys, Carlos and Tomas, tell Anna to keep them in the room so they are protected, but Anna takes the boys to the police. In a child services shelter, the two see a woman clad in a white dress and are later found drowned in a river. Patricia blames Anna for their death, claiming that she was trying to protect them from La Llorona, who now begins to appear to Patricia’s kids Chris and Sam….
It’s perhaps surprising that the latest installment of the Conjuring saga [and why on earth were they initially secretive about the connection with the massively popular franchise?] chooses to adapt an existing legend and bring it into this universe. Maybe it’s assumed that not many people going to see the film would have previously heard of La Llorona and/or not know what it’s based on? The character has made appearances in the series Supernatural and Grimm but the only full movie adaptations have been Mexican, though 1963’s The Curse Of The Crying Woman is regarded by some as one of the top Mexican horror movies and I’m now very interested in seeing it [so expect a review soon!]. In fact the character seems tailor made for an effective chiller. The premise of the ghost of a woman who drowned her children and now cries while looking for them and kidnapping other children and drowning them, seems like it could make for a film full of terror, eeriness yet also pity and pathos. After all, this is a story that many parents in Latin America apparently use to scare their children from staying out too late. So does this new offering do it justice? The answer is, in short, yes and no.
The last Conjuring offering The Nun I liked a little bit more than some, but despite its wonderful Gothic atmosphere it consisted little more of the title character going “BOO!” However, this seems to be what audiences want more than anything else from these films, which are a bit variable in quality [though we’ve certainly had two very good and one fairly good entry], so with The Curse Of La Llorona they’ve gone for much the same thing, though rather more ramped up. The film really is extremely basic, not bothering much with things like plot, characterisation or logic, just charging ahead as a simple scare machine designed to offer as many jolts as it can cram into its hour and a half running time. And I have to say that purely on that level the thing does often work. You don’t really have time to ponder if they could have done more with the premise because you’re almost constantly having loud bangs, yelling, characters being hurled about [but never being injured as a result] and sightings of La Llorona thrown at you – and it does get pretty intense especially what with two young children constantly being attacked. However, the law of diminishing returns applies when the same bloody demonic presence is used to frighten you again and again instead of some different things that would have provided some variety and surprises. The film is really something of a one trick pony, and what little it actually does and how flimsy it is may become apparent after you’ve left the auditorium .
A prologue allows us to witness the events that set up the La Llorona legend. A couple are playing with their children in a field, as the youngest of their two sons gives his mother a necklace, which she warmly accepts. The boy closes his eyes, and when he opens them, his family is missing. While looking for them in the woods, he sees his mother drowning his brother in a stream, quite a shocking sight, then flees in horror but is caught up with. In the present day, Kate is a care worker already struggling to also raise two kids who haven’t long lost their father, and now she’s also troubled by her latest case. Patricia Alvarez locking up her two kids seems like a case of child abuse, but the kids don’t want to be freed. La Llorona appears, bright and early, in the corridors of the care centre into which the boys have been taken. One of the boys sees her, but when the other turns to look she’s gone – but when they both look around? – well, you know what they’re going to see, it’s so predictable. In fact so many of the jump scares are telegraphed, it seeming to be beyond the skill of director Michael Chives to give us a fright that would be totally sudden and therefore far more effective. Anyway, La Llorona soon starts to appear to Chris and Sam. There’s quite a strong sequence when the kids are in a car waiting for their mother who’s been suddenly called in at night because of the deaths of Carlos and Tomas, and La Llorona somehow keeps on winding down the window that Chris is trying to close. But why oh why don’t they tell their mother about what’s happening for quite some time, instead choosing to lie about often looking terrified and one of them sporting burns on one arm? Mind you, at least it makes a change from the familiar scenario of a mother not believing her kids, and it’s not that long before Kate sees the apparition herself.
In fact these two children don’t appear to be very bright at at times, such as when they choose to flee upstairs rather than go out the back door, and I didn’t buy it that one of them would risk endangering everyone just for a toy, but then screenwriters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis do seem to have constructed most of their script on familiar cliches even if they’re rather silly ones. We do eventually find out why La Llorona seems happy enough to just jump out, utter some bloodcurdling noises and burn arms, rather than actually killing or kidnapping. She wants to place each kid in a trance first so they come willingly to her, and that takes slightly more time. But why is she after these particular kids in the first place? That too is answered, though it’s all a little haphazard at times. Sometimes La Llorona has certain powers, sometimes not. But just as things are getting a bit repetitive, matters liven up with the arrival of Rafael Olvera, who is a perfect example of how to have a character act as comic relief but not have it feel forced. Rafael is a former priest who now operates on “the fringes of religion and science” to combat evil, and who’s asked by Anna and her kids to help them. Yes, it’s such a stock situation that it’s easy to sigh, but the use of Mexican charms and – the smearing of eggs all over the walls – add a touch or two of freshness, and Raymond Cruz is most entertaining in the part, making lines and even just words into things of amusement by his delivery even though they probably wouldn’t be funny otherwise – though even he struggles with a script that feels like it has to over-explain everything and several times so that any thickos in the audience can understand.
The climax does possess most of the edge that you want and it’s quite upsetting seeing two childen terrorised in such a manner, some moments almost approaching the intensity of some bits in The Entity even though there’s no demon rape here. It helps that Roman Christou and Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen do genuinely look terrified throughout, and Linda Cardellini as Kate does good too. These days it’s the quieter, slower scares that tend to work better with me than the noisier variety which these days often consist of little more than a sudden appearance by something accompanied by a musical sting or a thud. I guess it’s because the latter is so overused these days that some horror films become about little else. A bit where the kids are hiding under a table and La Llorona slowly lifts both sides of the tablecloth up is especially good and didn’t need the expected “BOO” at its conclusion. And of course there’s the scene in the bath that you’ve all seen from the trailer and which has therefore had its effect ruined. Why do so many trailers these days give away so much? To be honest, I’ve found things to enjoy in even the weaker Conjuring films, and love that horror now has a ‘universe’ to compete with all these comic book and science fiction ones, but the creators need to let their monsters do a bit more than just say “BOO”, and are maybe running out of ideas in terms of look seeing as La Llorona has a face just like Valek’s. Maybe one day we’re get a sequel which explains that they are cousins.
It never feels as if we’re in 1973, though the film does have an interesting pale look to it. First time director Chives mostly mimics James Wan, especially with Wan’s very effective use of indoor space, but avoids Wan’s occasional ‘shakycam’ – though we do get an Evil Dead-like camera swoop from the point of view of the evil spirit. And is it intentional that a couple of moments are staged like ones in The Conjuring? – or was that just me making connections that aren’t actually there. After all, we do get Father Perez show up to offer some advice and refer briefly to something that happened a while ago while we see a flashback shot of him and a certain doll. I wouldn’t be surprised though to learn that the original script wasn’t part of the Conjuring universe at all. All in all The Curse Of La Llarona does do what it sets out to do, and when a lot of movies don’t even achieve that then that’s something worthy of praise. Much of it certainly worked with the preview audience that I saw it with, and at times even I was suitably shaken if rarely stirred, but it really does show how limited and simplistic this type of horror film is when there are so many ways to frighten. Even many of the slasher movies of the ’80s employed a greater variety of methods to scare, and god forbid that some subtlety be employed. And I think that they need to be very careful with this franchise to make sure that it doesn’t slip entirely into mediocrity. It’s all very well making spin-off films featuring terrors that we’ve already come across as we follow the cases of the Warrens, but so far only Annabelle: Creation has felt like a properly thought through product rather than a quick cash-in, and it would be nice if they did a bit more with these characters than what they’re doing with them at the moment. I mean, come on, these are creatures of the supernatural, the sky’s the limit.