Prior to moving to the southwest far too long ago for my comfort, I had not heard of this urban legend. To be perfectly honest, I first came across it with the Supernatural pilot episode where they faced the woman in white. My fiancée at the time, had heard of her and told me some of the stories and variations. Urban legends are always fascinating, an interesting aspect of modern mythology and folklore that tell you as much about a place as anything else. For where I grew up we had the statue of Black Aggie, who had many many dark and horrifying stories around what happens should you cross the statues path, including one notable story of someone dying of fright in her arms. Of course there’s Bloody Mary, who is one of the most widely known ones, that in turn inspired the film Candyman. What makes this movie special is that this isn’t American or even European folklore at play, this is a story of Mexican origin and damn if we don’t need some other legends making it to the screen.
But was she the right one?
First we should talk the story of La Llorona. There are variations to it and the reason why, but it is the horrifying tale of a mother out of jealousy or rage drowned both of her children. Then in her weeping grief, killed herself once she realized what she had done. She is most commonly in a white dress and veil, similar to (if not actually) a wedding dress. Her tormented spirit cries for her lost children and even now she looks for the children of others to replace her own; but alas…the cycle repeats. It’s a grim story even without the haunting aspect and automatically should put most people on edge. The movie itself doesn’t disappoint here as it opens with a dreamlike visual of our woman in white and her crime. This is important because when a movie like this opens with killing young kids, no one is safe. With most horror movies you can expect the final girl, or maybe the kids surviving, but by opening with the death of children this movie removes that security blanket and you are left with a pervasive sense of dread throughout. That is a plus in the movies favour.
The screenplay was written by Tobias Iaconis (Five Feet Apart) and Mikki Daughtry (Five Feet Apart). that tells the story of a social worker in 1973 Los Angeles who becomes immersed in the world of the spirit and must save her kids before it’s too late. This is not a complex story, but it doesn’t have to be. What it does have to be is tightly focused on a mother trying to save her children from an enemy that is not a living being. They have that, mostly. The challenge here is you know the threat is real and not in her head, that the mother and children also know the threat is real. The movie tries to insert some additional friction and makes a weak attempt at world building around it, but while it lands it doesn’t have any weight and could have been excised without a viewer even noting it was there. There is of course one (mild) moment of stupidity that I couldn’t forgive as it would have completely altered the already useless friction. One other elephant in the room I feel is important. Neither of the writers are LatinX. They do treat the material respectfully, to my perception, but I really feel if you are adapting a specific cultures folklore and mythology that is non-white you might want to have someone from that culture there.
Director Michael Chaves (The Maiden, Conjuring 3) was aware of this. In an interview with Daily Dead at ComicCon he spoke of the weight this movie would have.
Michael Chaves: Yeah, I think because it’s such a cultural touchstone, and beyond just being a cultural tradition, it’s also a family tradition. This is something that abuelas would tell their grandkids for hundreds of years. It was always, “You better be good or La Llorona is going to get you.” That was a huge weight, and we did a lot of research and there were a lot of discussions. I really feel like we made absolutely the best La Llorona movie that could be made. It’s scary as hell. (source: Heather Wixson interview of Michael Chaves and Patricia Velazques on DailyDead .com)
As a white woman, I can’t say if he succeeded. I can say that it appears he did. I know that Hispanic culture was part of my life for 15 years thanks to my ex-fiancee and I learned a lot. Everything felt respectful and nothing at all felt stereotypical as I watched. The performances he drew from all of his cast, regardless of age worked very well.
Linda Cardellini (Scooby Doo, Green Book) has to carry the weight of the movie and does so as our mother of two Anna Tate-Garcia. Young Roman Christou as the eldest child Chris, and Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen (Self/Less) as the youngest Samantha have their own load to carry and both do well enough. Raymond Cruz (The Closer, Major Crimes) is always a pleasure and fits right in as both heavy and some much needed comedy. Patricia Valasquez (The Mummy) is a delight even in her intense role as Patricia Alvarez the first victim of our spirit. Tony Amendola makes his appearance as well as Father Perez, which automatically connects the movie to the universe of Annabelle and the Conjuring.
On a technical perspective, this is a very dark movie. I mean that literally. It’s dark. Lighting is next to non-existant and used sparingly through the movie which while it is fantastic at setting the mood can do some damage to engagement when everything gets slightly more noticeable when the ghost is present – kinda the opposite of what you want. Props to the serious atmosphere though. The other downside, and this is unfathomable, is CG steam. Why? Why do we need CG steam coming off the coffee cup? Why do we need CG steam coming off a lantern? It didn’t look good guys. You can do better, especially when so many other of the effects are practical and effective as hell.
While almost every beat is predictable as they come with all appropriate McGuffins and Chekhovs present and accounted for, I rather enjoyed the movie. Producer James Wan has a pretty solid reputation for putting out low budget movies that even contained within a near single location still manage to weave an interesting and engaging story. The Curse of La Llorona is no exception to the pattern. True the biggest innovation to the genre is faithfully bringing a longstanding tradition to a wider audience, sometimes all a movie needs to do is do all of it right. It doesn’t have to reinvent the industry or be the next big thing to be good. This is one of those. It knows what it is, what it can do and tries to do it’s best at that.
What really adds, as I mentioned in the deeper dive, is the fact everything and everyone is fair game. When you kill kids for your opener nothing is sacred and that tension is important to keep you wondering who lives and who dies. No…I’m not telling you who lives and dies either. That’s against the rules
Aww ok. But should I see it?
If you were interested or this is your genre. It’s an above average entry that works rather well and might be one of the stronger entries in the shared universe it is part of.
Would you see it again?
Not likely in theatres. I don’t think there’s an experience or detail I missed to bring me back to see it there.
Yeah I am probably buying it.
Parting thoughts or parting shots?
Both. I give props to James Wan here. This is how you do a shared universe and do it well. Sure you can go the Marvel/Disney route and have these complex intertwining co-starring stories that are big and bombastic. I mean c’mon most of us are going to watch one next weekend. Wan went the other direction here and while you do have an intertwining story they do function well enough on their own as standalone films and prequels that could work without the other film. Just insert a character from another film and the connective tissue exists. That let’s you set up for the film coming later this year in the franchise, but doesn’t force the viewer to watch everything before.
Other studios trying to do their “Cinematic Universes” should maybe look at the scrapper that is The Conjuring Universe instead of the heavy weight that is Disney.
Just an idea.