Growing up as an often mischievous little Mexican boy, I got all manner of “threats” to behave. Anything ranging from taking away my video games to being forced to eat things like beef liver for dinner. One of these took the form of cautionary tales like La Llorona, a Mexican boogeywoman that takes away children who don’t obey their parents. Fear may be subjective, but if my younger self knew that they would still be making basic horror films like The Curse of the Llorona 20 years later, it truly would’ve scared the bejesus out of me.
Having stories from my culture hitting the mainstream will always be a win in my book. The tale of La Llorona lends itself well to the screen, or at least better than any other monster of Mexican folklore like the chupacabra. The biggest problem with the execution of The Curse of the Llorona is that it centers the story around a non-Hispanic family. The writing team of Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, who also gave us last month’s equally horrific young adult romance Five Feet Apart, have to do plot gymnastics to try to have a reason for why La Llorona goes after this white family. Yes, it is as ridiculous as it sounds when they could have easily–oh, I don’t know– had the film center around a Hispanic family instead of just targeting single mothers.
As if minorities need another entity to come after them, here we have La Llorona targeting our children in the US for some reason. Although the film is a period piece that takes place in the ’70s, there is little to no reasoning behind this decision. Maybe because they could reuse the wardrobe from their sister spin-off film Annabelle? Who knows. What does become apparent is that this is the least of the film’s problems. Aside from the 300 year flashbacks for the origin story of La Llorona, there is no explanation for why she left Mexico and is now in Los Angeles, or even why she targeted the original Mexican family that the film should have focused on. Instead, the film ramps up from zero to 100 and just dives into the “scares” with little thought or care about setting up even a partway decent story.
This is Michael Chaves’ directorial debut for a feature film, and unfortunately, it shows. His grasp of horror seems to extend only to beaten-to-death tropes and technique imitation. Since there is no character or story development, we jump right into the thrills, which of course are ALL jump scares – ones we can see coming a mile away, further cheapening the film. Chaves tries to add some artistic flair by copying James Wan’s signature camera style only to come off as an imitation paler than the design of La Llorona herself. La Llorona’s creature design just feels like the morphing of The Nun and the Bride in Black from Insidious. Nothing new or original, just exactly what you’d expect from the whitewashing, white-savioring of an old Hispanic legend.
Although this urban legend is culturally appropriated in The Curse of La Llorona, there is a lot of fantastic Hispanic talent throughout the film that almost makes up for it. Almost. I’ll admit that Linda Cardellini is great in every role, including last year’s Green Book, but as that movie proves, great performances don’t always make for a great film. Here we get performances from the talented Patricia Velasquez (who you may remember from the campy horror film The Mummy), the prolific Tony Amendola (who makes his second appearance in The Conjuring universe), and the consummate badass Raymond Cruz (whose character deserves a spin-off all his own).
Not every film can be Hereditary or Us, but the further down the spin-off rabbit hole we go, the further we depart from the quality of their originals, like Insidious and The Conjuring. The Curse of La Llorona is just the most recent victim of this spin-off trend, which essentially squanders its cultural premise in favor of simple storytelling and even simpler scares.