When The Conjuring released in 2013 it was a surprise hit earning over 15 times its original budget. Although the film wasn’t immune to the clichés of the genre, director James Wan executed them so effectively that nearly every viewer succumbed to fear.
The success has led to numerous sequels, spin-offs, and spin-off sequels, and soon Wan will be passing the torch to Michael Chaves to lead the mainline series. Before that, Chaves gets a trial run with the tangentially related The Curse of La Llorona, a film that unfortunately feels all too familiar.
Set in the early 1970s, the film follows social worker and single mom Anna (Linda Cardellini) who intervenes after discovering Patricia (Patricia Velásquez), a mother in her caseload, has kept her children locked in a closet for several days. Soon after being placed in foster care the two boys are found dead in a reservoir.
Believing Patricia to be the culprit Anna seeks her out, but soon discovers it is the work of La Llorona, a malevolent spirit who murdered her own children and now seeks to take the lives of others’. Blaming Anna for the loss, Patricia prays to La Llorona to take the social worker’s young son and daughter instead leaving Anna to hunt for a way to break the curse.
La Llorona’s underlying conceit places a considerable amount of weight on the matriarchal role, something the studio undoubtedly understood when they cast such a familiar face for the part, and Cardellini carries this responsibility without issue. She balances a maternal resilience with the utter terror that accompanies this type of situation, and is the biggest factor in creating any engagement with the audience.
Consistently working against said engagement is the lack of freshness in the script and the scares. It’s an effort to get spooked when you can correctly count out the beats before the next appearance of La Llorona who appears quite frequently, and while the design elicits a reaction the first time it dwindles over time. It also suffers from groan-worthy character decisions. This happens frequently enough that by the last third scenes that are designed to draw out tension instead invoke laughter.
This feeling is amplified when viewed with a large crowd which interestingly inspires a positive viewpoint. It’s easy to see why these movies have continued to garner so much attention and money. La Llorona does feel formulaic in the way that a Marvel movie can down to the well timed instances of levity; in this case brought to you by a rather fun performance from Raymond Cruz. Yet, when viewed with a crowd like the one at SXSW the eye rolls are done in unison and the theater can breathe a collective sigh of disbelief at the stupidity of a character decision. There’s something of worth, albeit distant from what made the original films so buzzworthy, in the communal nature of this popcorn horror.
For those who have been fans of the Conjuring universe, including the “bad” entries, thus far seeing this opening weekend could inspire a fun theater experience although largely at the film’s expense. For everyone else, here’s hoping that Chaves learns from The Curse of La Llorona and takes a few more chances next time he steps up to the plate.