The Curse of la Llorona Lacks Spirit

I’ve been bingeing a lot of the Supernatural lately. So much that it is a race to finish the entire run in time to conclude the final 15th season with the rest of the real-time fans. One of the charms of that show is how it manages to simultaneously reference, honor, and have fun with the horror genre all in the same program. There are enough weirdo references to reward lifelong genre fans and enough wit to keep it interesting to, um, more normal viewers. 

I mention this not only because the pilot episode of Supernatural was about the Woman in White, a take on the story of la Llorona (the Weeping Woman), but also because one of the things that show does perfectly is knowing just where it lives along the spectrum of “horror in entertainment.” The Curse of la Llorona, out April 19, 2019, was produced with this same respect for genre audiences and a knowledge of their tastes. Unfortunately, its filmmakers were in some ways not ambitious enough and settled for something less than what could have been.

Patricia and Roman look afraid; la Llorona lurks behind them

Patricia Velasquez as Patricia Alvarez, Roman Christou as Chris, and Marisol Ramino (background) as la Llorona in The Curse of la Llorona. Photo by Scott Patrick Green/Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

The Curse of la Llorona—directed by feature-film newcomer Michael Chaves and produced by the team behind the burgeoning universe of The Conjuring, Annabelle, and The Nun—focuses on a Mexican legend about a spurned wife who murders her children, dies, and spends the rest of eternity trying to replace those children. Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) is a recently widowed case worker for child protective services whose work brings her, and her two children, into the path of la Llorona. As Anna is drawn further and further into the spirit’s grasp, she reaches for the help of Detective Cooper (Sean Patrick Thomas), her late husband’s former partner, and Rafael Olvera (Raymond Cruz), a former priest who has turned to folk magic to battle the forces of the occult.

Olvera prepares to fight La Llorona

Raymond Cruz as Rafael, Roman Christou as Chris, Linda Cardellini as Anna, and Jaynee Lynn Kinchen as Samantha. Photo Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

The movie unspools in predictable ways from the initial setup. Which is fine—most audiences don’t really go to a horror movie like this for an elaborate plot or thriller levels of suspense and mystery. While much of horror relies on the fear of the unknown, this kind of horror film finds its appeal solidly in the known and proven terrain of mainstream films of the genre. It’s a concept that is easily understood, offers narrative economy, and puts the scary stuff in a box that is easy to leave behind when audiences leave the theater. The Curse of la Llorona isn’t “art horror,” and it isn’t looking to break any new ground for the supernatural horror genre. Which, again, is fine, and as it is this film works well enough. The constant “closet-jumper” scares were effective for the audience at the screening I attended, so by that standard it did what the filmmakers intended it to.

Anna waits for La Llorona in a dark room.

Photo Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

For my part, however, I would have preferred a sincere approach to the legend of la Llorona. The Conjuring films are not avant-garde horror, of course, and maybe there is no reason they need to be. However, by virtue of this film prominently featuring Latinx actors, and making an attempt to reach out to Latinx audiences upon whose culture this legend draws, the film producers have shown a desire to take the material seriously. This could have been an intensely creepy movie, and maybe in some editing room, such a thing exists. I want to see that version of la Llorona.

Det. Cooper and Anna at a crime scene

Sean Patrick Thomas as Detective Cooper and Linda Cardellini as Anna. Photo Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s fair at this point to mention that I also don’t think radio host “Darkness Dave” Schrader was the right choice to intro this film at the preview screening. I am a fan of his work in general, but his tone-deaf insistence on finding “funny” ways to mispronounce “la Llorona” probably didn’t play with the audience this movie was seemingly made for. For a person who spends his career dealing with the supernatural in a more or less serious way, it was disappointing to see him mock this film and its audience.

Ghostly woman in white

Photo by Scott Patrick Green/Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

As nearly every episode of Supernatural tells us, and as the long history of movie-theater shock shows over and over again, a lack of respect for the legends of any culture can come to no good end. There is an entire world of terror out there that has yet to be explored, and if the shining stars of the horror world are to be believed, they ought to be taken seriously. More things in heaven and earth and all that. Or, to paraphrase Sam Winchester, always know that there are things out there in the dark.

That would be the real curse of la Llorona.

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