In this post-MCU era of Hollywood, connected universes are king and The Conjuring Universe has made some serious gravy money (or grave-y money) capitalising on franchise fever. Launching in 2013 with The Conjuring – telling the self-contained story of the Warrens – married paranormal investigators who won’t let the undead suck the life out of their relationship – a sequel and various spin-offs followed.
Arriving after two Annabelle films and last year’s The Nun is The Curse of La Llorona which draws upon Mexican folklore. Linda Cardellini stars as Anna, a widowed social worker and mother of two living in 1973 LA. Her client Patricia (Patricia Velasquez) is a working-class Mexican single mother. When Patricia’s two sons fail to turn up at school, Anna visits her home. She discovers the Mexican mother’s kids trapped in a closet. Despite Patricia’s insistence she was keeping them there to save them from something, the children are taken away. After a tragic incident, Anna and her family find themselves targeted by the same figure as her Mexican client – the titular ‘Weeping Woman’.
Horror films which become classics do so by preying upon viewers’ pre-existing fears, being intensely visceral or playing with the genre. La Llorona does none of these. Much of its problems come down to its script which feels like a first draft, not maximising on the threads of story it sets up adequately. Given Anna’s profession and the Mexican origin of the movie’s monster, the seeds are there for an exploration of race relations in the US. After all this is the story of a white American punished for interfering with a minority’s life. However, the moment things start going bump in the night, this nugget of an idea falls by the wayside.
La Llorona awkwardly justifies putting a caucasian character as the lead by making her dead never-seen husband Mexican – the movie also never ties Anna and her children’s grief to the threat they face. It would have been truly fresh for The Conjuring franchise to set this film in Mexico, centred on a Mexican family and have it steeped in an entirely different landscape and culture. Instead, what remains is the same story seen many times before with an innocent American family targeted by ghouls. Ghosts who inexplicably prefer to play scary pranks on their victims than kill them outright.
That’s not to say the film is without merit. Debut-director Michael Chaves (also set to helm The Conjuring 3) stages a couple of fun sequences in which La Llorona terrorises her victims through the use of ordinary appliances including umbrellas and car windows. Meanwhile, Breaking Bad alum Raymond Cruz puts in a noteworthy performance as a late in the game former priest turned spiritual medium.
While portrayals of demonologists in Insidious and Poltergeist tend to veer on the kooky side, Cruz is a deadpan delight playing the material so straight – as if his character has seen this type of paranormal activity 1000 times. Anna and her children’s reactions to him nonchalantly rubbing eggs around their house (Mexican tradition of course) or turning their swimming pool into a bath of holy water are really great.
While La Llorona is barely connected to other Conjuring movies, it’s been made with the franchise’s house style. Some of these features include gloomy photography, story-lines which eschew any deeper meaningful interpretations and an over reliance on the type of jump scares that will have audiences screaming but then laughing afterwards. Sometimes that’s all you want. But after six movies, the formula is getting tired.