When a writer sits down to imagine what could possibly terrify the largest number of movie goers, what must immediately come to mind? Primal fears, of course. Things that go bump in the night. Claws like Freddy or man’s best friend turning on him like Cujo. But what could be more horrifying to a parent than the fear of losing your children to some sort of unstoppable monster in a scenario where everyone thinks you have harmed them? What could be more frightening to a child than a mother, someone whom you have relied on for love and security, being the very thing that lurks underneath your bed? Michael Chaves’s The Curse of La Llorona explores these fears and more by Conjuring (get it?) both beloved and tired tropes of the haunting genre, while bringing a fresh cultural perspective to the mix.
What in the Mexican Hell is La Llorona? According to Christine Delsol at Sfgate.com, La Llorona, translated as “The Weeping Woman” or “The Wailer” is a 500-year-old ghost story centered around a beautiful, but tragically narcissistic woman named Maria. She marries a wealthy man, “capturing” her with her predatory feminine wiles, and has two children. Throughout the course of their marriage the husband ignores her more and more while focusing his affections onto the kids. One day while walking near the river with her children, Maria catches her husband cheating with a younger woman. In a fit of rage she drowns them both in the river, but as they sink into the depths, she is gripped by guilt and throws herself into the river.
Later that night, sobs can be heard coming from the river’s edge — Maria wailing for her lost children. Rechristened La Llorona, the The Weeping Woman, from that day on, legend says she can be seen walking the banks of the river at night searching for her lost children.
One of the more interesting aspects of the Mexican legend that sadly did not make it into the film version comes once La Llorona attempts to cross the gates of heaven and is not allowed in because she is without her children. So she must return to Earth, doomed, searching in vain for her lost children (or at least a replacement) if here spirit is to ever move on.
And that brings us to this film. Coming to theaters in wide release today, April 19th, 2019, New Line Cinema’s iteration of the tragic tale of La Llorona stays true to the roots of the story while bringing the characteristic style and scares worthy of a James Wan-produced horror picture. One of the many tragedies surrounding the legend of La Llorona, as noted by Christine Delsol at Sfgate.com, is the amount of forgettable movies that have been made about it. The first (and best received of the bunch) might be the 1933 Mexican film La Llorona. There have been multiple attempts since, but none seem to have been able to capture the primal terror inherent in the story of the wailing woman who comes at night to steal your children.
That issue, I believe, has finally been solved by Michael Chaves’ take on the legend. The Curse of La Llorona pays homage to the traditional Mexican folktale’s roots by opening with the original sin of Maria in a dreamlike and satisfying sequence that caught many of the movie-goers in my theater off-guard.
From there the film fast forwards to the 1970s where La Llorona still stalks the night for children, first preying on members of the Mexican-American community followed soon by a Caucasion/Mexican mixed family. One might view showing this story through the eyes of a white protagonist to be a miss-step in today’s climate, though here the director approaches this aspect with care.
Good horror often exists on a boundary. Sometimes physical, sometimes emotional or cultural. Much like Candyman, this film seems to comment on white characters encroaching into non-white spaces. Then those white characters must first be confronted by cultures they don’t understand, punished for their ignorance, and finally change their thinking on those cultures to be able to fight back against the supernatural.
The Curse of La Llorona manages to evoke domestic horror through its tragically-familiar use of badly hidden cigarette-like burns on the arms of children, and the all-too-obvious excuse of “I fell down.” Some of the more frightening moments of the film, including a tense scene in the back of a car down by the river, told from the perspective of the harried children.
If the film had stopped at that metaphorical connection, that might have made for a fine horror movie, but writers Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis also managed to do a good amount of work showing what it might be like for a mother not to be believed when she tells authorities about the danger facing her babies. This is wonderfully realized by Linda Cardellini’s sympathetic portrayal of Anna Tate-Garcia, a social worker who passes judgement on a poor Mexican mother’s treatment of her children. And then comes to realize perhaps she may have spoken without truly understanding the dynamics she had observed.Fans of the James Wan Conjuring Universe will be rewarded with Easter egg style references to a certain creepy doll as well as everyone’s favorite repressed ghost whisperers, the Warrens.
Instead of the Warrens, we are treated to Raymond Cruz’s charismatic portrayal of fallen Catholic Priest turned rebel ghost hunter Rafael, who is one of the standout characters in horror so far this year. He’s funny, he’s tough, he’s just a little bit tragic. There, I think is the film’s breakout star, and best chance for a sequel. Rafael takes on the role of Father Merrin from The Exorcist with just a hint of the Warrens from The Conjuring, and mixes that with a healthy amount of wonderfully-fresh Mexican faith healing to treat the viewer with a new type of savior. One that works alongside the protagonist in the third act in a wonderfully collaborative climax.
The Curse of La Llorona is not a perfect film. It suffers from the same epidemic of cheap jump scares and tired tropes of the haunting genre that many modern horror films do. It is, however, a good looking movie; with a charming, multi-cultural cast; a stand-out hero character; and a different cultural touchstone from many films of its genre. The final act doesn’t disappoint, even if it doesn’t completely satisfy.
If every haunting movie on the horizon this year had this much originality to go with the tropes we know and love, 2019 will be a great year for ghosts. If not for innocent families who simply just happen to share some arbitrary characteristics in common with a dead person.
Wicked Rating: 6/10
Director(s): Michael Chaves
Writer(s): Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis
Stars: Linda Cardellini, Raymond Cruz, Patricia Velasquez
Studio/Production Company: Atomic Monster, New Line Cinema
Run Time: 93-minutes