“The Curse of La Llorona,” Reviewed: Michael Chavez’s Feature Exemplifies the Problem with Genre
Scary it isn’t, but the latest movie in the “Conjuring” franchise, “The Curse of La Llorona,” is suspenseful, atmospheric, clever, and substantial in the literal sense of the word: it conveys the impression that it’s taking place where people live, and it draws its tension from clearly sketched practicalities. The air of physical authenticity goes far to lend a slender and underwrought story a solidity, an emotional precision that makes its narrow dramatic focus all the more regrettable.
The title character, the “weeping woman,” the central figure in an actual Mexican legend, is shown in an introductory sequence, set in Mexico, in 1673: first in a cheerful family scene, with a young mother, her two boys, and a man; next as one of her sons wanders in a glade, spies her drowning his brother, and then is caught by her, too. Cut to Los Angeles, 1973, where a woman (Linda Cardellini) is rushing through her pleasant and modest house with her two children to get them out the door in time to catch the school bus—a mad morning dash that the movie’s director, Michael Chaves, realizes in a single long and darting Steadicam shot, already a venerable cliché but one that he invests with energy and sweetness. The woman, Anna, is a child-services case worker and a widow—her late husband was a police officer who was killed in the line of duty.
The movie, written by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, lightly but clearly outlines her tensions at work, caused by the stress of being a single mother and also by her devotion to her job, as seen in her visit to a woman named Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velasquez), the single mother of two young sons who have been absent from school. Anna finds them terrified, scarred both mentally and physically, and has them removed from their home. But there’s little safety for them in the religious facility where they’re temporarily housed, and when Anna is called in again, in the middle of the night, she has to have her children—her son, Chris (Roman Christou), who’s about ten, and her daughter, Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), who’s about six—in tow, in the back seat of her car. It’s then that La Llorona makes an appearance. She is a Medea-like figure who, to avenge her husband’s infidelity, killed their children and then herself. Now wandering through eternity in search of other children to take their place, she begins to threaten and terrify Anna and the children.
“The Curse of La Llorona” is Chaves’s first feature. He stokes fear with simple and striking effects—round mirrors and oval windows that are the portals to apparitions who break them to reach their victims, trances that are dramatized with a chilling sparseness, hand-cranked car windows that open on their own and set their handles turning, ordinary hen’s eggs that harbor horrors. There’s a brief and ingenious sequence involving the wavering transparency of Samantha’s clear-plastic umbrella. Others involve her search for a missing doll, the sudden effect of candles, and a mysterious vial of crystals. All are filmed with an expressive clarity and simplicity that highlights their haunting mystery. There are some metaphysical body slams, tumbles, and drags that are also unexaggerated, realized with a modesty that emphasizes the ordinary fragility of bodies. (However, one moment, involving a peculiar thumping, is potentially the movie’s most effective and affecting dramatic moment, but it’s utterly ruined by the heavy overlay of music.)
There are a few well-sketched characters who accompany Anna and her family into and, hopefully, out of the web of horrors, including Father Perez (Tony Amendola), an elderly priest who’s familiar with the curse of the title, and Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a faith healer to whom Anna turns for help, and who adds a lilt of comedic bravado. Yet the movie hardly withstands the pressure of memory. Although its handful of symbolic and emblematic moments put it ahead of many movies of far greater prestige and artistic renown, they’re pinned to a framework that collapses at the slightest touch.
The fault lies with genre—not just the horror genre itself but with the idea of genre as such. Recognized and marketed as a horror movie, “The Curse of La Llorona” is also made as one. Decades of low expectations, conditioned by the production and release of movies that place sensation and gore ahead of drama and inventiveness, have given rise to the misbegotten concept of “elevated horror,” movies that deliver (or presume to offer) substance along with shocks. The silliness of the notion of genre is that it’s not only audiences who become accustomed to the pigeonholes that marketers craft for them. Critics—finding it easier to compare movies to their predecessors than to the full range of artistic experience (as I discussed in a recent IndieWire poll)—rely on the idea with the same laziness that directors display in deploying a handful of effects in lieu of a comprehensively imagined experience.
What’s missing from “La Llorona” is the element of world-building, the mapping of the myth onto the wider world in some more explicit and ample form than a mere sudden apparition. The movie waves away the why-here-why-now element, pays no attention whatsoever to the connection between the curse itself and the venerable legend that’s built up around it (and is flitted off in a single sentence). The personal implications and psychological resonances that the curse holds for the characters are completely ignored. But the physical realization of the movie’s eerie moments makes for some fleeting pleasures, and it makes me curious to see what Chaves will do next. But the reduction of a mythological tale with historical, cultural, and religious implications—alongside its potentially resonant dramatic stakes—to something less than even a good yarn, to a mere setup and pretext, is a disheartening waste.