The Curse of La Llorona (2019)
Director: Michael Chaves
Performers: Linda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Sean Patrick Thomas, and Tony Amendola
Have you seen The Ring (2002), the American remake of the Japanese phenomenon film Ringu (1998) geared towards Western audiences? It scared audiences in its day when Asian horror tropes felt foreign and the idea that the evil spirit is just pure evil wasn’t something Western audiences had experienced often in their mainstream ghost horror. It was a time before The Grudge, before the easy availability of Takashi Miike and seminal works like Audition (1999) blew our minds. American remakes hadn’t grown tiresome yet. Even though this isn’t a remake, the tone makes it feel like one.
La Llorona is a film that comes out ten years too late. The horror genre, and ghost stories, have moved past the scary ghost with the CGI open mouth effect made famous in The Mummy movies and the lone white person standing against a non-white threat. While I went in rooting for the film since it is one of those opportunities to bring minority-driven horror folklore to a wider audience, it ultimately is a predictable cash grab tacked onto The Conjuring universe.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
La Llorona juggles some interesting dynamics. It’s refreshing to see a film that deals with Spanish culture, and specifically Mexican and Mexican-American folklore. The cinematography is smooth, starting the film with a continuous shot to communicate the chaos of a single mom, Linda Cardellini as Anna Tate-Garcia, in the 1970s raising two kids while working a full-time job. There is some reliance on shaky cam, which is always mildly annoying in an otherwise competent film where there’s no in-story reason for the camera to shake. It’s competent and clean, but it’s almost too clean.
Does it feel like the 1970s? Not really. It feels closer to the early 1990s with the tidy, uncluttered home and lack of the fabrics that characterized the look of the time. So why is it set in the 1970s? The answer is simple: The Conjuring and Annabelle series tie-ins. This film is part of that lore, but it doesn’t mean anything much for the film. Tony Amendola, reprising his role as Father Perez, appears in it, and then only for a few limited scenes. It’s an excuse to create a shared cinematic universe. This is a bit troublesome though because it brings in all the baggage about the Warrens and the Annabelle films. If you haven’t seen them, it won’t impact your viewing of this film at all. But if you have, there’s a sense that this is just a side story in the Warrens’ career, and not even one they personally handled or relate to in any way. If it’s not important enough for the Warrens to handle themselves, it minimizes the impact of the scary and supposedly undefeatable spirit of La Llorona.
There are scenes that don’t make much sense. Relying on a basic 70s flashlight in an underwater swimming pool battle with a ghost? That flashlight’s not going to keep working. Almost murdered by a ghost? Reach out for that toy across the barrier protecting you from certain death, because you’ve only almost drowned once, kiddo. Our protagonists are constantly on the verge of death, but they escape so often that the stakes feel low. The actors do a great job with what they have to work with and the child actors are very convincing, but the script calls for the characters to make some very questionable choices that left me hoping someone would suffer dire consequences.
To make it worse, La Llorona’s ghostly design is distractingly bland: she looks like Samara from The Ring in a wedding dress. The ghost’s powers are inconsistent as well. She apparently controls wind and cracks mirrors, something that doesn’t seem very in keeping with a ghost that kidnaps children (or kills? The movie says one thing but shows another). She can summon people she almost kills, but only uses the power once.
This is a particular problem when we look at the film’s structure — starring a white woman with a mostly Hispanic cast as part of a whitewashed view of ghosts and haunting. La Llrona the folklore has deep roots in Hispanic culture, and she serves more as just an angry demon attacking the living. In her essay “Ghosting the Nation: La Llrona, Popular Culture, and the Spectral Anxiety of Mexican Identity,” author Enrique Ajuria Ibarra discusses the function of the story as part of a complex cultural structure:
In spite of its simplicity, it contains most of the characteristic elements of this significant folk figure from Mexico. The revelation of the story of La Llorona … uncovers a name and a legend that are deeply rooted in Mexican popular culture. Here, the wailing woman is a spectral mother who mourns for the children she killed herself; moreover, she is also invocated to warn children off from behaving badly. Thus, she connotes a double ghostly nature: she is a bad mother and a protective mother, a caregiver and a punisher. Her negative connotation is paired off with remorse and guilt. She is not just a wrongdoer; she is also a ghost that represents sorrow and grief.Ibarra, “Ghosting the Nation: La Llrona, Popular Culture, and the SPECTRAL Anxiety of Mexican Identity”
In essence, this is the central problem or adaptation, but it also repeats the pattern of whitewashing that we’ve seen many times: in the process of adapting for a WASP audience, the folklore loses all semblance of nuance. It becomes bland, just another piece in a long list of flattened folklore. La Llrona in this film is simply a demon who must be defeated with a cross by a white woman. She’s literally invoked by a Hispanic woman. The film becomes deeply reflective of a culture that demonizes the unfamiliar. In the end, it leaves a bad aftertaste.
In one moment when La Llorona takes on a human pre-death form, she is instantly more interesting. If they’d allowed Marisol Ramirez (playing La Llorona) to perform instead of burdening her with CGI and making her the subject of flatly predictable jump scares, this might have been a more impactful film. All in all, guess the major plot beats for The Curse of La Llrona: you’re probably right – it’s a shame.
Rating: 2/5 stars
References and Further Reading
Century, Sara. “La Llrona and the Myths of Filicide.” Syfy Wire. 17 Apr. 2019.
Fuller, Amy. “The Wailing Woman.” History Today. 31 Oct. 2017.
Ibarra Ebarra Ajuria. “Ghosting the Nation: La Llorona, Popular Culture, and the Spectral Anxiety of Mexican Identity.” Ed. Piatti-Farnell L., Beville M. The Gothic and the Everyday: The Palgrave Gothic Series. Palgrave Macmillan, London. 2014.
Machado, Yolanda. “The Curse of La Llorona Film Review: Mexican Folklore Gets Whitewashed in Disappointing Horror Effort.” The Wrap. 18 Apr. 2019.
Newby, Richard. “The Folklore Behind The Curse of La Llorona.” The Hollywood Reporter. 12 Feb. 2019.
Perez, Domino Renee. There was a Woman: La Llrona from Folklore to Popular Culture. University of Texas Press, Austin: 2008.