Despite a lack of originality and substance, The Curse of La Llorona makes for an entertaining funhouse ride of a movie set in The Conjuring universe.
First off, some clarification: yes, The Curse of La Llorona is a Conjuring movie. The film's marketing has been relatively vague on this point, claiming that it simply hales "from the producers" of New Line Cinema and Warner Bros.' popular horror franchise. However, following its premiere at SXSW in March, word quickly got out that the thriller exists in the same continuity as Valak, Bathsheba, and that trouble-making Annabelle doll. Whether that was always the case or not is open to speculation, but the connection ultimately makes sense... which is to say, the film draws so heavily from James Wan's playbook on the original Conjuring that it might as well be an official spinoff. Despite a lack of originality and substance, The Curse of La Llorona makes for an entertaining funhouse ride of a movie set in The Conjuring universe.
The Curse of La Llorona director Michael Chaves has already been hired to helm The Conjuring 3 and it's easy to see why, based on this film. Chaves shows a knack for crafting spooky set pieces and sequences here, using little more than a flickering light, a creaking door, or (in one memorable case) a transparent umbrella to build up tension before the inevitable jump scare hits. Naturally, some of these scenes are better executed than others, but Chaves does a nice job of mixing things up with his approach, as opposed to simply rehashing the same techniques or resorting to cheap shots. As with the other Conjuring movies, the sound editing is essential to The Curse of La Llorona's success in this regard. For the large part, the film relies on silence to create suspense, making it all the more effective when the eerie score by Conjuring 1 & 2 composer Joseph Bishara comes into play.
Occasionally, though, Chaves is guilty of cribbing from Wan's bag of tricks here, especially when it comes to specific camera angles or pieces of visual storytelling (like a sequence shot that maps out the interior of the film's soon-to-be haunted setting near the beginning). But then again, something similar could be said for The Curse of La Llorona at large. The screenplay by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (Five Feet Apart) is pretty bare-bones when it comes to plot and character development, doing little to distinguish the family in peril at the heart of the narrative - in this case, widowed social worker Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) and her children, Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) - from those in Conjuring movies past. At the same time, Cardellini delivers an engaging performance as the film's lead and invites the audience's sympathy, even when she makes a terrible mistake that's responsible for La Llorona "latching" onto her and her kids in the first place.
Speaking of The Weeping Woman: those who're fans and/or were raised on stories about the famous latino folklore specter may want to check their expectations. The character makes for a serviceably creepy villain in The Curse of La Llorona, but otherwise amounts to little more than a standard Conjuring movie monster. That goes double for the film's central set piece and 1970s backdrop, which are equally acceptable in quality, but lack the rich sense of atmosphere and sinister production design that Conjuring spinoffs like Annabelle: Creation and The Nun had. And like the other movies in the franchise before it, The Curse of La Llorona ultimately gives up on trying to be low-key haunting in its third act, in favor of a finale that delivers louder thrills and action, but sacrifices the feeling of dread sustained throughout the film's previous two-thirds.
Thankfully, Chaves never loses sight of what he wants The Curse of La Llorona to be (again, the cinematic equivalent of a scary theme park attraction) and keeps the story flowing at a steady pace, without getting hung up on the movie's thinly-sketched themes about faith and personal loss. The supporting cast seems to be onboard with what the director's going for here, as costars Patricia Velásquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, and Tony Amendola (who plays a familiar priest) all strike the right tone of seriousness without going too far or coming off as unintentionally campy in their performances. Indeed, one of the best parts of the film is Raymond Cruz as Rafael Olvera, an ex-priest turned independent demon fighter who brings a welcome touch of deadpan humor to the proceedings. It helps that Rafael's an interesting character in his own right, and his mysterious backstory begs for further exploration. (Maybe in a future Conjuring spinoff?)
As far as Conjuring spinoffs go, The Curse of La Llorona is far from a mold-breaker, but it should get the job done for anyone in the mood for a fun, schlocky supernatural horror-thriller. The movie's connection to the rest of the Conjuring universe is tenuous at best, so those who haven't seen the previous films in the franchise (including, the mainline sequels and prequels) can feel comfortable about boarding the bandwagon here, if they're interested. As for La Llorona: if the Annabelle movies - including this June's midquel Annabelle Comes Home - have taught us anything, it's that you just can't keep a nasty demon down... assuming their films make big bucks at the box office, anyway.
The Curse of La Llorona is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 93 minutes long and is rated R for violence and terror.
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- The Curse of La Llorona (2019) release date: Apr 19, 2019