Like many people in South Texas, I grew up hearing stories of The Weeping Woman aka La Llorona who drowned her kids and now haunted the Guadalupe River. The body of water was modified depending on where you lived when you heard the story, but the essence of the Mexican folktale remained the same. If you heard her cries you were a goner. Those of us who grew up in a Hispanic family had a bonus, parents who would threaten us with a visit from La Llorona if we misbehaved. Producer James Wan and first-time director Michael Chaves tackle the legend and while this may not be on par with “The Conjuring” it’s still a fun ride with plenty of suspense and genuine scares.
The film opens in 1673 to illustrate how the legend began. In the beautiful Mexican countryside, a happy woman marries a Ranchero, the love of her life. The couple has two beautiful boys, but the husband begins cheating with a much younger woman. In a fit of rage, the wife takes away what her husband loved the most, their two sons. She drowns the boys in the river and later, feeling remorseful, the weeping woman dressed in white takes her own life. Her spirit, known as La Llorona, roams the Earth looking for two children to take the place of her dead sons.
Fast forward 200 years to 1973 Los Angeles where we meet Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini), a social worker and widowed mother of two children, Chris (Roman Christou) and his younger sister Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen). She is sent to the home of Patricia Alvarez (played by beautiful Latina actress and former supermodel Patricia Velasquez) to check on the welfare of her two boys. Anna finds Patricia acting strange, her home filled with hundreds of lit white candles. There she finds the boys locked in the closet with burn marks on their arms. Patricia swears she’s only protecting them, but the boys are removed from the home and placed in the hands of Child Protective Services.
By using the 70s as the modern day setting for the story, Chaves removes technology such as smartphones and the internet which could be used by our protagonist to investigate La Llorona. Without those conveniences that we take for granted, Anna is forced to investigate the creepy specter by consulting local priest Father Perez (Tony Amendola). If he looks familiar that’s because he’s the same priest from 2014’s “Annabelle,” welcome to the expanded world of “The Conjuring.” Knowing that time is of the essence and that requesting an investigation by the Catholic Church could take several weeks to get approved, Father Perez directs Anna to seek help from a local Curandero named Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a former priest turned healer-witchdoctor.
“The Curse of La Llorona” may not be on the same level as “The Conjuring” but it’s much better than “Annabelle” and that’s because first-time director Michael Chaves knows how to build suspense. There is a great scene where La Llorona comes after Anna’s children who lock themselves in the car. This is the 70s so there are no electric windows or locks in the family's car. As the old school window crank handles begin to turn on their own and the car’s window begins to lower, you also begin to sink down into your seat fearing the worst as the kids scramble to raise the windows and keep the car doors locked. It’s an effective scene that delivers plenty of chills.
Too many times horror films become saturated by over the top CGI effects that look fake, not scary while relying on loud music stabs to create artificial jump scares. Not here. Joseph Bishara who composed the music for the “Insidious” and “Conjuring” films returns to the set the tone for “La Llorona” by creating another eerie score that doesn’t assault your senses in order to make you jump. La Llorona played by Marisol Ramirez, with the help of computer-generated effects, is frightening to look at and Chaves knows how to get under your skin by having her materialize at just the right time, creating real scares.
Cardellini does a solid job as the frightened mom who in this case moves a little too slow when it comes to protecting her kids, but Chaves is simply building suspense. The comic relief comes in the form of Cruz as the pokerfaced Curandero whose dry humor comes at you when you least expect it. A funny scene involves a spiritual egg cleansing of Anna’s home, which she discounts as a bunch of hocus pocus.
The film’s finale involves a showdown between Anna and her kids with the help of Rafael as they battle La Llorona. At times it feels a little hokey but once again I give Chaves praise for creating real suspense and backing it up with authentic scares. In this James Wan universe, “The Curse of La Llorona” exists in the better than average category. I enjoyed it more than “Annabelle” or “Insidious: The Last Key,” but it comes nowhere near the excellent “Conjuring” films. Now let’s see what Wan can do with another Mexican folktale, can anyone say “Lechuza”?