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Non-Review Review: The Curse of La Llorona

The Curse of La Llorona is fairly solid as contemporary studio horrors go.

Although the arrival of Avengers: Endgame has a lot of attention focused on the largest and most successful shared cinematic universe of the twenty-first century, there is a lot to be said for the strange horror universe that has been built outwards from The Conjuring. Although this trend is most overt in The Conjuring 2, the rare horror movie to also feature a car chase sequence, there is something fascinating in how these films have transformed studio horror into a blockbuster concern.

Mother have mercy.

There is a reason that these films are released during the summer months, as counter-intuitive as that might seem. Again, discussing The Curse of La Llorona in such terms might seem cynical, but it is genuinely striking. It takes a lot of work to satisfy the competing demands of the two genres; the shock of horror with the familiarity of blockbuster storytelling. The challenge with The Curse of La Llorona lies in offering audiences something that satisfies all their expectations of a film like this, while still offering a few shocks and starts along the way. It is a remarkable accomplishment.

The Curse of La Llorona strikes that balance relatively well. The film knows the formats and rhythms of a horror film, and director Michael Chaves knows both what the audience expects and how to work within that format to build a genuine and compelling sense of dread. The Curse of La Llorona is well-made, efficient, and delivers what the audience anticipates from a Conjuring spin-off. There’s something endearing in the reliability, in the care with which the film strikes these sorts of balances.

Scream queen.

To be fair to the franchise, which is often overlooked in discussions of the modern cinematic landscape, even the worst of the Conjuring films tend to just be dull rather than actively bad. Although none of the films in the series leave a particularly sour aftertaste like the worst of template horror films, films like The Nun or Annabelle often feel like they’ve misread the recipe for a successful Conjuring film. Perhaps they mixed up the measurements; some flavours are a little too strong, while others feel underdeveloped.

The Curse of La Llorona is quite effective in this regard, Chaves carefully mixing the ingredients to create something the tastes relatively pleasant. The Curse of La Llorona has some nice shots, some effective use of light and darkness, a palpable mounting sense of dread, and solid thematic cohesion underpinning it all. It helps that The Curse of La Llorona firmly roots itself in primal (if obvious) parental anxieties; this is a story about a monster that specifically targets children, and focuses on a mother trying to protect her children from this monster.

At bath time, it’s important to clean under your nails.

Again, this is all stock horror movie stuff; a familiar horror template effectively employed in films as diverse as The Exorcist or Hereditary. However, there is a reason that this theme endures, and part of the charm of The Curse of La Llorona is how directly and how explicitly it commits to this idea. The Curse of La Llorona is not a subtle piece of social commentary using the horror genre to offer a profound comment on contemporary anxieties; it is a visceral horror movie hoping to get the audience sitting up straight. In that sense, its clarity of purpose is commendable.

That said, The Curse of La Llorona comes with a number of issues baked into the premise. Most obviously, it’s a story about a Mexican monster menacing a white woman, and so that adds an awkward dimension to it. Indeed, the film leans on the familiar “supernatural horror invades the familial space” set up, with lots of emphasis on doors and windows and thresholds. While this is an effective choice in terms of horror direction. Again, it speaks to how Chaves understands the genre and adds to the movie’s effectiveness.

“Have you appeared in one of these films before? Your name rings Annabelle.”

Unfortunately, it also does little to play down any simmering racial subtext bubbling away in the background. None of this is conscious or intentional; indeed, the family’s absent father is of Mexican-American extraction, and so the children haunted by the eponymous ghoul are also. At the same time, there is something just a little uncomfortable about a home invasion horror movie in which a white woman needs to protect her house and her family from a wandering Mexican ghost in the current political and social climate.

Similarly, The Curse of La Llorona leans heavily into stock seventies social anxieties in terms of its plotting. The movie hits a number of familiar “buttons” in terms of plotting, even outside of its supernatural elements. Quite apart from its spectral apparition, The Curse of La Llorona is a horror movie that touches on a smorgasbord of seventies-era moral panics: single parent households, working mothers, the erosion of faith, latchkey kids, etc. The Curse of La Llorona imagines kids left at home for days, feeding on television dinners and watching cartoons.

Caught that kid napping.

At one point, the ghost stalks her prey through the house. Anna Tate-Garcia grabs a baseball bat and shouts into the darkness. “My husband is a cop!” she warns her assailant. “He’ll be home any minute.” Of course, the audience knows this to be a lie, and there is a palpable sense that this is the true horror of story, the erosion of the conventional family unit. While none of the individual choices are especially unfortunate or ill-judged on their own terms, there is a cumulative quality to them, lending the movie a faint reactionary sensibility.

To be clear, there’s no malice or ill-intent in any of this. These issues seem largely down to the fact that The Curse of La Llorona is (as with most of the Conjuring films) consciously riffing in the seventies horror aesthetic of The Exorcist, and repurposing it as a broader pseudo-blockbuster aesthetic. Indeed, there is a reason that The Curse of La Llorona is (like the two main Conjuring films) set in the seventies. The reason that the film plays with these tropes is because so many seventies horror films did the same. Still, these anxieties do feel strange, and haunt the film.

A Cardellini sin.

That said, there’s a lot to like in The Curse of La Llorona. As with a lot of horror, The Curse of La Llorona does use allegory. The central monster at the heart of The Curse of La Llorona is a mother who murdered her children, among the most intimate and unsettling of crimes; the grotesque violation of the family space. The creature’s early attacks on its victims look like domestic abuse; burns like cigarette burns, sprained wrists, children thrown down stairs. The Curse of La Llorona is never subtle about this, laying it all out. However, it works in the context of the genre.

Similarly, the script and the direction understand the language of horror. As with most horror films, the nightmare begins with a transgression. Chaves consciously shoots the film to emphasise this, the importance of doors and thresholds for the characters to navigate. Repeatedly, the characters in The Curse of La Llorona seem to invite the darkness into their lives, and the film is constructed well enough that these moments are signposted effectively; Anna opening a locked door, her son slinking through the Los Angeles night towards the sounds of a stranger crying.

All good in the woods.

To pick another small, but notable, example of the film’s efficiency, The Curse of La Llorona stylishly incorporates one of those great Conjuring-verse long-takes. These shots are an underrated and under-acknowledged part of the franchise, following characters as the camera drifts through the family home. It is both uncanny on its own terms and also a shrewd way to familiarise the audience with the geography of the space before chaos ensues. It is a reminder of the consistency that exists that exists within these films.

Even beyond the construction of the film, Raymond Cruz offers a striking supporting performance; the actor is cast as a strange deadpan warrior/poet priest/shaman, one who must surely be deserving of his own spin-off. The character is a legitimately clever (and playful-but-not-winking) twist on a familiar horror movie archetype; most obviously “the exorcist”, but even just “the expert.” He fills a very stock narrative role as the character with whom Anna consults, hoping to banish the vengeful spirit from her life.

Operating several sheets to the wind.

However, the devil is in the details. Cruz sells the hell out the part, playing it in a way that does a lot to maintain the tone of the film while still being managing to be fun in its own right. It’s a very delicate balance, especially for a horror. Rafael Olvera takes himself entirely seriously, which sells the horror of the premise. However, he takes himself so seriously that the film can use him as a source of humour. At one point, the character has to think quickly to solve a problem. “Your pool is now filled with holy water,” he states, in a line that would be so easy to overplay, but Cruz nails.

Again, there’s a sense that Olvera speaks to the franchisable nature of the Conjuring franchise. His methodology is a lot more pseudo-scientific than most conjurers or sources. This is an expert in ghouls and demons who actually does the homework, collecting samples and preparing traps. In one moment that perfectly encapsulates the strange horror/blockbuster hybrid nature of these films, there’s an insert of him flicking the lid off a sample container to throw on the monster. Olvera is may be an exorcist, but there is something vaguely superheroish about him.

“Now is probably not the time to ask, but you do have accidental fire and damage insurance, right?”

Asked to identify the contents of a tube, he states, “Tears of Llorona. I’ve sanctified them.” Asked why he would do such a thing, he casually replies, “Antivenom.” At one point, Anna accuses Olvera of using her son as bait. Olvera deadpans, “You were all bait.” This is a very tough role, one that could easily veer into camp or self-parody. Cruz cannily decides to ground it in a weirdly matter-of-fact deadpan that cleverly downplays the more incongruous elements while also making the character seem eccentric without becoming absurd.

The Curse of La Llorona largely accomplishes what it sets out to do in a clean and efficient manner. It is a film that delivers pretty much exactly what it promises in a timely manner, suffering slightly from a lack of both introspection and perhaps even ambition. Still, for an audience that knows exactly what it wants from these films, it should work very well indeed.

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