Be good or she will find you … and keep you. So goes Latin American lore of La Llorona, the Weeping Woman who plunged her kids’ heads underwater in a pique of rage — killing them, driving herself mad and condemning her spirit to a cursed afterlife of collecting children’s souls.
Like many cultural bogeymen (or bogeywomen), La Llorona’s spooky story is best told in the dark by loved ones acutely aware of how to get under your skin — to get you to behave … or be whisked away. Specifically tweaked scares are always scarier than genericized, if craftily composed, folkloric frightshows like The Curse of La Llorona — the latest, and most distantly related, installment in the Conjuring cinematic universe which is now on Blu-ray and VOD.
Rarely terrifying or terribly well made, the Conjuring films nevertheless make bank on modest investments; La Llorona mustered $125 million worldwide on a $9 million budget. And of all the offshoot filmmakers besides the franchise’s main man James Wan, La Llorona’s director, Michael Chaves, is a promising choice to take over the flagship with The Conjuring 3 next year.
After La Llorona’s expository prologue in 1673 Mexico, the film jumps forward 300 years to Los Angeles where Chaves mirrors hyperspeed moves that have become Wan’s trademark. It takes a while, but Chaves finds his own visual groove, a texture that feels more Zodiacal than maniacal in its supernatural omniscience. There’s something more diabolical than particulates hovering in the haze of L.A. where social worker Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) saves two children from death at the hands of their mother, Patricia (Patricia Velasquez)… or does she?
The kids mysteriously turn up dead, whisked away from protective custody and drowned in the L.A. River. Patricia is charged for their murders, but she speaks in mortified whispers of La Llorona — from whom she claims to have been protecting her sons and whose wrath Anna’s interference unleashed on her own two kids, whom she’s raising alone.
La Llorona leaves burn marks with the slightest touch, so it’s not long before Anna comes under suspicion of abuse herself. To vanquish La Llorona from their lives, Anna seeks help from both a Catholic priest (Tony Amendola, reprising his Annabelle role) and a sharp-tongued curandero shaman given weathered, wily and witty life from Raymond Cruz of Breaking Bad. (There’s also an amusing moment in which Anna unexpectedly gets the customer-service yo-yo with the two.)
Much like Annabelle Comes Home, period authenticity is among La Llorona’s more persuasive elements — evocations of time past and a sinister sizzle reel for production designer Melanie Jones and set decorator Sandra Skora. Also like that movie, the R rating feels like a marketing tactic for teens to feel cool for finally being old enough to watch one of these on their own. There’s nothing funky, gnarly or gory here, just a lot of telegraphed terror across two acts.
At least Chaves ramps up Spielbergian flair for the finish with a spookhouse run that actually generates more playful malevolence than perfunctory motion. Of course, it helps that the Blu-ray’s Dolby Atmos 7.1 mix makes it sound like La Llorona is opening hell beneath your home. The Atmos channels envelop you in overhead thuds and bumps, pouring rain and roaring wind as well as whisper-subtle specifics of soundfield play like swinging doors and dripping water. The visual transfer is also excellent, transferring the many inky shadows expertly as well as the glint of La Llorona’s ropy, black ectoplasmic tears scraped off the ground.
Extras include several deleted or extended scenes, totalling 11 minutes and all best left on the cutting-room floor (especially another overt nod to the Conjuring crew). Featurettes are skimpy, with “The Myth of La Llorona” and “Behind the Curse” covering largely the same territory. “The Making of a Movie Monster” is the finest of them, showcasing the creative, culturally sensitive and time-consuming process to transform actress Marisol Ramirez into La Llorona.
Their work is practical and impressive. Too bad that under these circumstances, you don’t fear the weeper.