Mild Spoilers Ahead!
Somewhere between high-concept horror (Hereditary, Us) and the bottom of the barrel (Slender Man) lies the profitable sweet spot of the genre — a sweet spot that’s been dominated in recent memory by one man: James Wan. As a director, writer, and producer, he’s had a hand in some of the biggest horror franchises to emerge in the past 15 years, including Saw, Insidious, and of course the extended universe that’s spun out of 2013’s The Conjuring. A universe, it turns out, that includes The Curse of La Llorona.
Despite Wan’s producer credit on this one, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s just a one-off. La Llorona was directed by a relative newcomer name Michael Chaves (who has already been tapped for next year’s The Conjuring 3) and was written by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, the duo behind, of all things, Five Feet Apart — which I argued was an unintentional horror film anyway, so maybe it’s fitting? Unfortunately, this one didn’t wind up being an unintentional romance of any sort, much to my personal disappointment (although, like Five Feet Apart, I think the themes it touches on are far more gripping than the by-the-numbers plot it keeps returning to). Really, the only connective tissue to the Conjuring universe is the brief appearance of Tony Amendola as Father Perez — a character you might remember from 2014’s creepy doll spinoff Annabelle. Otherwise all it shares with the franchise is a period setting (the 1970s) and the presence of yet another malevolent spirit hell-bent on terrorizing a family.
That spirit, La Llorona (The Weeping Woman), is based on a well-known Mexican legend involving a beautiful woman who drowned her two sons in a river after discovering her husband was unfaithful to her — and ever since, she’s been trying to snatch other people’s children. Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) is a widowed case worker for Child Protective Services with two children of her own, who crosses paths with La Llorona in the course of an investigation. After all, the signs of a haunting look an awful lot like child abuse from the outside, especially when the mother in question keeps her kids locked in a closet to keep them safe. But soon enough the boys Anna removed from what she thought was an abusive home turn up dead in a river, and it is Anna who finds her family pursued by the apparition in the white gown instead.
As far as ghost stories go, it’s an effective movie — low on gore, high on atmosphere, with plenty of creaking doors, whooshing winds, and creative visuals to keep viewers on their toes. But it mines true dread in its exploration of motherhood, and particularly the responsibility placed on single parents — especially in the eyes of the community. Single mothers, particularly widowed mothers, are a familiar sight in horror films (from Child’s Play to The Babadook), but The Curse of La Llorona is explicit in the way it weaves the burden of solo parenting into the scares. From the first moment La Llorona’s touch leaves a burn on Anna’s son’s arm, I knew it was only a matter of time before her CPS colleagues would be knocking on her door to investigate her. Her struggles as a single mother are acknowledged right off the bat by her boss, who sympathizes but also thinks Anna doesn’t have the bandwidth to do her job the way her other colleagues can. Being set in the 1970s, you can almost write off all the times Anna returns home from work to find her kids already in the house, playing unsupervised. That’s just the way things were back then! But when she is called to a crime scene in the middle of the night and she’s forced to pack her kids into her car to bring them along, it becomes clear that the film is pushing the audience for that knee-jerk judgmental reaction. “That’s no place for children,” you want to scream — but that’s also better than leaving them home alone in the middle of the night. It’s no wonder that the moments when La Llorona gets closest to the children are the moments when, if it were to happen today, we’d immediately castigate the parents for being irresponsible. You let your child play unsupervised by the pool? You let your daughter take a bath alone? Your son was wandering around a crime scene and you didn’t notice? The period works, not just to better fit the film into the Conjuring universe, but to manipulate our own expectations.
But Linda Cardellini, as Anna, is unquestionably a good mother, ferociously protective and quick to accept the unimaginable reality she finds herself in. And she’s set against what, in many ways, is a mother’s worst nightmare — a woman who, in a moment of weakness and madness, is responsible for her the deaths of her own children. Not that this movie unpacks that dynamic at all, nor is it a film that explores its Latin roots as anything more than set dressing. While there are fascinating themes at play here, they are only addressed in the most shallow ways amidst the jump scares. If you’re looking for thought-provoking horror, or even a hint of a twist, you won’t find that here. But if you’re looking for solid, distracting, middle of the road scares — the sort of comfort food of the genre — then this movie ought to keep you occupied for a couple of hours, even if it won’t keep you up at night afterward.
Header Image Source: Warner Bros.