Whether you like it or not, The Conjuring Cinematic Universe (or whatever we’re calling whatever the hell this is) trudges along. It’s no longer a threat, but a full blown success, at least financially. In fact, it’s quietly the most successful cinematic universe copycat, outlasting the ill-fated Ghostbusters universe and the industry laughing stock that is the Universal Monsters Cinematic Universe. While Warner Bros. tries to figure out if they even want their DC properties to be connected going forward, The Conjuring Universe seems to be the only franchise that has successfully copied the formula established by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Now if only the movies were better.
Last year, The Nun cleaned up $365 million worldwide, on a $22 million budget, despite being universally panned. And now the latest entry in the universe brings us The Curse of La Llorona, a film that sounds like a great premise but aggressively sets out to do the absolute bare minimum as far as horror cinema is concerned. The premise is based on one of the most famous Mexican folktales, but the film feels bastardized and Americanized to the point that it feels no different from the dozens of supernatural flicks you’ve seen this decade (think Taco Bell vs traditional Mexican cuisine, including the same stomach pains in the aftermath).
The original folktale of La Llorona (translated to “The Weeping Woman”) details the story of a young woman from a poor family who is courted by a wealthy suitor, despite his family’s objections. Years later, after the two have married and bore 2 children, the husband decides to leave his bride for another woman, bidding farewell to the children but affording no such goodbyes to his wife. Jealous and angry, the young woman drowns her 2 children in the river, before presumably committing suicide in the same river out of guilt. The folktale states that her ghost continually haunts Mexico, searching for her children.
However, the film only recites a bare bones version of this story, leaving out the class issues associated with La Llorona and her husband’s family. Perhaps this was done for story efficiency, but it does leave some themes on the table that the film could’ve explored. Instead, the movie opens with a flashback showing us how La Llorona murdered her children. We quickly jump to 1973 Los Angeles, because these movies all have to take place in the 70s to keep with the cinematic universe vibe. There really isn’t much of a reason for the story to take place in this decade, and the film makes no use of the decade’s style other than an early needle drop of “Superfly”. Oh, and at one point a character uses a yellow landline phone, that’s pretty 70s I guess!
We’re introduced to Anna Tate-Garcia (the definitely not Hispanic Linda Cardellini), a widowed social worker who’s assigned to investigate the whereabouts of two missing children. What she finds is that the children are not missing, but are being hidden by their mother to protect them from the ghost of La Llorona. It’s also in this scene where we discover that Anna’s husband was a police officer, by way of clunky exposition. “Out of respect for officer Garcia, your husband was a police officer,” one character spouts off *eyeroll*. If you’re wondering what the significance of Anna’s deceased husband being a former police officer is – it has absolutely no significance on the characters or plot.
Anna is initially unconvinced that the stories of La Llorona are true. But as she continues to investigate and the paranormal events continue to pile up, she realizes that her life and the lives of her two children are in grave danger. The horror set pieces are supported by strong cinematography, which is one area where the film excels. Other than a few establishing shots that look swiped from cutscenes of a video game, the photography is successful in crafting a beautiful yet intimidating mood. DP Michael Burgess does a terrific job of playing with shadows and putting us in the POV of the characters, although I suspect some digital manipulation aided the equilibrium of the photography.
But while the film is at times gorgeous to look at, the story is flat and uninspiring. Mostly because La Llorona is such a limp villain. There isn’t much creativity in how she appears, and her primary attack is burning the wrists of her victims. In addition, she seems to have a dozen weaknesses, and once you become aware of who is and isn’t safe in the story the tension immediately evaporates. This leads to a paint by numbers ghost flick, where we go from one scare to another without much change in the stakes or the growth of the characters.
The film makes one last ditch effort to bring some energy to the plot when we’re introduced to Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a priest whom Anna enlists to rid her home of the vengeful spirit. At this point, the film takes a sharp right turn by incorporating more comedic bits. On one hand, this is very distracting in contrast to the bleak tone of the rest of the film, but the comedy did allow me to relate to Rafael and Anna’s children in a way that the previous 60 minutes failed to do. Perhaps the comedic tone works best by coming out of nowhere, since it accompanies Rafael who is meant to be the savior of the Garcia family.
But while the film does feature a somewhat satisfying finale (despite the inclusion of a poorly written character whose role in the story should have been re-worked), The Curse of La Llorona can’t escape a formulaic screenplay, lame villain, and uninspiring scares. It’s the epitome of average, and average shouldn’t be good enough for a franchise this financially successful. What’s more, because there’s a concerted effort to crowbar this story into the Conjuring universe, the film effectively strips the folktale of it’s cultural identity, and positions Linda Cardellini’s white character as the protagonist of the film. This would work if the film leaned into the racial aspect of it, a’la Candyman (1992), but perhaps there’s too much money on the table for Warner Bros. to engage in anything remotely provocative.
If we’re going to keep making these, it would be nice if the actual Conjuring films WEREN’T the only films of the franchise that are worth a damn. But hey, not everyone is as good behind the camera as James Wan (The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2). So, if you’re watching a trailer for one of these films in the future, before you buy a ticket make sure that James Wan has a director credit and not a producer credit.