A spectral figure of Latin-American folklore dating back hundreds of years, La Llorona, or "The Weeping Woman," was scorned by her lover, subsequently drowning her childrenand then herselfin a fit of rage. Now a violent, tear-strewn spirit, she seeks to claim the lives of mortal children in hopes of trading their lives for her own departed kids. The feature directorial debut of Michael Chaves, "The Curse of La Llorona" uses this legendary figure as nightmare fodder for a big-screen collection of jack-in-the-box set-pieces. The film's jump scares rarely work as well as they should, and yet there is an earthy quality to its 1973 Los Angeles setting, some lustrously dramatic cinematography courtesy of Michael Burgess, and a certain gritty showmanship in its portrayal of a mad villain nearly ceaseless in her deadly pursuit. Not exactly standing up to close scrutiny, however, is the screenplay by Mikki Daughtry & Tobias Iaconis (2019's "Five Feet Apart"). More character beats and less contrivances could have only helped. Still, as the latest entry fitting within "The Conjuring
Universe," this one is a touch more satisfying than the last, 2018's atmospheric but severely plodding "The Nun
Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini, evoking world-weary yet resolute truthfulness) is a social worker struggling to adjust to her new normal as a widowed single mother. When she pays a welfare visit to the home of Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velasquez) and discovers the woman's two sons locked in a closet, she is forced to remove them from the home. After they turn up drowned in an L.A. reservoir, Anna cannot help but feel a certain guilt in not better protecting them. Although she believes Patricia must be responsible for their homicides, Anna's own kids, Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), are soon physically marked and targeted by the real culprit: the wedding dress-garbed La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez).
"The Curse of La Llorona" captures the viewer's attention immediately, holding it through an eerie, deliberately paced opening act reminding of a grown-up 1970s supernatural thriller. Once Chris and Sam are cursed by the ghostly, seemingly unstoppable La Llorona, the narrative begins to tread water. For frustratingly tenuous reasons, the three central protagonistsmom Anna, son Chris, and daughter Samhave individually harrowing run-ins with the title phantom, yet decide to keep these terrifying encounters to themselves. No reason is ever given for their secrecy, but it needlessly prolongs the ultimate moment when they finally band together to figure out how to shake this vengeful spirit. The third act, largely set in the family's home as they attempt to ward off La Llorona with the help of former-priest-turned-mystic Rafael Olvera (Raymond Cruz), is surprisingly involving as it rivetingly careens from one high-wire altercation after the next (the attic-set climax is especially terrific). Within the bones of "The Curse of La Llorona" is a better, more substantive film, one which affords the characters, their circumstances, and the relationships they share the time to more fully breathe. What has found its way into the finished product, though, works on its own terms, a taut, brooding, admittedly streamlined instrument of the playfully macabre.