'The Curse of La Llorona': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Producer James Wan should look elsewhere for his next money-minting franchise.

Linda Cardellini plays a mother whose kids are stalked by a Mexican ghost in Michael Chaves' horror flick.

Introducing their new film The Curse of La Llorona on Friday night at SXSW, Warner Bros. and director Michael Chaves offered a bit of showmanship William Castle might've appreciated: For a film derived from a Latin American folk tale, they brought the owner of a Los Angeles botanica onstage, performing rituals he said would ward off evil spirits and prevent the "crying woman" of the film's title from following viewers home.

The curandero must've been extremely good at his job, because at least one viewer was thoroughly protected from fear. Curse of La Llorona is a ho-hum horror flick that seems highly unlikely to join producer James Wan's earlier projects into thriller-franchise Valhalla; though Wan is confident enough of Chaves' skills to pass the Conjuring series off to him for its third installment, writing team Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (whose first film, Five Feet Apart, hit theaters this week) might be better off looking for another YA idea to mine.

After a quick scene establishing its version of the old tale — in 17th century Mexico, we see a jealous wife drowning her two children to punish a cheating husband — the film leaps to 1973 Los Angeles, a period setting that only really makes sense if (sigh) the hopeful filmmakers intend this pic to be the backstory for Curse sequels.

Here, a recent widow named Anna (Linda Cardellini) works for Child Protective Services, and must rescue two young boys from their mother, Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velasquez), who has locked them in a closet in a boarded-up apartment full of candles. Anna puts the boys in a city facility for the evening, promising them they're safe. But they're dead before dawn, and Alvarez, who has been ranting about supernatural threats to their lives, holds Anna accountable.

Conveniently, Anna has two children around the same age (Sam and Chris, played by Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou), and La Llorona, or the Crying Woman, who was "consumed by guilt" when she killed her boys, is "condemned to roam the earth searching for children to take their place." Maybe Alvarez can bring back her sons if she points the ghost toward Anna's kids. Do ancient curses really work this way?

Trade-off or no, the ghost — a yellow-eyed creep weeping icky black tears and wearing a wedding dress — does start haunting Sam and Chris, moving through their nighttime environs in a series of cheap jump-scares. The pic relies so heavily on these "Boo!" moments that, midway through, the viewer protected by shamanistic magic stopped even experiencing a reflexive twitch when they occurred.

It takes a while for Anna to accept the evil her children know is stalking them, but the film perks up slightly when she does. She goes to a priest, who sends her to a man whose "methods are unorthodox," someone who once wore the collar but now practices folk medicine. He is Rafael Olvera (Raymond Cruz), and he'll bring the movie its two decent laughs — before the script forces him to repeat himself desperately in closing scenes.

Cruz (Tuco Salamanca on Breaking Bad and its superior sequel Better Call Saul) has a dry appeal as the pic's Latino Exorcist; though Rafael's preparations for spiritual warfare are just slight variations on what we've seen in a dozen better genre films, they briefly enliven the action and make us hope for something more exciting than we're going to get. What actually arrives is a specter who obeys physical laws when it's convenient for the story (as when she tries to roll down station-wagon windows, but Chris fights her off) and doesn't when it's not — and who fights off all the exotic substances Rafael has in his tool kit except the hackiest weapon in monster-movie lore.

Now that La Llorona's dead (or is sheeee?), can Rafael maybe do battle with el chupacabra? Maybe in a film written by someone with a stronger background in either horror or folkloric storytelling?

Production company: Atomic Monster
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Linda Cardellini, Raymond Cruz, Patricia Velasquez, Marisol Ramirez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Roman Christou
Director: Michael Chaves
Screenwriters: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis
Producers: James Wan, Gary Dauberman, Emile Gladstone
Executive producers: Richard Brenner, Dave Neustadter, Walter Hamada, Michelle Morrissey, Michael Clear
Director of photography: Michael Burgess
Production designer: Melanie Jones
Costume designer: Megan Spatz
Editor: Peter Gvozdas
Composer: Joseph Bishara
Casting director: Rich Delia
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Headliners)

Rated R, 93 minutes