There’s a lot of box-office heat on horror these days — Jordan Peele’s Us has already grossed $236 million worldwide. Still, that’s no excuse for a lazy cash-in like The Curse of La Llorona, which plays too timid for terror and is too lazily constructed to haunt anyone’s dreams. This missed-opportunity of a film is based on the Mexican legend of La Llorona, a.k.a. the Weeping Woman. Back in the 17th century, she drowned her two kids after her husband’s skirt-chasing pissed her off; since then, her spirit (Marisol Ramirez) flits around in a ghostly white dress, killing the children of other poor mothers.
Cut to Los Angeles 1973, where social worker Anna Garcia — played with a conviction the lame script doesn’t deserve by Linda Cardellini (Freaks and Geeks, Green Book) — suspects that something is not right with one of her cases. Learning that a mother named Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velásquez) has been forcing her two young sons to live in a cramped closet, she sends the boys to foster care. Of course, La Llorona pounces and drowns them in a reservoir. So much for Child Protective Services. Driven mad with grief, Patricia calls on the mythic ghost to curse Anna, a widow raising her own two children: Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) and Chris (Roman Christou). And the Weeping Woman is back in business.
To drum up chills, first-time feature director Michael Chaves resorts to every cheap trick in the book, from squeaky doors and creaky floorboards to a shrieking score by Joseph Bishara. A few of them even work, notably a bathtub scene in which La Llorona attempts to wash Samantha’s hair and a moment when the ghost traps the kids in a car. But mostly the movie defaults to predictable jump scares at every turn. The dialogue starts at risible and descends from there, with a former priest turned curandero (faith healer) played by Raymond Cruz getting the worst lines. The holy man persuades Anna not to flee the spirit of La Llorona but to take a stand against her. Seriously?
There was a chance here for screenwriters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, best known for the YA drivel of Five Feet Apart, to use the curandero and his magic potions to examine the roots of this urban legend — or better yet, to give the film a cultural backstory that might resonate for Latinx audiences and illuminate something for the rest of us. Not happening. Tony Amendola also shows up as his Annabelle character Father Perez, in what feels like a desperate attempt by producer James Wan to make La Llorona part of his mega-successful Conjuring franchise. He’s got to be kidding. Audiences who get bilked for the price of a ticket will be the ones who are really cursed.