While major studios struggle to replicate the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe using DC Comics superheroes or vintage Universal monsters, James Wan and his producing partners have been busy expanding the world of The Conjuring into a consistently successful cinematic universe of ghosts and demons and the people they haunt. The latest entry in the ever-growing Conjuring-verse is The Curse of La Llorona, although its Conjuring connection has been curiously downplayed in some of the marketing.
La Llorona herself has not yet appeared in the franchise, although the "weeping woman" of Mexican folklore has clearly been designed with the intention of joining her fellow ghouls in the pop-culture pantheon. A prologue set in 17th century Mexico shows La Llorona drowning her own children, and an exposition-friendly priest fills in the rest later, explaining that the woman went into a psychotic rage after discovering her husband's adultery, and she has since haunted other children, luring them to their deaths in an effort to replace her own offspring.
In 1973 Los Angeles, widow Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini) encounters La Llorona via her job with Child Protective Services, while investigating the home of a woman who claims that La Llorona is trying to take her two sons. Soon Anna's own two children, Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), are being targeted by the malevolent entity, who is intent on drowning other children just as she drowned her own. The screenplay by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis moves along quickly without bothering with things like character development or historical detail (the period setting is solely a function of franchise continuity), and the plot is dull and straightforward, never going in a single unexpected direction.
There's some thematic potential in Anna's job at CPS, or in her status as a single mother raising biracial children, but the filmmakers leave that subtext unexplored entirely. Attributing any kind of social commentary to Curse would probably be giving it too much credit, though, and even Raymond Cruz's stock mystical guru character is more of a lazy horror-movie device than a racial or ethnic stereotype.
At least Cruz brings some oddball personality to the deadpan curandero, who readily admits to using Anna and her family as bait for La Llorona and performs all of his rituals with a sort of sarcastic flair. Cardellini goes through the motions as the concerned mother, and the kids run and scream when they're supposed to, but none of them are particularly worth rooting for. With her veil, flowing dress, pale white skin and yellow eyes, La Llorona herself (played by Marisol Ramirez) looks a little too similar to the title character from fellow Conjuring franchise entry The Nun.
In his feature debut, director Michael Chaves relies heavily on cheap jump scares, although he stages one effectively eerie sequence featuring Samantha by the family's pool, seeing the image of La Llorona in her translucent umbrella, which keeps drawing her closer to the pool's edge. The rest of the scares are basic and underwhelming, and there's no mounting sense of dread to the danger that the family is supposedly facing.
Chaves has already been tapped to direct next year's The Conjuring 3, and he seems to have the series formula down, even if he can't capture the nuances. Curse may be a second-tier Conjuring movie at best, but don't be surprised if La Llorona joins Annabelle, the Nun and the Crooked Man in some theoretical Conjuring-vengers movie in a few years. ♦