I think it's telling that The Curse of La Llorona takes place in the Conjuring Universe, which is right now the second-strongest brand-name in cinematic horror after Jordan Peele, and the advertising campaign put not one molecule of energy into promoting that fact. It's not, like, a secret. There's no astonishing duhn-duhn-duhhnnn! twist where we learn that this was the Conjuring Universe all along; it's just that at a certain point, Father Perez, played by Tony Amendola (who needs to play F. Murray Abraham's brother or something - they're practically clones) confirms he is, yep, the same Father Perez played by Tony Amendola who factored prominently into 2014's Annabelle, by calmly mentioning to the terrified woman he's comforting that this isn't his first run-in with evil incarnate, there was this doll incident that happened last year, and then moving right on to the next thing

If this is telling - and maybe it's merely that it feels morally correct - it's because simply putting those words "from the world of The Conjuring" front and center in the trailers and on the posters* would have been enough right there to add at least $10 million to the film's box office take, free of charge. And for whatever reason, the folks at New Line and the folks at Atomic Monster elected not to do this; it's as if they had some sense that The Curse of La Llorona was, in fact, bad enough to tarnish the reputation of the franchise that contains, for example, Annabelle, a strong contender for the worst major studio horror movie of the 2010s.

And how about that, The Curse of La Llorona is indeed real fucking bad. Not Annabelle bad, not even close. But it has precious little on offer that's in any meaningful way pleasurable to watch. Not the thick razzle-dazzle spook show atmosphere of 2018's The Nun, a film that is objectively bad and is subjectively one of my favorite horror movies of the last five years; definitely not the character work and morbid Catholicism of The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2. Fuck, it can only barely get jump scares right; every single one of them for the film's first hour is set-up, staged, and timed exactly the same way, so that they start to feel less like visceral sucker punches and more like a baffling and unfunny running gag. And there are a lot of jump scares in that first hour; one of the biggest problems with The Curse of La Llorona is that pays not even a moment of lip service to the notion of a slow burn leading us up to the eruption of horror, but pretty well hits the ground running with loud scares, and seems convinced that we'll storm out of the theater and demand our money back if it accidentally goes a full five minutes without providing another quick jolt.

Anyway. It's 1973, a fact that informs no aspect of the costuming or writing and seems to have been an annoyance rather than an inspiration to the set decorators, but it at least means we get that 15 seconds connecting this back to Annabelle. Our protagonist for the evening is Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini, continuing this franchise's habit of giving underused actresses decent-sized parts for a change), whose husband is a hero cop, who died. We know this because other characters have a tendency to state it to her, or she to them. At any rate, her cop husband died, leaving her with two children, Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen). She's just barely keeping things together between her family life and her job as a child protective services case worker, and if you would imagine that this particular job means a lot of unnecessary stress specifically about how much work she has to do to keep her kids alive, then the film has you covered with a go-nowhere moment that it earnestly believes to be a plot point about just this conundrum.

The bigger conundrum, of course, is the unfathomably evil ghost. One of Anna's cases is that of Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velasquez), who has decided on this particular night to lock her children in a closet. Anna, of course, is horrified, and the kids are taken into custody, but it turns out that Patricia had exactly the right idea: her boys have caught the attention of The Weeping Woman, La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez), a vengeful ghost out of Latin American folklore, who kidnaps and drowns children in a significantly misguided attempt to beg forgiveness for drowning her own children centuries ago. When the Alvarez boys are found dead in the Los Angeles River, Anna is upset, but not nearly as upset as she'll be after Chris, bored while waiting for his mother as she went down to the crime scene to identify the bodies, pokes his nose into an alley where a woman dressed in tattered white veils is desperately weeping. Looks like another two children have caught La Llorona's eye.

It's bizarre that it's taken until 2019 for Latin American folklore to get a starring role in a major Hollywood horror picture; Hispanic audiences have been the genre's most singularly reliable target for years at this point. Plus, La Llorona is just a plain good ghost story. So it's easy to root for The Curse of La Llorona in principle, and easier still to be horribly disappointed by what a shabby bit of tedious schlock the end result looks like. I have mentioned that it goes all-in on repetitive, blunt-force scares, but it's worth re-iterating, because that's kind of the most prominent thing about the film. The films in this universe have settled into a groove, we could say if we're feeling generous; they're mired in formula, we could say if we're not. There's one kind of quintessential Conjuring Universe jump scare, in which the frame politely empties itself so we know exactly where to look for the ghost to appear, and the camera gets to panning back and forth, so we know exactly what the timing is going to be for the precise beat at which that appearance will come. Mostly, though, these films have been familiar between themselves. La Llorona is so intensely committed to staging its scares in exactly one way, each and every time, that it starts to grow familiar all by itself; around minute 40, we're subjected to precisely the same construction of a jump scare that we got at minute 35, which was precisely the same one we got at minute 25... Director Michael Chaves is making his first feature, and he apparently impressed the hell out of series producer/creator James Wan, though it is not clear why: his bag of tricks is awfully small indeed, and the film is painfully monotonous as a result.

So we have drudgery, and we can add to that some hugely dopey dialogue, and the most banal story progression imaginable (the film would be half as long if all the people who've seen La Llorona would just compare notes and get us to the damn third act already); just about the only pleasure to be wrenched out of this is from the oddly enthusiastic performances most of the cast is giving. Cardellini is a joy to watch, doggedly playing a nervous mother who keeps digging in to find untapped reservoirs of strength; it's a trite role, but she plays it with energy and thoughtfulness about how much of her fear to let slip in front of the kids. Velasquez, in a profoundly thankless part, at least lets herself go all the way towards haggard desperation. The standout, maybe not for good reason, is Raymond Cruz, playing this film's conveniently located demon hunter as sardonic anti-comic relief; I can't decide if "kitsch" or "camp" or "ham" are the right words, because they all feel close but also somehow 100% the wrong way around. Whatever it is, he's both silly and straitlaced, a grounding presence who also throws the film off-kilter when it desperately needs a shake-up.

None of that's remotely close to saving La Llorona, or even making it worth watching. It's a slog, with no atmosphere to go along with its lack of scares and absent narrative tension. It is not heinous, like Annabelle; more like it's the biggest exaggeration of uninspired hackwork that can happily coast in on a formula that it it does not expand in even the smallest detail. Even La Llorona is basically a redressed version of the demon nun that keeps showing up in these movies (but who is absent here, possibly in the hope that we'll somehow fail to make the connection). It's all so much suffocating boilerplate, about as drearily un-fun as a ghost story can manage to be, and only the most morbid completionists and genre addicts need even think about bothering.

Reviews in this series
The Conjuring (Wan, 2013)
Annabelle (Leonetti, 2014)
The Conjuring 2 (Wan, 2016)
Annabelle: Creation (Sandberg, 2017)
The Nun (Hardy, 2018)
The Curse of La Llorona (Chaves, 2019)
Annabelle Comes Home (Dauberman, 2019)
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (Chaves, 2021)

*They instead say "from the producers of The Conjuring universe", which is crucially different.