Man, I don’t know what first-time feature director Michael Chaves did to scare the hell out of the kids he cast in “The Curse of La Llorona.” Judging from the utterly convincing looks of unfiltered terror and the blood-curdling screams he elicited, I don’t think I want to know.
Whatever else they manage in their performances –and they’re kids, so “uneven” is the best word to sum up their work in general — the children in this ghost story sell it. If you don’t have hairs rising on the back of your neck at half a dozen points in this Hollywood bastardization of a Mexican folk legend, you must be bald. Or made of stone.
Yeah, it works. And yes, the script strictly adheres to the horror movie “Battle a Demon” Stations of the Cross. But it’s refreshing to see a movie, even one with few real surprises, whose filmmakers take such exacting care on the details that it still ticks over like a finely-tuned engine.
“The Weeping Woman” is presented here as a Mexican boogey-woman, the unseen menace you threaten your kids with.
“Finish your chores/homework/vegetables or La Llorona will get you!”
A prologue establishes who she was, a 17th century rural beauty who married well, and when she realized her husband was cheating on her, drowned their little boys in a river.
She is seen as a wraith in a veil, “cursed to roam the Earth looking for children to take their place.”
Linda Cardellini (“Green Book”) is a widowed L.A. social worker whose husband was a cop killed in the line of duty. She’s barely keeping things together with her two-story house (with pool) and two young children (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Roman Christou) when a troubling case forces her to focus and then takes over her life.
A recovering alcoholic (Patricia Velasquez) loses custody of her kids after the social worker and a cop drop in to check on them. The woman is a wreck, her house alight with candles, decorated with crucifixes and the like, her little boys locked in a closet. They have burns on their arms.
“Your mother did that to you?”
“No, it wasn’t her.” Something the boys won’t speak of did this. “We’re not safe anywhere,” one declares, and sure enough, they’re lured out of foster care and wind up dead in the river.
Making matters worse, Anna’s overly curious son (Christou) hears the crying and sees the apparition responsible. La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez, in some marvelous creepy makeup) has her next pair of kids picked out.Those “stations of the (horror movie script) cross” I mentioned — plot points that most movies of this genre embrace — include children in jeopardy, a single parent (usually) at a loss or in denial over what to do, a priest “explainer” (played in New Line’s “Annabelle” universe, and here by Tony Amendola), a third party “exorcist” or whatever you want to call them (often played by Lin Shaye, but Raymond Cruz has that gig here), elaborate rituals and holy relics used in the battle, and a creaky old house/apartment/church etc. as a setting.
Director Chaves overcomes that predictability with some whizbang tracking shots, chasing the children through the squeaky-floored house, menacing others in the dim yellow (1970s setting) flickering lights of a foster home/orphanage, yanking characters across the room or down stairs.
Drowning is a particularly awful way to die, so you know there’s going to be a harrowing scene or three of children and adults struggling underwater. Extreme close-ups of dripping faucets and acidic teardrops are thrown in for good measure.
What’s most refreshing here is the effort made to Americanize/Hollywoodize a classic Mexican ghost story, with an Hispanic villainess or two, and an equal number of Hispanic heroes our widow must turn to.
‘The terror is universal, the character’s as “American” as anybody else. No matter what some people say.
The third act has some nice jolts, a few laughs and entirely too much “gear” — talismans, Holy water, etc. — to sustain the creepy tone the film builds up to that point. So they go for laughs, and land a few.
But the bottom line for every horror tale is the same. Does it chill, get those hairs on the back of your neck to stand up? Is it satisfying, in either a righteous or abandon-all-hope climax?
Don’t cry for “La Llorona.” She gets a wet, dirty job done.
MPAA Rating:R for violence and terror
Cast: Linda Cardellini, Raymond Cruz, Tony Amendola, Patricia Velasquez, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Roman Christou
Credits:Directed by Michael Chaves, script by Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis. A Warner Brothers/New Line release.
Running time: 1:33