La Llorona, a woman who according to Mexican legend murdered her own children and now wanders the earth looking for them, snatching other unsuspecting tots and drowning them, gets her close-up in a major Hollywood film, Warner Bros.' "The Curse of La Llorona ." It's a pretty terrifying bedtime story popular in the Latino community, used to scare children into behaving with the threat that La Llorona will come and take them if they don't. Seems like decent enough fodder for a jumpy 93 minutes at the movies.
But the so-called "weeping woman" may have another reason to wail once her big North American debut hits theaters. The movie, from director Michael Chaves and producer James Wan, who made "The Conjuring" so good and stylish that it inspired a whole "universe" of films, including this one, just isn't that great. In fact, it makes La Llorona pretty ordinary — a demonic bride who terrorizes two single-moms and their families in Los Angeles in the late 1970s by running at them screaming and crying oily black tears. Subtlety isn't really her thing.
The screenplay, credited to Mikki Daughtry and Tobais Iaconis, is mainly about Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini), a widowed child services worker and mom to two, Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen). One of her cases, Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velasquez), a mother of two, is being haunted by La Llorona and when Anna intervenes, suspecting that it was mom who burned marks into her sons' arms, both boys end up dead, drowned in the shallow LA River.
So La Llorona turns her attentions to Anna's kids, and things start to get quite stressful and scary in their big craftsman home, in part because although Anna, Chris and Samantha eventually encounter this very formal demon, none talk to each other about it. Even more frustrating: When Anna sees burn marks on her daughter's arm, after very recently having seen the same marks on the two now dead Alavarez boys, she doesn't pry further when Samantha says she merely fell. She just tells her daughter that the world can be scary and to hug her doll when it is. Anna, you start to suspect, might not be the best at her job.
The film feels both long and rushed which is something of an accomplishment as Chaves speeds through scenes and on to the next dutifully: Here's where they finally get help, here's where you get a tie-in to the other "Conjuring" films, etc. Plotlines are abandoned at will, there are set ups for things that never come back and some suspiciously malleable "monster-logic" that makes the whole endeavor seem a little lazy and half-baked. At one point, he seems to even give up on how to create tension, opting to turn one scare into what feels more like a trailer with quick, disconnected flashes of images and black.
Which is a shame because it's not like the film has nothing to offer. A bucket of popcorn stands no chance against the many, many jump scares that are to come. "La Llorona" is at its best when Chaves is permitted to give scenes time to breathe. There's a great sequence early on with kids in a car that is sure to inspire more than a few nightmares about manual car windows.
The legend of La Llorona could inspire a whole universe of films on its own, but not with a kick-off like this.
"The Curse of La Llorona," a Warner Bros. release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "violence and terror." Running time: 93 minutes. Two stars out of four.