I don’t remember the first time I heard about La Llorona, but I do remember her haunting my childhood nightmares. The folktale of the weeping woman (as her name translates into English) has for centuries been passed throughout Latin America, largely through word of mouth. Now it’s been brought to cinematic life as an extension of producer James Wan’s Conjuring universe. The Curse of La Llorona premiered Friday at the SXSW Film Festival, ahead of its theatrical wide release on April 19.
A lot of pressure comes with adapting a story as culturally significant as La Llorona, and the efforts of director Michael Chaves and writers Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis yield mixed results. Though the film initially received criticism for casting Linda Cardellini—an American actress of Italian ancestry—as its lead, the premiere paid homage to the story’s Latin roots by bringing real curanderos, folk healers in traditional huipil dresses, to Austin’s Paramount Theatre to burn incense and “cleanse” moviegoers.
Minutes before the screening, curandero Salvador Gata of Los Angeles taught the audience about “mal de ojo,” or “the evil eye,” and the tools curanderos use to ward off bad spirits. I completely bought in. Having grown up in a Latino household, there’s no way I was going to watch a movie about my childhood bogeyman without making the sign of the cross and heeding every word the curandero said, just in case.
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The film begins by quickly establishing the origins of La Llorona. In this version—similar to the one I heard as a kid—a beautiful woman in seventeenth-century Mexico drowns her children after discovering her husband has left her for someone else. Next comes a cut to 1973 Los Angeles, where recent widow Anna Garcia (Cardellini) is a mother of two and a Child Protective Services caseworker.
A child welfare check gone wrong results in the sons of Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velásquez) drowned in a river. Distraught, but adamant that she had been trying to protect them from La Llorona, Alvarez prays that the spirit will bring them back and take Garcia’s children instead. It doesn’t take long for the weeping woman to set her sights on young Samantha and Chris (played by Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou, respectively), who begin seeing the eerie specter everywhere.
La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez) appears again and again in a wedding gown with graying skin and toxic black tears, resulting in repetitive, if occasionally effective, jump scares. Bathtubs and puddles become portals through which the ghost might get at Samantha and Chris, and the family’s nearly Olympic-size swimming pool practically begs for the children to fall prey to La Llorona’s weeping calls.
The Garcias give the audience a believable and heartwarming family to rally around. Their saving grace turns out to be curandero Rafael Olvera (Raymond Cruz), who brings hope and humor to the story. Olvera also lends a layer of authenticity with his supply of poultices and remedies like using an egg to perform a limpia (a spiritual cleansing) to banish evil from the house. While Garcia is an outsider to the culture (not Latina herself, she married into her surname), the elements that Olvera brings to the table will be instantly recognizable to Latino audiences.
The Curse of La Llorona delivers tense moments, but surely the filmmakers could have done more with the terrifying source material. Prior films in the Conjuring universe have ably scared audiences, but La Llorona had the potential for even greater thrills. After all, the movie’s subject has been frightening children for generations, far longer than the haunted house of The Conjuring and its sequels.