This review was largely written by Alanah Sees, with some additional thoughts from Samantha Maybe.
During San Diego Comic-Con 2018, a ScareDiego panel gave a few lucky attendees a sneak peek of The Curse of La Llorona, followed by a Q&A from the cast. “La Llorona is real,” was declared more than once. In its first feature-length turn since the 60’s, we would get a horror film centered on this terrifying folktale known to every Mexican-American in the audience. As huge fans of The Conjuring, James Wan, and the cast, Sam & Alanah were thrilled.
Even then, watching two short clips in which La Llorona stalks children and various mothers wail in grief, a few red flags indicated that any anticipation was ill-placed. It was clear who the protagonist was – a white woman, mother of two white children – in this Conjuring-verse flick. Still, it was exciting to imagine this legend on the big screen. Unfortunately, The Curse of La Llorona suffers from an inability to understand why the myth is so frightening.
As a folktale, the “Weeping Woman” or “Woman In White” isn’t all that special. It bears a stunning resemblance to similar legends in Greek, German, and Native American cultures: a woman suffers temporary insanity when she discovers her husband has been unfaithful and drowns her sons in a river. After realizing what she’s done, she wanders the earth in a white dress and veil, wailing with grief, and scrapes the ground of roads or waterways, crying for her lost children.
We can’t speak to the perspective of the Mexican person raised in Mexico, or how this story resonates with them. What Alanah (definitely NOT Sam) knows is the perspective of the Mexican-American. In the life of the Chicano, La Llorona is a story told to children, not to make them scared of a literal monster, but to protect them from something far more devastating – a classically white figure taking troubled children away from their parents.
Warning: spoilers abound from this point forward.
The film has a simple plotline: Los Angeles, 1973. Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini) is a widowed mother of two and a social worker. She has been close to Patricia (Patricia Velásquez), a Mexican mother of two boys, who are stalked and drowned by La Llorona after Anna and CPS take the boys away, suspecting abuse. Anna’s children are subsequently stalked by La Llorona, and after the Catholic church proves too slow to assist, she is referred to a curandero – a faith healer (Raymond Cruz) – who helps her fight the spirit.
Despite the arbitrary assignment of Garcia as a surname, Anna, her husband, and kids are all coded as white. They exhibit no cultural indicators or knowledge of La Llorona or any Mexican culture. The inherent and immediate frustration this movie provides is expressly due to the fact that this woman is not experiencing the cultural spirit of fear this legend causes. Instead, she faces a literal, gray-faced monster with ozone-bleeding eyes and unspecified, inconsistent elemental and telekinetic powers. Her kids have zero pre-existing fear of La Llorona – in fact, they spend much of the movie assuming they’re imagining things. Anna neither expects nor understands why this spirit is after her family.
But of course she doesn’t! Anna isn’t the kind of person who loses her kids, she’s the kind that takes them away. Of course she doesn’t understand how Patricia tries to protect her kids. Of course she doesn’t see how they could have bruises from something other than abuse. Of course she is frightened by and skeptical of candles and sage-cleansing and religion – all of those things are not familiar to Anna, but they are to Patricia, to brown people, to Mexico and Mexican Americans and the Catholic church. Of course Anna doesn’t understand, because Anna isn’t being haunted by La Llorona. Anna is La Llorona.
Beware, children, and don’t misbehave, or she’ll steal you. Be good, be quiet, and be careful not to make trouble, or La Llorona will take you away from mama and papa, forever.
Every little Latinx boy or girl has heard a grandma, auntie, or cousin deliver this kind of warning. La Llorona isn’t a story about adultery, infanticide, or curses. It’s a preventative tool for parents. It’s not hard to see how one might use it to keep children in line, so that an unstoppable figure defined by the color White won’t be able to take them away when they do something wrong.
La Llorona is a stand-in, a totem for the greatest fear any immigrant has. It doesn’t matter who that someone is – border patrol, Child Services, juvie, an ex-lover. It may be the land of opportunity, but in America, La Llorona could possess anyone. Anyone, perhaps, who doesn’t understand the things Chicanos believe. Anyone who can’t relate to the way they dress, eat, look, or live. Ultimately, anyone who doesn’t think immigrant parents should be allowed to keep their kids.
This movie fails to understand the heart of the legend’s scariness in every way but perhaps fails more in its painful attempts to pantomime representation. Anna isn’t proactive in the film. The knowledge she has and power she gains is handed to her by one-dimensional characters of color: a priest named Perez, a black cop, a Mexican mother, an Asian doctor, her black boss, her Asian co-worker, a brown faith healer. Two Mexican children have to die before she entertains the notion that something odd is going on. Anna never has to act, investigate, or do her own protecting. People of color do all of the explaining, teaching, and heavy lifting in this movie. They don’t talk much, otherwise.
It’s difficult to write this. We want to articulate these concerns carefully, because it’s not fair to look at film through this kind of critical lens in all cases. It isn’t always useful or fair to label a movie Not Diverse Enough, or This Has Only One Woman, or Another Movie About A Baby Boomer. However, in the case of this film – a Mexican folk tale created for the American viewer which tackles something intricately woven into the fabric of being Mexican-American – we cannot help but be flabbergasted at how widely it missed the mark. Instead of exploring the Mexican folk tale in a meaningful way, this film tries to add it to the American collection of monsters. There’s a fine line between representation and appropriation, and unfortunately, this film leans toward the latter.
An additional point that Sam was bothered by is how La Llorona was treated like a weapon. Patricia essentially asks the spirit to attack Anna’s family and so she does. Not only does it seem unlikely that La Llorona would care about Patricia or what she wanted, but it discredits the fear La Llorona inflicts on people. It’s unbelievable that Patricia would have the gall to make requests of such a terrifying being.
There are a few more minor issues with the film. No one fluent in Spanish speaks as slowly as the native-speaking characters do in this flick. More than once, it appears that Velásquez holds back on emotion in order to force the clarity and slowness with which she delivers both her English and Spanish words. Beyond that, the dialogue is uninteresting and lacks personality for every character, with the exception of two or three quippy jokes, all from Cruz. The focus on the monster’s face was disappointing, so only the first jump scare or two really landed. The same type of scare is used over and over. Extended sequences where a character follows a noise through the house, ending in a jump scare. It became tiresome quickly.
The positives about shot composition or score aren’t worth getting into. This film fails to earn its place as a member of The Conjuring Cinematic Universe. Moreover, it fails to deliver a satisfying take on the only ghost story Mexicans knows that scares adults even more than it does their children.
In the end, The Curse of La Llorona is only scary when you take a step back from it and realize how casually it tells a story about Child Protective Services saving the white children, and burying the brown.
Scare San Diego pics courtesy of Samantha Maybe. All others pictures courtesy of their respective owners.