Before he adapted Aquaman to the big screen, James Wan laid the groundwork for a shared horror universe. Starting with The Conjuring series, moving into Annabelle, The Nun, and now, it’s expanded to include one of the most beloved, feared, and iconic Mexican folktales with The Curse of La Llorona. Although there are stories of La Llorona across Latin America, reflecting the “woman in white” stories reflected in other non-Latin countries, in the US, the folktale is more often than not tied to Mexican culture, specifically in the Southwest and state like Texas whose Mexican American populations have ingrained the tale in their states since their creations.
Directed by Michael Chaves, The Curse of La Llorona follows a social worker and her family after she unwittingly leads two children to tragedy after believing she was saving them from a seemingly abusive mother. Linda Cardellini stars as the lead character, Anna Tate-Garcia, a casting which has caused much ire among Latinx moviegoers, myself included.
It’s important to point out that although the movie is based on the centuries-old story that is deeply tied to Mexican and Mexican Americans, there are no members of the creative team of that background, or Latinx more generally. That being said, Raymond Cruz, is cast as the cuandero, Rafael, tasked with saving the family, and the amazing Patricia Velasquez is Patricia Alvarez, the woman initially being haunted by La Llorona, the actors are Mexican American and Venezuelan respectively.
Initially, this reality of production soured the film for me. As a Mexican American whose grandmother used this legend to make sure I didn’t play outside past dark, La Llorona, the weeping woman, was real in my life. In fact, I credit legends like her, el cucuy, and mano peluda with my love of horror now. That being said, after speaking with both Cruz and Velasquez during the South by Southwest (SXSW) red carpet, I entered the film with an open mind and tried my hardest to put my bias aside.
The beginning of the SXSW screening involved a “cleansing” by a cuandero from Los Angeles. We were all handed red handkerchiefs and were instructed on their use, prayed over, and had the meaning of cuandero explained. After the film, people in The Curse of La Llorona t-shirts handed out sage which included the instructions for smudging and the cultural relevance on the back of the package.
If the world premiere was trying to make people feel authenticity, I feel like this was only effective on those in the audience with no link to Mexican or Mexican American culture. With Cruz and Valesquez opening my mind to the possibility of the film being respectful, the opening events closed it again. Given my own background and the fact that my great-grandmother was a cuandera, I was offended. It was a cheap commercialization of my heritage, and one specifically used to scare. Granted I got a smile on my face when the Mexican family behind me started cracking jokes about the whole ordeal which made me feel more comfortable in the theater.
With all of that being said, when the movie started rolling, I was surprised even though I was still let down. The film opens completely in Spanish and provides no subtitles. The use of Spanish continues throughout the movie and the subtitles remaining absent. This is a choice that I respect.
In fact, the use of Spanish without subtitles in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was one of my favorite things in the script. Beyond that, this means that at the very least, Chaves is recognizing the origin of the legend and allowing a Spanish-speaking audience a grasp on the film. There isn’t extensive use of language but there is enough to make me appreciate it, especially when I couldn’t appreciate anything else.
Beyond that, there are cultural traditions on display. The use of an egg, the use of sage, and some explanations of the ojo, or evil eye. That being said, the explanations are made extremely palatable for non-Latinx viewers and not really explained well. There are differences in the methods used by the cuandero, compared to what is traditionally done. Those changes were more likely made because of the need to make things visual in the film and use horror movie tropes for hauntings and exorcisms in a slightly different way. However, had a single Latinx creator being involved in the writing or production this could have been done in a more respectful and important way.
Beyond the culture, the film has some great acting moment but the characters are connected with cheap jump scares and the exact same practical effects make-up we’ve seen before in other productions from Atomic Monsters, Wan’s company. Completely dressed in white, the pale and black tear-stained cheeks of Marisol Ramirez give us our ghost, La Llorona. She isn’t different than the nun that has haunted the Warrens and in her own movie, but she isn’t badly done, just the same and far away from unique. The complete use of practical effects on her is intriguing and a good choice, it’s the lack of variation is its fault.
The children in the film are genuinely good actors for their age, at least when fear is the emotion that they are showing. In addition, Velasquez in the role of Patricia Alvarez steals the show. As a grieving mother, terrorized by La Llorona and unable to protect her children, her emotive expressions and voice strike you and believe her. In fact, she’s the most empathetic and believable character in the film. Her scenes while detained by police are extremely well done and have you yelling “What did you do” to Cardelini’s Anna.
That being said, Anna fulfills her purpose in the film. She is completely unaware of the legend of La Llorona and brings terror on herself and her family because of her choices to ignore Patricia. From then on it’s all about her getting over her inability to believe and seeking answers from a familiar face, Father Perez. Fans of The Conjuring universe will recognize the character and if you don’t Chaves splices in very overt scenes from Annabelle to make you remember. This is by far one of the most heavy-handed cross-over appearances I’ve seen in a film and it undercuts any depth that is supposed to be in the scene.
I still don’t believe the film necessitates Linda as the lead character, since she is a mother of biracial children – or at least it is assumed with her hyphenated last name and the images of her husband and the casting of her children – the film could have shown the ordeal through their eyes only instead of pulling her into the picture. That being said, there is a balance between Linda and the Rafael.
In this film, Cruz has a commanding presence that like Patricia’s steals his scenes with Cardelini. Cruz’s Rafael commands the screen and has an authoritative presence that is akin to how the Warrens are shown in The Conjuring series. Rafael could stand on his own as the lead in a series.
It’s Rafael’s presence in the Tate-Garcia’s house that gives the audience and the family hope. His dialogue is both sarcastic and meaningful. However, the Spanish he uses sounded rough when attempting to cleanse the house. But, I would still love to see more of him in this movie-universe. Again, like the Warrens, Cruz could be a traveling cuandero saving Latinx families from our own stories.
Overall, The Curse of La Llorona is the run of the mill PG-13 horror movie we’ve come to expect from the films in from Atomic Monster’s production. From the colors to the costuming, the film seems like a copy of the ones that came before but with a new big bad. As wary as I was about this movie, I did find myself wanting it to do well. Not just because good theater releases for horror means more widely accessible horror movies, but because seeing a myth so close to me on the big screen could start diversifying the stories told on the screen. Sadly, it doesn’t do much new and the jump scares entirely predictable, with the best ones being shown in the trailer. The movie isn’t bad, it just isn’t something thrilling, which given the subject matter is a hard mark to miss. It’s a whitewashing of an elaborate world and myth, so much so that it has no identity of its own against other Wan productions.
But I do see a future after The Curse of La Llorona, one based on that world. A pathway forward I like to see for this movie, especially given the ending, and the honest need to diversify the horror genre’s storytelling. I can attest, Mexican Americans have some of the best scary stories. Since this movie exists, I hope that James Wan’s production company and New Line heard the critiques of it and will push forward with a new focus, with us telling our own stories.
The Curse of La Llorona
The Curse of La Llorona is the run of the mill PG-13 horror movie we’ve come to expect from the films in from Atomic Monster’s production. From the colors to the costuming, the film seems like a copy of the ones that came before but with a new big bad.
Kate Sánchez is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of But Why Tho? A Geek Community. There, she coordinates film, television, anime, and manga coverage. Kate is also a freelance journalist writing features on video games, anime, and film. Her focus as a critic is championing animation and international films and television series for inclusion in awards cycles.