What we call the Conjuring Universe has become a sprawling franchise of big-budget horror-lite spookfests that pull from every urban legend, folk tale and ghost story one can imagine, usually involving vengeful feminine spirits and the women with whom they do battle. We've got hauntings, possessions (“The Conjuring” and “The Conjuring 2”), creepy dolls (“Annabelle” and “Annabelle: Creation”), demonic nuns (“The Nun,” obviously) and now, the ancient ghost of a murderous mother in “The Curse of La Llorona,” directed by Michael Chaves, making his feature debut.
Six movies in, there are a few hallmarks of the freaky franchise kicked off by director James Wan in 2013. The films are often set in the 1970s and feature dizzyingly long tracking shots that give the camera (and therefore, the audience) its own set of eyes to reveal or conceal the things that go bump in the night. The look, feel and dynamic movement of the films gives the loosely connected series an aesthetic DNA. It helps here that it's literally genetic — “The Curse of La Llorona” cinematographer Michael Burgess is the son of “The Conjuring 2” cinematographer Don Burgess, and he shot second unit footage on that film and “The Nun.”
The victims of our latest Frightening Female Phantom (all these ghosts have the same makeup effect, don't they?) are Anna (Linda Cardellini), a widowed social worker, and her two kids, Chris (Roman Christou) and Sam (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), trying to get by in 1973 Los Angeles. When Anna makes a welfare check on one of her troubled clients, Patricia (Patricia Velasquez), she unknowingly invites the menacing spirit of La Llorona into her life. The weeping woman, clad in billowing white garb, has roamed the Earth since 1673, when she drowned her two sons in a jealous rage caused by her husband's infidelity, then drowned herself. Now her demonic spirit stalks new children to replace hers. It serves as a spooky story and warning tale in Latinx households — behave, or La Llorona will get you.
“The Curse of La Llorona” is a combination ghost story and haunted house horror flick sprinkled with folksy mythology and shamanic rituals. It relies heavily on jump scares rather than anything existentially terrifying, and there are some leaps in magical logic that don't quite make sense. The script, which must have consisted of dozens of pages reading “La Llorona screams in someone's face,” or “someone is dragged down a hallway,” is lightweight at best. Surprisingly, the only other writing credit for team Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis is the heartstrings-tugging cystic fibrosis teen romance “Five Feet Apart.” Bittersweet teen love is their thing; horror, not so much.
The “Conjuring” spinoffs are like Xerox copies — each new iteration comes out to diminished returns. The structure, ideas and style are there, but there isn't the same heft of themes or slick craft Wan expressed in his two “Conjuring” films. “The Curse of La Llorona” is middling B-movie schlock that goes for the low-hanging fruit: sequences you know will end with some kind of jump, bump or scream, and jokes that cut the tension and indicate everyone here knows what's up. We certainly do. Wail as she might, the silly, not scary “The Curse of La Llorona” never reaches the operatic heights that the best of the franchise can offer.
Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
‘The Curse of La Llorona'
Rated: R, for violence and terror
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: Starts April 19 in general release