The Mexican myth of La Llorona, or the ‘Weeping Woman’, is a story told to children to deter them from staying out alone at night. When her husband strayed, in an act of Medea-like vengeance she drowned their two children, and then herself – and now she comes for other children, her presence announced by the sound of her sobbing. She has featured in Mexican films like Rafael Baledón’s The Curse of the Crying Womnan (1961), Rigoberto Castañeda’s Kilometre 31 (2006) and Benjamin Williams’ J-ok’el (2007) – yet now, at a time when the POTUS has repeatedly promised to erect a wall between the US and Mexico, Michael Chaves’ The Curse of La Llorona smuggles this inconsolable ghost’s tradition across the border to America.
There are all manner of borders broken down in Chaves’ feature debut. After a prologue set in 1673 Mexico, it crosses over to 1973 California, so that La Llorona is now also L.A. Llorona. Here Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) juggles being both a busy social worker specialising in child abuse cases, and a widowed mother with two children of her own. As her double-barrelled surname suggests, Anna’s late husband was Hispanic, and her young children, Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), are mixed-race. When a Mexican mother (Patricia Velásquez) being investigated by Anna passes on the curse of La Lllorona, Anna turns for help to Rafael Olivera (Raymond Cruz), a one-time Catholic priest who has since become a shamanic curandero. In other words, all these characters and their mixed histories mirror the cross-cultural traffic in this film’s Hollywoodising adaptation of Latin American folklore. While we are at times reminded that La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez) is, or at least once was, human, she is also the focus of a fear that right now is more generally prevalent in Trump’s USA: an anxiety about illegal aliens importing their special brand of terror and taking over the American home. La Llorona – who speaks only Spanish in the film – embodies the object of such xenophobic dread.
The Curse of La Llorona is, of course, also part of Warner Bros’ The Conjuring universe, and you can tell. There is the slick mid-budget (which, for horror, is big-budget) production, and the predictable (and therefore more perfunctory than satisfying) jump scares every ten or so minutes. A scene is shoehorned into the middle of the film to tie its events loosely to the world of the Conjuring offshoot Annabelle (2014), while Samantha has a Raggedy Ann doll, Misty, that closely resembles the decidedly less creepy looking real Annabelle. The most interesting idea here is the merest ghost of a suggestion that the abuse of all these children might be coming from closer to home, with that irrational intruder a mere fantasy deflection from a grimmer, altogether more plausible reality. It is as though Chaves is hinting that America’s great fear of the other is really just a (projected) fear of the self. Soon, though, such ambiguities are cast aside by the very ‘real’ presence of a ghostly home invader, ensuring that the film ends up toeing the reactionary line that America is beleaguered by the spectre of implacable foreign malevolence. It is a horrifying, if rather disheartening, reflection of where we are today, in an otherwise efficient but unremarkable genre picture.
© Anton Bitel