I suspect every fright fan has had the experience of dozing off streaming a crappy horror movie. All the beats are so soothingly predictable: If the soundtrack goes quiet, expect a jump scare in approximately 10 seconds. (When it's not time for anything scary to happen yet, the sound mixer will simply turn an innocent Foley effect — in The Curse of La Llorona, the clatter of a bead curtain — up to 11.) If there's a reflective surface, expect the Scary Thing to appear there. If a main character is alone, framed for several beats in shallow focus, look for the Scary Thing in the background. Rinse, repeat.
The Conjuring movies turned these formulas into a science, at their best milking them for genuine shudders. But the tricks are growing tired. Witness The Curse of La Llorona, which is linked to the hit series by a reference to the evil doll Annabelle, a production team and director Michael Chaves (who helmed forthcoming The Conjuring 3). If you're on the couch at home, this movie is fine to doze off to, and that's about it.
"La Llorona" ("the weeping woman") is a figure in Mexican and Latin American folklore who, according to the film, killed her own children to punish a cheating husband, then was "cursed" to walk the Earth as a child-snatching phantom. The screenplay, by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (Five Feet Apart), doesn't specify who signed off on this form of damnation.
But, since God and the devil most definitely exist in the Conjuring universe, perhaps we can assume the Almighty was A-OK with sending La Llorona to test the parental mettle of Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini), a widowed social worker in 1973 Los Angeles. When a distraught client (Patricia Velasquez) blames her sons' drownings on the phantom, Anna assumes the woman is an abuser in denial. Then La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez) starts stalking Anna's own kids (Roman Christou and Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), and, in desperation, the mom turns to a priest-recommended faith healer.
Played by Raymond Cruz, aka Tuco on "Breaking Bad," the curandero camps things up pleasantly. But he is overstating the case when he intones, "We are facing an evil that has no bounds!" Aside from her signature waterworks, La Llorona does very little that The Nun or the demons in those other movies didn't do before her — mainly, creep around the family's Victorian home playing peekaboo.
Chaves does a passable job with the scare formulas described above, but the characters are such poorly drawn placeholders that it's impossible to feel invested in their survival. The kids are no more than pint-size plot devices: Initially, they don't tell their mom about the phantom who's been leaving hideous burns on their wrists, not because they're traumatized or under La Llorona's spell, but (apparently) because the filmmakers want to keep Anna in the dark. When she asks, the kids readily spill all.
A movie that's supposedly about safeguarding the innocents owes at least a bit more respect and agency to its younger characters. For a better film that uses demon mythology to highlight a caregiver's anxieties, see Paco Plaza's Verónica — which you can stream, but which is less likely to let you doze than La Llorona.
Artistically speaking, it's well past time for The Conjuring universe to stop expanding. Commercially speaking, however, let's just say La Llorona led the box office this weekend, beating out the more traditional Easter offering Breakthrough. So expect to see a lot more soporific scare flicks.