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story.lead_photo.caption Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) are siblings threatened by the spirit of a 17th-century woman who’d lost her own children in Michael Chaves’ The Curse of La Llorona.

A few weeks ago, my daughter got to take in the wondrous, terrifying splendor of Jordan Peele's Us, (and yes, concerned parents, 13 is a bit young, but as I was debating taking her or not, I realized that she was the exact age I was when I first saw Alien, one of my all-time favorite films, so I went with it). Fully convinced that she now loved horror flicks, she also begged to come with me to see this one from director Michael Chaves. True to typical form, it was pretty dreadful -- clumsy, lazy, and stultifying -- so when we walked out together, she had a look of preoccupied consternation on her face.

Eventually she looked up. "Why are some horror movies really good and some really bad?" she asked innocently, not quite realizing what sort of question that was to ask a windbag film critic. We spent the rest of the walk home talking about this essential idea, what it is that makes a good horror film in the first place.

The Curse of La Llorona

75 Cast: Linda Cardellini, Madeleine McGraw, Andrew Tinpo Lee, DeLaRosa Rivera, Irene Keng, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, John Marshall Jones, Marisol Ramirez, Oliver Alexander, Patricia Velasquez, Paul Rodriguez, Raymond Cruz, Ricardo Mamood-Vega, Roman Christou, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola

Director: Michael Chaves

Rating: R, for violence and terror

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Whatever it may be, it certainly isn't this. Early on in this '70s period-piece horror flick, a young character sits on the floor watching Scooby Doo on the family TV; an all-too appropriate period detail (in a film otherwise almost utterly lacking in them) for the cartoonish apparitions to come.

The film's opening coda begins in 17th-century Mexico, as a happy family spinning around in an idyllic wheat field are suddenly torn asunder, the mother drowning her young boys for reasons unspecified. From there, we jump to 1973 L.A., as social worker Anna (Linda Cardellini), meets with a client (Patricia Velasquez), who has inexplicably locked her two small boys in a closet, with evil-warding symbols on the door. Thinking the children are being abused, Anna removes them from the premises and gets them to what she thinks is safety in a pediatric hospital.

What she doesn't yet realize, is that the desperate woman was hiding her kids from that diabolical 17th-century mother, now turned evil spirit known as "La Llorona," who flies around searching for children to claim as her own before drowning them. Naturally, this knowledge comes too late for Anna's own kids, Chris (Roman Christou), and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), living with their mother alone after their cop dad was killed on duty. Switching her focus, La Llorona now chooses to terrorize this family, causing Anna to seek outside help from Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a former priest, now turned anti-spirit avenger. Together, they set up a final showdown with La Llorona at the family compound (with its all too inviting swimming pool in the backyard).

For the most part, Chavez's film plays like one of those video templates you'd find in a consumer level movie editing app -- plugging in footage, and having the software divvying it up into the expected chunks. Loaded with weak dialogue ("It's called 'smudging,'" a helpful priest explains to Anna, as she watches a younger padre use the smoke from a holy decanter to purify his flock), nonsensical scenes designed solely to allow for more jump scares, anachronistic details (when asked by her mom how her day went, Sam answers in perfect 21st-century aphorism "Same old, same old") and truly putrid acting (even from the usually trustworthy Cardellini, I'm afraid), the film scuffles around doing its rote scary business without anything resembling inspiration. When the most suspenseful scene involves a character doing precisely the opposite of what he or she was just warned not to do, you know you're dealing with the veritable bottom sludge of the cider jug.

As with their Mystery Van brethren, Anna and her family quickly learn the parameters of La Llorona's reign of terror, here from Rafael -- all the ways you must keep her out (light, chanting, special sawdust, presumably jazz fusion) -- which naturally makes her so perfectly predictable, anything even remotely approaching creepy is bled dry.

In place of anything really unsettling, all we get is the standard, bored tropes: flickering lights, creepy attics, shrieking kids -- and a steady diet of would-be jump scares until you just want Llorona to show up already and get it over with. What's worse, the film continually alludes to a terrifying doll from another such film -- yes, we have apparently entered into New Line's Annabelle/Conjouring Universe, now please let me the hell out.

As an example of failure, however, La Llorona turned out to be very instructive. As my daughter and I were approaching the apartment, we determined that one essential ingredient to good horror is genuine surprise. Not just a handful of tired, predictable jump-scares, but something actually unexpected and startling. We talked about Psycho, which she hasn't seen yet but knows is the reason her grandmother still will never take a shower in a hotel room, as an example of what happens when an audience is genuinely shocked to the core. Done properly, a masterful horror film can stay with you the rest of your life; done poorly and you've mostly forgotten about it before you even make it back home.

MovieStyle on 04/19/2019

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