The Curse of La Llorona (R)

Warner Bros. Pictures

Syncretism has come to the Conjuring universe.

Quite obviously, The Curse of La Llorona is a story rooted in Mexican folklore, dating back to the 19th century, about a mother who does the unspeakable, killing her own children in a fit of jealous rage.

Considered as a piece within the Conjuring universe, however, the film functions much more like a different artifact of Mexican folklore – the ghastly Santa Muerte. Santa Muerte, Holy Death, is the product of a syncretistic melding of Catholic theology and Mexican folk religion. For those unfamiliar with this figure the words of Lujan Agusti, taken from a compelling photo essay published in The Washington Post, are concise:

“The Santa Muerte is a female folk saint venerated in Mexico. A personification of death, associated with healing, protection and safe delivery to the afterlife by her devotees. The worship of Santa Muerte is condemned by the Catholic Church in Mexico as invalid, but it is firmly entrenched in Mexican culture.”

Santa Muerte, a grim chimera born of Roman Catholic veneration of saints intermixed with pagan superstition, represents an older tradition which nonetheless parallels the advanced modernist project of religious pluralism. Your neighbor’s Coexist bumper sticker and Santa Muerte are cousins, if not siblings, and now, thanks to The Curse of La Llorona, the family has a home in the world of The Conjuring.

It is not entirely clear if La Llorona was always intended to be a Conjuring-universe film or if the connection was implanted at a later date as something like an Easter Egg. Regardless, the die was cast and now La Llorona must be evaluated not only as a standalone horror genre piece but as a component of the broader Conjuring landscape. This newest component changes the scenery significantly. This is no small issue, considering that while shared universes as a concept remain buzzy in Hollywood, their actual realization is still small, and the Conjuring universe is the third most prominent shared universe franchise running. Don’t believe it? Start counting. Marvel is the clear number one. Star Wars is just as clearly number two. After that? The Fast & the Furious is just now cracking the egg of moving beyond mere franchise status (with the forthcoming Hobbs and Shaw film). The same is true for the world of Transfomers (Bumblebee here being the equivalent of Hobbs and Shaw for the franchise). The DCEU has gained momentum lately, but is still dealing with the fallout from early stumbles. Who is left? That’s right – The Conjuring. The record here is far from spotless (looking at you Annabelle and The Nun), but nonetheless, the Conjuring is the third most important shared universe in our current Hollywood.

The primary ideological feature of the Conjuring shared universe is clearly the chills brought on by the existence of various bogeys going bump within its night. The second most prominent ideological marker is, perhaps surprisingly, Catholicism. The series is built around the real-world (defined as loosely as your worldview prefers) exploits of Ed and Lorraine Warren as paranormal investigators and problem-solvers. To be precise, and to demonstrate the point, the film is built on the Warrens as agents of good, working under the authority of God, legitimized by their association with the Roman Catholic Church. The films tell us that Ed Warren is the only non-priest authorized by Rome to perform exorcisms. Crucifixes and Holy Water form the toolkits used by the Warrens and their associates. Often Rome and her priests embody the countering power (and authority structure) waging war against the forces of evil. Take, for example, Tony Amendola’s Father Perez from 2014’s Annabelle. Not only is his character the first agent of good to take on the possessed doll in the 2014 film, but his appearance in La Llorona also forms the linkage between the film and the existing Conjuring universe.

Father Perez is a link in another important way.  It is Father Perez who recommends to the protagonist of La Llorona, Anna Tate-Garcia (played ably by Linda Cardellini, who fans of a certain generation can be forgiven for imagining as a grown up Velma Dinkly), the services of Raymond Cruz’s Rafael Olvera. Olvera is a former priest now working as a curandero (a type of shaman in Latin American folk religion). It is Olvera who actualizes the turn to syncretism in La Llorona. Olvera tells Tate-Garcia that he is a man who, despite having turned his back on the church, has never turned his back on God. In this way Olvera becomes an unsorted toolbox of mystical resources against the evil La Llorona represents. Does the situation call for a bit of sorcery? Then Olvera brings out some eggs for the cleansing limpia ritual. Are we dealing with a case of ghost-in-the-swimming-pool? Fine – Olvera grabs some holy sediment and draws on his lapsed Catholicism to create a murky uncleaned pool of Holy Water.

The Conjuring universe has been known to make a mess of the specific details of the Catholic theology and rituals that factor so significantly in their stories. La Llorona picks up this tradition at breakneck speed, appearing to never slow down long enough to consider the inconsistencies inherent in Olvera’s syncretism. In Catholic thought, a priest’s spiritual authority is an extension of the Church’s authority, and regulated by the priests relationship to that institution.  How, then, is a man self-consciously removed from the church able to create Holy Water in the moment of need?  “Can’t stop to talk,” the film appears to answer, “La Llorona has now entered the house!”

This film really does move at break-neck speed and, as a horror movie building its frights on  jump scares, the pace works. La Llorona is hyper-aggressive and relentless in her attacks, setting a tempo that keeps the repeated jump scares from feeling quite as obvious as a slower speed would reveal. The film is also benefitted by Patricia Velasquez’s performance as Patricia Alvarez, a mother made maniacal by grief. Even so, La Llorona leaves the viewer feeling like they have seen all this – the stalking ghost, the black-eyed white face, the distended jaw, the creaky house, the mystical spiritual confrontation – before, and in truth, the viewer is right. Nonetheless, La Llorona works as a better-than-average scary movie to be enjoyed on a dark and stormy night.

That La Llorona works as well as it does is a testament to the skill of director Michael Chaves and, through him, James Wan. Chaves does an admirable job of directing La Llorona as an homage to James Wan and the film is all the better for it. Wan’s greatest strength as a horror director is his ability to layer distinct shades of black (and the occasional gray) to capture the sense of variously seeing and not seeing some menacing figure lurking in the dark. Chaves gives a fitting tribute to the patriarch of the Conjuring universe with this same technique. Maybe the effect is not all that original, but he pulls it off and that success helps the film. Really, “not that original but effective nonetheless” may be the best summary of La Llorona available.

What the film does manage to do uniquely is open an in-universe portal to syncretism. Sadly, this new arrival does not serve the world of The Conjuring as a storytelling platform. The distinctly traditional spirituality of this universe worked as a unique identifying marker and conscientious viewers will be sad to see that marker get flattened into more pluralistic glop. La Llorona tells its watcher that Christianity and pagan religion aren’t all that different. Those two elements combined, in some fashion, to form the folklore of Santa Muerte as well. To get the final product, however, everything true, good, and beautiful within Christianity had to be jettisoned to make the synthesis take. By attempting that same bit of alchemy with La Llorona, the Conjuring universe may have thrown away the best it had to offer as well.

Jeff Wright is a husband, father, pastor, educator, and podcaster. He lives in very rural Middle Tennessee and watches a lot of movies. You can hear more from him on The Pop Culture Coram Deo Podcast.

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