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I was ready to unearth those ancient fears when I walked into the South by Southwest premiere of “The Curse of La Llorona.” On our way into the theater, there were curanderos waving sticks of sage over the audience and we were given a red pañuelo. After a brief word from the film’s director, Michael Chaves, the main curandero took the stage. To ensure we didn’t take any bad spirits from the movie (or the haunted Paramount Theatre), he warded off the evil eye by waving a wind chime-like collection of blue and white charms, shook a maraca to drive away bad spirits, said a prayer as he brushed away bad feelings with several clothes in one hand and then instructed the audience how to wipe away negative energy with the pañuelo. He warned us not to bring the pañuelo home or we’d risk bringing those bad spirits back with us.
I wished “The Curse of La Llorona” lived up to that build-up. The loosely tied latest entry into “The Conjuring” universe suffers from an anemic script with too little scares and an under-appreciation for who would likely be its core audience. Screenwriters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (“Five Feet Apart”) approach horror as if only newcomers to the genre will watch the movie. It’s frustratingly simple, the dialogue over-explains everything and while there are a few solid moments of suspense, there’s too much dead air in-between. In the Q&A after the movie, it sounded like an existing script was retrofitted to fit in “The Conjuring” series’ creepy doll, Annabelle, and a few other references.
In his feature debut, Chaves proves himself a close student to James Wan’s visual style, including spooky set pieces that psych out the audience and good use of darkness and interior space. There’s even a nod to Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” camera swoop from the point-of-view of the invading spirit charging the front door. Yet, either because of budget or creative choice, his entry into “The Conjuring” series lacks the aged sense of the original, which felt steeped in horror movies of the late ‘70s. While this story is set in 1973 Los Angeles, it does not feel at home in that era apart from old school TV dinners, lack of cell phones and an old TV set.