Movie Review ~ The Curse of La Llorona

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Ignoring the eerie warning of a troubled mother suspected of child endangerment, a social worker and her own small kids are soon drawn into a frightening supernatural realm.

Stars: Linda Cardellini, Patricia Velasquez, Raymond Cruz, Sean Patrick Thomas, Marisol Ramirez, Madeleine McGraw

Director: Michael Chaves

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Loosen your belts, good audience members, because The Conjuring Universe continues to expand at a rapid rate. The Conjuring sent moviegoers screaming in 2013 and it wasn’t long before we had a decent sequel and spin-offs including 2014’s Annabelle (and its 2017 far superior follow-up Annabelle: Creation) and 2018’s The Nun. Now, hot on the heels of the new release The Curse of La Llorona, is Annabelle Comes Home, arriving in just a few months. What began as unexpectedly frightening solid shocker stand-alone film has grown into a cottage industry franchise of fear. The question is, in a saturated market of theatrical releases, movies on demand, and streaming originals, can the filmmakers behind these horror flicks continue to introduce interesting characters that make future sequels of interest?

While The Curse of La Llorona ultimately fares better than The Nun (partly because it manages to make it to the finish line making some modicum of sense), the cracks are starting to show in The Conjuring Universe and it’s time for some originality to be brought back into the mix. The film is efficient, well-made, and delivers the requisite scares to give the audiences a jolt every five minutes (sometimes less) but it doesn’t captivate you like truly memorable horror films should. Like a late night trip to Taco Bell, it gets the job done but isn’t all that good for you.

A short prologue set in idyllic 17th century Mexico introduces us to a mother (Marisol Ramirez, Circle) who suddenly drowns her young sons for no apparent reason. Flash forward to 1973 Los Angeles and the story picks up with widowed social worker Anna (Linda Cardellini, Green Book) making a house call to Patricia (Patricia Alvarez, The Mummy) who has two boys that haven’t shown up to school lately. Finding the mother out of sorts (to put it mildly) and the boys locked in a closet, Anna steps in and places the boys in protective care while their mother gets the help she needs.

Unfortunately, the moment Anna opens that closet door she becomes part of a curse that affects everyone around her, including her children Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynn Kinchen). She’s incurred the wrath of La Llorona, a vengeful spirit doomed to roam the earth searching for children to replace the two she murdered. Stemming from Mexican folklore, La Llorona is used as a way for parents to scare their children into following the straight and narrow. “You better be good or La Llorona will come and get you!” Now, this spirit has her sights set on Anna’s children and will stop at nothing to make them her own.

Working from a script by Mikki Daughtry & Tobias Iaconis (also represented currently in theaters with Five Feet Apart), director Michael Chaves (who is signed up to direct The Conjuring 3) doesn’t bring the same kind of flashy élan to the frights like other directors in The Conjuring Universe but what he does have is a good sense of rhythm in keeping the scares coming at a good pace. True, most of the frights are forced into your body because they’re accompanied with a loud noise that you can’t help but tense up at but there are a few nice shocks delivered just after the hairs on the back of your neck have been raised to full attention.

Daughtry and Iaconis unfortunately dumb down Anna and her kids into people that experience something they can’t explain and choose not to tell anyone else. All three of them are living in the same house and they can’t share they are all seeing the same ghostly apparition of a creepy lady in a white dress? To their credit, Cardellini and the children make a believable family unit, one that is still grieving over the loss of their father, which is one of several plot points never fully explored. There are attempts to link the movie to the original Annabelle film but aside from that brief glimpse of the creepy doll in a flashback this is largely a property unto itself.  Several characters are also introduced and you think they’re going to play a major role…but we wind up never seeing them again.

If there’s one thing I can say that I’ve enjoyed about these films in The Conjuring Universe it’s that they’ve all been set in the past. This removes the advances of technology as a way to help our terrorized family and prevents them from roaming the internet for ways to escape the ghoul preying on them. In The Curse of La Llorona, the lack of outside assistance/knowledge brings about the introduction of a shaman (Raymond Cruz), a sort of a stone-faced wise-cracking urban exorcist. Cruz’s character may bring some comic relief to the proceedings but his once-holy man seems to come from another movie entirely.

At a scant 93 minutes, The Curse of La Llorona doesn’t overstay its welcome and my audience seemed to have a dandy of a time screaming along with the movie. The scares are modestly commendable when they are doled out with precision and less successful when things just pop into frame along with a loud sting of music. I saw this in IMAX and should have brought earplugs. I’m sure the movie will do the kind of business that will encourage the people behind this franchise to keep going – I just ask that they take a little more time to think things through in future entries. If they want to make this a true universe, they should also be attempting to connect their films more than just having random props from other movies pop up.  I mean, the doll from Annabelle also appeared in Aquaman and Shazam!…do they belong in The Conjuring Universe too?

Movie Review ~ Pet Sematary (2019)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Dr. Louis Creed and his wife, Rachel, relocate from Boston to rural Maine with their two young children. The couple soon discover a mysterious burial ground hidden deep in the woods near their new home.

Stars: Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Amy Seimetz, Jeté Laurence, Obssa Ahmed

Directors: Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Normally, I’m not a fan of remakes of originals that were just fine to begin with. Stephen King’s 1989 adaption of his own novel Pet Sematary was a solid horror film that has held up quite well over the past thirty years. Sure, it’s low tech and some of the performances delve into out-of-place hysterics at times but it was largely a successful effort and often spoken of highly as one of the better King adaptations that have made it to the big screen.

Yet I wasn’t that mad at the fact that the source material was going to get another treatment…and I actually thought it was long overdue. After a lackluster sequel that failed to move the series forward in any compelling way, the property just sort of sat there on the shelf for the ensuing years. I’ve always considered the book and its concept to be one that would lend itself well to multiple sequels and creative approaches yet no one had bothered to take another crack at it. As the original film approached it’s 30th anniversary, Paramount decided to dig up their former horror hit and handed it over to three guys that have been making a name for themselves in the scare business.

The new film has a screenplay written by Jeff Buhler who already had The Prodigy in 2019 and will pen upcoming remakes of Jacob’s Ladder and The Grudge, and was directed by Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer who gave us the underrated horror gem Starry Eyes. Having these three give King’s tale of a city family that moves to the country and experiences the dangerous power of a nearby burial ground seemed like an on the money choice and with stars like Jason Clarke (The Aftermath) and John Lithgow (Pitch Perfect 3) on board this remake was elevated up a few notches from being just a shameless cash-in.

The Creed family has uprooted their life and moved to a small town in Maine so Louis (Clarke) can be a big fish in a small pond as the doctor at a local university. Like the first film, his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz, You’re Next) doesn’t seem to have much of a life of her own outside of taking care of their two young children so while Louis goes to work Rachel begins the process of setting her family up in their new house. Friendly neighbor Jud (Lithgow) catches young Ellie (Jeté Laurence) exploring in the woods and shows her the pet sematary on their property where children come to bury their pets. When tragedy strikes the Creed family, Louis is driven to make an unholy choice involving the pet sematary that has deadly repercussions for everyone.

While the film largely falls into the remake category, with names and situations that echo what we’ve read/seen before, certain elements of the plot have been reimagined and not all of them work as well as they should. If you’ve seen the previews you’re likely aware of the one big change from the book/original film and that choice is, in hindsight, a smart one considering what it allows the filmmakers to do with the final 1/3 of the movie. What I didn’t care for, actually, was that last act when it became less of a slow-burn horror movie and more of a cheap scare machine which undercut some of the strong structure that was built up early on.

Another strange thing about this film is that Buhler’s script is overly talky. In most cases, having some extra character development in a movie designed to provide maximum scare time would be welcome but there seemed to be an endless series of scenes with Louis and Rachel talking in their bedroom. Feeling like low-grade Cassavetes, their marital squabbles and differences of opinion in how much they share with their children about death starts to feel intrusive to the frights. After a while, you begin to wish the bad thing that is coming will just happen so they’ll have something else to talk about.

Clarke, as usual, makes for a reliable leading man and the conflict Louis experiences sits well with him. No one plays tragically at odds with oneself quite like Clarke can. Like the movie, he starts to veer off course near the end but he holds on longer than the film does. I’ve not seen Seimetz in a lot of things but she brought a nice layer to Rachel that wasn’t present in the previous film. The subplot concerning her guilt over an incident from her childhood involving her dying sister isn’t as scary as the 1989 version because its less subtle but she navigates some jarring pseudo-scares quite well. The Jud character was always the most memorable in these films and while Lithgow is no Fred Gwynne, his wind-beaten face and growly voice convinced me right off the bat he was the right guy for the role. The trickiest part in the film is taken on by Laurence as the Creed’s daughter who has to play a whole range of emotions – for a young performer tasked with the film’s most important material she is a strong presence.

As they demonstrated in Starry Eyes, Kölsch & Widmyer know how to slowly turn up the heat on their movie pot and allow it to boil over at just the right time. Here, though, the pot stays on the fire just a hair too long, that is the difference between a remake that sticks its landing, and one that bites off more than it can chew. (I’m trying to jam pack this with metaphors today, clearly). The ending of the film doesn’t measure up and just gets too bizarre to the point where the audience laughs in all the right places but more than a few unintentional passages as well.

I feel like we’re going to be seeing more of these remakes of popular films over the next few years and if they turn out like Pet Sematary I won’t be totally disappointed. There’s some thought that went into this one and more than few examples of creativity on display that are worth noting from directors that are continuing to hone their craft. Showing a bit more appreciation for narrative follow-through and arriving at an ending that satisfies is what was missing.