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'The Curse of La Llorona' review: A ghost story, Mexican-American style

Linda Cardelinni as Anna Tate-Garcia in

Linda Cardelinni as Anna Tate-Garcia in  "The Curse of La Llorona." 

PLOT A figure from a Mexican folktale begins preying on a woman’s children.

CAST Linda Cardellini, Raymond Cruz

RATED R (disturbing imagery)

LENGTH 1:33

BOTTOM LINE A Mexican-American “Poltergeist.”

There’s a terrific chiller hiding somewhere in “The Curse of La Llorona,” which takes its inspiration from a Mexican ghost story. Its central figure, La Llorona, or the Weeping Woman, is one of the creepier bogey-women of urban folklore, right up there with Bloody Mary. If Michael Chavez’s debut film had delved a little deeper into her tale and into the culture that produced it, “The Curse of La Llorona” might have become something more than a serviceable but familiar-feeling horror film.

“The Curse of La Llorona” stars Linda Cardellini as Anna Tate-Garcia, a widowed mother of two and social worker living in Los Angeles in 1973. Her work isn’t always pretty: One of her cases, Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velazquez), seems to have gone a little mad, locking her children in a closet to protect them from an unnamed terror. Anna intervenes, only to learn later that the Alvarezes have met with tragedy. The curse of this film’s title, we suspect, has just been passed.

La Llorona turns out to be the ghost of a beautiful woman who, in 1673, drowned her two children and then herself after learning her husband was unfaithful. Now she wanders the Earth, weeping over her lost children and looking for others to drag to the nearest body of water.

That’s a great story with overtones of Greek myth and Gothic horror, but writers Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (“Five Feet Apart”) somehow make it feel generic. Anna and her young children (Roman Christou as Chris and Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen as Samantha) will be tormented by this spectral figure — ably played by Marisol Lopez as both a demon and a beauty — until they seek help from Rafael Olvera, a Santeria priest-shaman played by a somewhat stiff Raymond Cruz. Here, the story begins to rely too much on the mechanics of totems and talismans (crosses, pendants, holy water) rather than on the primal battle between two mirror-image mother-figures.

In other words, “The Curse of La Llorona” is yet another update of Steven Spielberg’s enduring “Poltergeist.” It has a few well-staged scares (one involving a bathtub), the appealing presence of Cardellini (“Green Book”) and the relative novelty of a Mexican-American influence to recommend it. Horror fans may also be pleased to spot the fleeting appearance of Annabelle, a creepy doll that links this film to the “Conjuring” universe.

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