Things go bump in the night — and, as an occasional change of pace, in the middle of the afternoon — with a frequency that will neither surprise nor disappoint genre fans throughout “The Curse of La Llorona,” an efficiently formulaic shocker inspired by the centuries-old Mexican legend of the titular bogeywoman. It’s set in Los Angeles during the early 1970s, for no readily apparent reason other than to justify the what-the-hell inclusion of Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” theme on the soundtrack. But its true location clearly is a distant corner of producer James Wan’s “The Conjuring” extended horror-movie universe, which gets a fleeting wink-wink hat-tip early on with a clever cameo appearance by Tony Amendola in his “Annabelle” role as Father Perez.
Linda Cardellini strikes a credible balance of maternal instincts and mortal terror as Anna Garcia, a social worker and widowed mom who suspects the worst when she discovers a woman in her caseload has been keeping her two small boys locked in a closet in their apartment. Despite the mother’s frantic insistence that she’s been driven to extremes to protect her children from an ungodly evil, the boys are taken away from her and placed in foster care. Within hours, they are found drowned in a reservoir — and Patricia (Patricia Velásquez), the distraught mom, is considered a prime suspect.
As it turns out, however, the real culprit is La Llorona, aka The Weeping Woman, the malevolent spirit of a 17th-century Mexican beauty who drowned her own two children in a jealous rage to punish her unfaithful husband, and now walks the Earth to claim, or kill, other unfortunate youngsters. But wait, there’s more: Because Patricia blames Anna for her tragic loss, she prays for La Llorona to add the social worker’s young children, Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) and Chris (Roman Christou), to her hit list. It doesn’t take long for prayers to be answered.
First-time feature director Michael Chaves is a great deal short of subtle while, as regularly as clockwork, he utilizes La Llorona (portrayed by Marisol Ramirez as a decrepit apparition in a white gown and veil) to provide the jarring pay-off for slow-build scenes featuring sudden gusts of wind, slamming doors and windows, and portentous shots of dripping faucets, unwinding car-window handles, and a backyard swimming pool that appears roughly the size of Rhode Island.
But, then again, people who buy tickets for a rock-the-house scare fest like “The Curse of La Llorona” — and, rest assured, this movie is bound to sell lots and lots of tickets to easily satisfied customers when it opens April 19 — usually aren’t in the market for nuance and understatement. No, they really want to savor the shared experience of screaming, or at least audibly expressing startlement, each time someone or something does the equivalent of sneaking up on them and yelling “Boo!”
That same audience customarily also enjoys laughing out loud at those clumps of cliché-heavy, on-the-nose dialogue that sometimes deliberately, sometimes inadvertently, provide comic relief. Scriptwriters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis provide an adequate sprinkling of such howlers, saving the best lines for Raymond Cruz as Rafael Olvera, a former priest turned freelance curandero (or faith healer) armed with a slew of magic potions and powders, and a sly, self-mocking wit.
Cruz infuses Rafael with such incontestable authority that you almost believe he’s proposing a rational game plan rather than rationalizing a plot contrivance when he tells Anna and her children that they might as well stick around their besieged house during the third act and fight La Llorona there because, really, she’d probably just follow them if they vamoose to somewhere safer. Even if they’d flee to a place with better lighting, and without a ginormous swimming pool.