SXSW final day recap

(Welcome to The SXSW Diaries, where we will be chronicling every single movie we see at the Austin-based film festival.)

Welcome to SXSW 2019 days eight and nine. In this final edition: The Curse of La Llorona is the worst Conjuring movie yet and Pet Sematary is one of the best Stephen King adaptations ever made.

The Curse of La Llorona

Although the trailers don’t spell it out, The Curse of La Llorona is set in the Conjuring universe, making it a cousin to Ed and Lorraine Warren, the cursed doll Annabelle, and that evil demonic Nun. This is made explicitly clear in the film itself, but anyone who has seen those previous films should figure it out immediately. After all, it follows a similar structure and has a similar aesthetic: a period setting, loud jump scares, an evil force that must be defeated to save a family, a paranormal expert who is recruited to save the day, etc. On paper, it should slide right in alongside those movies. In execution, it’s a tremendous failure. It’s not just the worst Conjuring movie, but a Conjuring movie that completely fails to capture what makes the other movies in the series (even the weaker ones) so satisfying.

The main thing The Curse of La Llorona has going for it is its title character, a child-stealing boogeyman who has haunted Latin American folklore for centuries. A figure with this kind of specific cultural baggage demands a story that feels unique to this legend, a tale of terror that could only star this particular spirit. So it’s damning that the film could swap her out with any other ghost without changing a thing about how the movie functions. This is a movie that wears the window dressing of Latinx culture, but not only fails to engage with it, but flat-out refuses. In a movie where the main character is a white single mother to mixed race kids, the chance to explore how a woman must understand and engage a heritage that is not her own to save her family is rife with metaphorical opportunities. And that’s what the best horror movies do – they use the scares to springboard to bigger ideas. She can turn away from La Llorona, but her children, children of a dead Hispanic police officer, cannot.

You can see infinite storytelling and character opportunities sprouting from that, can’t you? But the film never tends to those concepts. Seeds that are planted by default never sprout. Instead, this is 90 minutes of the most tired and trite PG-13 jump scares imaginable. There is no blood in this movie – literally, because it’s PG-13, and metaphorically, because it feels manufactured by committee.

Maybe the standard scares wouldn’t have mattered if the characters worked. I’m reminded of the Warrens from the core Conjuring movies, the rare horror heroes who outshine their villains and command our attention because they love their work, love the people they’re helping, and love each other. They make mistakes. They win hard victories. I can (and have and will again) write long and deep about how they bring the funhouse scares of those movies to new heights by giving us something to care about. The Curse of La Llorona does no such thing. I cannot tell you a single thing about the core characters beyond “they’re being chased by a ghost.” Even the supernatural specialist introduced halfway through the film, tantalizingly described as an ex-priest who is too extreme for the church, ends up being a stoic bore, a guy who declares that nothing scares him and then spends the back half of the movie…not being scared of anything. Even the Warrens were chilled by the horrible things they encountered and it made them all the more powerful as protagonists.

The Curse of La Llorona isn’t a near-perfect package like The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2. It isn’t a clever and creepy re-definition of its corner of the franchise like Annabelle: Creation. It doesn’t even swing for the fences like the gloriously over-the-top The Nun. It just hangs there, limp and dead and hoping people will give it an easy pass because it follows the beats of far superior movies. Don’t fall for this bullshit. That goes to New Line as well. Think long and hard before you give director Michael Chaves The Conjuring 3.

/Film Rating: 3 out of 10

pet sematary plot change

Pet Sematary

Stephen King’s Pet Sematary has been accurately called the horror master’s darkest novel, and that’s accurate enough. Not content to just dabble in supernatural terrors, it’s an unflinching examination of grief and how it breaks you, grinds you into pieces, and transforms you into a shell willing and able to make disastrous decisions to do something, anything, to stop the pain. Of course, King builds those emotions into a tapestry that also involves the living dead, cursed Native American burial grounds, and maybe a monster that lives in the woods. The resulting novel is considered a classic for a reason.

And you know what? All of that can also be applied to the new film adaptation from directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer. While it’s easy to imagine a more “faithful” adaptation, it’s far more difficult to picture a film that so perfectly encapsulates the grief-stricken horror that King crafted on the page. And like King’s work, Kölsch and Widmyer have managed to do all of this while making the experience, well, fun. Pet Semartary is hard-hitting, nerve-shredding horror, but it’s also a great time at the movies.

For its first half, Pet Sematary follows the beats of the novel and the (honestly, not particularly good) 1989 film adaptation. The Creed family moves to rural Maine. The Creed family learns they live near the local Pet Cemetery (misspelled on the entry sign, hence the title of the movie). The Creed family eventually learns the hard way that the lands beyond the Pet Sematary are the domain of evil forces and the cursed soil can bring the dead back to life. But sometimes, as the movie makes very clear in its brutal, bloody final act, dead is better.

However, King’s “Constant Readers” will be surprised by where this film goes. A massive change to the story around the halfway point fundamentally shifts the direction of the film. The ensuing ripple effect leads to a final stretch that could not be more different than the source material, even as it maintains similar notes of horrible, stomach-churning dread. Pet Sematary is the kind of adaptation that is wise enough to realize that capturing the spirit of the source is more important than recreating the exact same events in the order they occurred on the page.

It helps that Kölsch and Widmyer have assembled one hell of a cast. Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz are ideal as a couple whose fears become all-too-real when fueled by grief, but it’s Jeté Laurence who leaves the strongest impression as their daughter, Ellie. We’ll have to talk about this performance a lot more post-release, after more people have had a chance to see what she is asked to do and how she does it. (Sadly, John Lithgow‘s Jud Crandall, quite possibly my favorite Stephen King character of all time, gets cut to the bone, mainly because the film chooses to focus first and foremost on the Creed family unit and not their next door neighbor. As a reader, I missed his excised storylines. As a film watcher, it’s clear the book version of the character doesn’t fit in the movie Kölsch and Widmyer wanted to make.)

In many ways, Pet Sematary is the kind of ideal form of a studio horror film. Slick and finely produced, but unafraid to wallow in nastiness. Unapologetically brutal, but undeniably fun. Clearly built for maximum box office potential, but also a perfect vehicle for Kölsch and Widmyer’s unique voices, who cut their teeth on the mesmerizing indie Starry Eyes. More like this, please.

/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10

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