The majority of great horror films, while they might be about a monster waiting in the corner, they unquestionably are about some form of cultural anxiety, as I discovered in my college class: “The Rhetoric of Horror.” After all, Freddy was a child molester, Jason (and his mother), along with countless other slasher antagonists, despised promiscuous teenagers, Leatherface was about how we kill animals, and Candyman was about the generational trauma African Americans have to undergo throughout the years.
But one cultural anxiety that Hollywood loves to tackle is the horror of motherhood. The terror and anxiety associated with the concept of becoming a mother—having your body (and identity) transform for the sake of bringing a new life into the world—have been explored in movies like Alien and its sequel Aliens, as well as the MVP of the subject, Rosemary’s Baby. Mexican screenwriter and director Michelle Garza Cervera (in her directorial debut) tackle the horrors of motherhood in her directorial debut Huesera: The Bone Woman, which is a chilling movie surrounding the subject.
Huesera: The Bone Woman is not “truly” a horror movie in the manner that we have all come to expect from the genre, I will say that upfront. The movie excels as a psychological thriller, but it also features some amazing body horror visuals that are inspired by the legend of “La Huesera,” a woman who collects bones, in Mexican folklore. Huesera: The Bone Woman examines how a woman might cope with all the societal expectations of bearing a child and the very real dread that might result from it, rather than offering a modern-day interpretation of the old myth.
Valeria (Natalia Solián) and her husband Raul (Alfonso Dosal) have been trying for a long time to get pregnant and start a family. Even doing so much as going to a statue of the Virgin Mary and praying for the miracle of pregnancy. Once they are successful in conceiving a child, things start to fall apart for Valeria. Her overly judgmental family offers their opinions of what she needs to do, her doctor says she can no longer continue her carpentry job, due to the hazardous chemicals she uses, and her husband Raul’s attention turns towards her pregnancy instead of to her. He no longer even wants to be intimate with her due to fears that he may hurt the baby while engaging in sex. Slowly but surely in Huesera: The Bone Woman, Valeria is losing her individuality, and soon enough: her mind.
Valeria, who is shown to crack her knuckles when she starts to be stressed out, starts to see a faceless person whose body is going through all sorts of contortions. While there aren’t many jump scares that we have come to expect from the horror genre, it is legitimately creepy when we see what she sees. At first, the contortions are “troubling,” but as her pregnancy continues, they turn to broken bone scenes, to literal bones snapping through the skin for both this shadowy creature, but also for Valeria herself in her hallucinations.
One thing that Huesera: The Bone Woman excels in is raising the question, is what’s happening really real? Or is this just the stress and hallucinations of a woman who is going through a traumatic pregnancy? Flashbacks reveal a more rebellious (and freer) life for Valeria that she lived prior to meeting Raul and deciding to get married and start a family. She was openly bisexual, lived on the edge, and didn’t adhere to her family’s standards but she then changed all that to adhere to standards set by others. The manifestations feel like they are a guilty conscience for someone who feels ”stuck” in a life she didn’t want to have. But then again, certain things happen throughout the film that also displays that perhaps this isn’t all in her head, and Huesera: The Bone Woman explores Mexican folklore and “pagan” religions as much as it explores Christianity. The answer is never truly defined in the film’s climax either leaving it up to the audience’s interpretations.
Michelle Garza Cervera’s excellent use of sound and lighting really brings out the horror in Huesera: The Bone Woman. Every moment that Valeria is going through hell is even more terrifying by the twisted imagery presented in the film. In addition to the directing, the acting is outstanding, especially Natalia Solián as Valeria. You are immediately empathetic to her as her performance as a person going through the trauma of pregnancy is almost perfect. Now, are all pregnancies like this? Of course not! But thanks to outstanding directing, very tense scenes, outstanding and creepy visuals, and sound design, Huesera: The Bone Woman is one hell of a thriller about a very real cultural anxiety that at least half of the planet has to deal with.
Huesera: The Bone Woman is currently in select theaters and On Demand.