Huesera: the Bone Woman opens and ends with spectacular images – of a gigantic golden Virgin Mary at a shrine to start, and of a writhing mass of naked zombie-like creatures to finish. In themselves they’re impressive but they also offer a distilled show-and-tell of the shift in tone Mexican director Michelle Garza Cervera has brought about over the 97 minutes’ running time of her movie.
Things start out in the everyday, rational, workaday world of a young woman, Valeria (Natalia Solián) who wants to have a baby. At the shrine she is visiting largely to keep her supersitious mother happy she offers up a prayer to the Virgin. Otherwise Valeria is relying on practical measures to get pregnant – sex with her husband followed by a period with her legs in the air, just to make sure.
It works. One day the doctor informs Valeria she’s pregnant and she is ecstatic, jumping up onto her husband Raúl (Alfonso Dosal) and wrapping her legs around his middle.
And yet… the next day at work making artisanal furniture Valeria nearly has a nasty accident with the bench saw. Looking out her back window one evening, Valeria sees a woman climbing up onto her balcony and throw herself off.
At the same time, little by little, the impending baby is forcing Valeria to abandon the certainties of her life. She has to give up her work on account of the chemicals she uses in the workshop. While packing stuff away, in a cupboard we catch a glimpse of Valeria’s former life, through her old belongings – an electric guitar, some radical books, campaigning posters.
In come the atmospherics. Valeria likes to crack her fingers, something she’s regularly being told not to do. As the pregnancy progresses, the cracking gets louder. Christian Giraud’s brilliant sound design starts to assert itself. Those noisy joints, the sound of that neighbour hitting the ground, or the cracking apart of a chicken at a family dinner, meat being sucked off bones, the incessant barking of a dog, all contribute to a growing sense of unease, and eventually dread.
There are visions too, like that neighbour committing suicide, which didn’t happen, Raúl points out, when there’s no obvious corpse Valeria can point at. Later, there are scuttling spiderlike creatures in the corner of Valeria’s field of vision. One of them goes so far as to break her foot, she says. Cramp, says Raúl.
Is Valeria involved in some sort of gaslighting incident? Is she gaslighting herself? Garza Cervera and co-writer Abia Castillo keep the options open as they build, largely through mood rather than jump scares, a creepy and increasingly paranoid portrait of a woman out of control of her life. Eventually, out of desperation, Valeria turns back to the old ways – in two senses. She re-establishes contact with Octavia (Mayra Batalla), an old friend whose relationship with Valeria explains why Valeria’s straitlaced sister, Vero (Sonia Couoh), is so hostile towards her sister. “People like you shouldn’t have children,” she spits. People like Valeria how?
And she turns towards Ursula (Martha Claudia Moreno), a local wisewoman with a few occult tricks up her sleeve.
A Rosemary’s Baby-adjacent horror movie gradually emerges, but whereas Polanski’s film signals that horror is the intention from the get-go, Huesera is still playing both sides of the coin till its final gasp. It still might all be in Valeria’s head.
This elision of genres is the film’s real achievement. It’s a domestic drama about a woman who’s longed for a child, and the disruption caused when she gets what she wants. And behind that a story about the life Valeria has chosen to lead, when another option was available. And behind that a flat-out, howling moondog tale of the supernatural.
Solián does abject terror particularly well and there are whole sections that are almost too tense to watch. But she also does guilt, regret, oppression, crushing disappointment and self-pity very well too. And in a story about the biggest horror of all being the abandonment of your own dreams, that’s exactly what’s needed.
Huesera: the Bone Woman – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2023