March 17, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Michelle Garza Cervera
Spanish with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in Mexico, the horror film “Huesera: The Bone Woman” features a Latino cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A woman’s pregnancy and her sanity are threatened when she keeps having nightmarish visions of her bones breaking and women who can contort their limbs and seem to be agents of death.
Culture Audience: “Huesera: The Bone Woman” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in seeing bizarre horror movies with intriguing stories and striking visuals.
“Huesera: The Bone Woman” delivers plenty of creepy images and convincing acting performances. Just don’t expect a clear and complete explanation for all of the disturbing incidents in this effective horror movie. The movie’s sound effects are just as terrifying as the visuals.
“Huesera: The Bone Woman” is the feature-film debut of director Michelle Garza Cervera, who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Abia Castillo. The movie had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival, where Garza Cervera won the awards for Best New Narrative Director and the Nora Ephron Prize, an award given to emerging female filmmakers. Garza Cervera is certainly a talent to watch, since “Huesera: The Bone Woman” is the type of movie that will immediately hook viewers into the story and won’t let go.
The beginning of “Huesera: The Bone Woman” (which takes place in an unnamed city in Mexico) has a stunning visual of people gathered at the feet of La Virgen de Guadalupe (a giant gold statue of the Virgin Mary), somewhere in wooded area in Mexico. This statue (which is about 100 feet tall) doesn’t exist in real life, but it was created through visual effects for the movie. Religion and motherhood are major themes throughout “Huesera: The Bone Woman.”
The movie’s protagonist is a woman in her 30s named Valeria Hernandez (played by Natalia Solián), who has been married to her mild-mannered husband Raúl (played by Alfonso Dosal) for an untold number of years. Valeria (who makes furniture in her home shop) and Raúl (who works in advertising) seem to be happily married. But soon, viewers find out that the only strain in their marriage is that Valeria and Raúl have been trying unsuccessfully for a long time to have a child.
That disappointment is about to change when Valeria visits her gynecologist (played by Emilram Cossío) for a medical exam because she’s fairly certain that she’s pregnant. The doctor confirms that she’s three months pregnant. Valeria and Raúl are ecstatic about this happy news and start making plans for their first child. Valeria wants to make a crib for the baby, even though her doctor advises her to temporarily stop doing any furniture-making work while she’s pregnant.
Not everyone is thrilled about Valeria’s pregnancy. One day, Valeria and Raúl go to visit Valeria’s parents Luis (played by Enoc Leaño) and Maricarmen (played by Aida López), who are excited to hear that Valeria is going to become a parent. However, Valeria’s older sister Vero (played by Sonia Couoh), a single mother who lives in her parents’ household with Vero’s two kids, is skeptical that Valeria will be a good mother. Also in the household is Maricarmen’s sister Isabel (played by Mercedes Hernández), who has never been married and has no children.
Vero makes snide and sarcastic comments every time Valeria talks about the pregnancy, such as saying that she thought Valeria would never get pregnant because Valeria was getting to be “too old” to conceive a child. Vero also says that she wouldn’t trust Valeria to babysit or be alone with Vero’s two children: Jorge (played by Luciano Martí), who’s about 10 or 11 years old and Paola (played by Camila Leoneé), who’s about 9 or 10 years old. Why is so Vero so uptight and hostile about Valeria being around children?
When the family is gathered for a meal at the dining room table, Vero tells Raúl why she thinks Valeria won’t have good parenting skills: When Valeria was younger (perhaps when she was an adolescent), she was asked to babysit an infant, but Valeria dropped the child on the ground. An embarrassed Valeria tells Raúl that the baby wasn’t injured, but viewers later find out that it’s a lie.
After this uncomfortable family gathering, Raúl and Valeria are driving back to their home when a woman stops the car to talk to them. Her name is Octavia (played by Mayra Batalla), who was close to Valeria when they were in high school together. Octavia and Valeria haven’t seen or spoken to each other in years. They make small talk, as Valeria introduces Raúl to Valeria.
Octavia looks at Raúl suspiciously and immediately gives off “jealous ex-girlfriend” vibes. And sure enough, later in the movie, it’s revealed that Valeria and Octavia were lovers when they were teenagers. Raúl doesn’t know, and neither does Valeria’s family. It’s implied that Valeria has been keeping her queer identity a secret from most people in her life.
Flashbacks in the movie show that teenage Valeria (played by Gabriela Velarde) and teenage Octavia (played by Isabel Luna) were both in a rebelllious, hard-partying clique that included other queer people. Valeria and Octavia even made plans to move away together after they graduated from high school. However, Valeria changed her mind, and that’s what ended her relationship with Octavia, who seems to still be heartbroken and bitter over this breakup. Valeria later finds out that Octavia, who still has a hard-partying lifestyle, lives by herself and is not dating anyone special.
Because “Huesera: The Bone Woman” is a horror movie, it doesn’t take long for some frightening things to happen. Valeria begins to imagine that bones in parts of her body (such as a foot) suddenly break. She also sees faceless women who contort their bodies in grotesque ways and seem to be coming after Valeria to attack her or do something violent.
There’s a scene where Valeria is looking at the apartment building that’s directly across from the apartment building where Valeria and Raúl live. Valeria is horrified to see a faceless young woman contort her body, climb on the balcony, and jump to her death. Valeria even sees the bloodied and mangled corpse on the ground. But when Valeria rushes to tell Raúl about what she saw, and they both go to investigate, there’s nothing there.
“Huesera: The Bone Woman” can get a little repetitive with the over-used horror narrative of a woman seeing terrifying visions that no one else can see, and then people start to think that she’s mentally ill. However, many of the images in “Huesera: The Bone Woman” are truly unique, particularly in the movie’s last 15 minutes. Fire and water are both used effectively in some of the film’s best scenes, by tapping into fears of drowning or burning to death.
And get used to the sound of bones being contorted or fractured. Not only does Valeria have a habit of cracking her knuckles, the visions that haunt her almost always include the sounds of bones breaking. It might be too nauseating for some viewers, but the movie’s sound design and sound mixing are top-notch for achieving the intended horror. The cinematography by Nur Rubio Sherwell is also noteworthy for how it creates a foreboding atmosphere, amid what is supposed to be domestic bliss for a new mother.
“Huesera: The Bone Woman” blurs the lines between what is religion and what is pagan witchcraft. More than once, Valeria visits a spiritualist named Ursula (played by Martha Claudia Moreno) for guidance and some rituals. Valeria’s Aunt Isabel, who is treated like a weirdo in the family, because Isabel never got married and has no children, becomes more important to troubled Valeria, as Valeria starts to question her own life choices.
All of the cast members play their parts well, but “Huesera: The Bone Woman” would not be as memorable without the stellar lead performance of Solián. Even when the story gets a little muddled, and viewers will begin to wonder why it’s taking so long to explain why Valeria is experiencing all this terror, Solián maintains an authenticity to her character throughout the movie. Valeria is not a typical “damsel in nightmarish distress” from horror movies, which often care more about the murdered body count than the interior lives of the protagonists.
Is there a bone woman named Huesera in the movie? In real life, there is a fairly obscure Mexican folk tale about an elderly woman named Huesera, who collected bones and brought these bones back to life, but don’t expect that to be part of the movie’s story. “Huesera: The Bone Woman” could have done the most obvious thing and made the movie into a ghost story, with Huesera haunting Valeria. However, by the end of the film, viewers can understand the intended message: Sometimes, what can haunt people the most is when they try to hide from their true selves.
XYZ Films released “Huesera: The Bone Woman” in select U.S. cinemas on February 10, 2023. Shudder premiered the movie on February 16, 2023. “Huesera: The Bone Woman” was released on digital and VOD on February 17, 2023.