Here it is, ladies, the one we’ve all been waiting for: a horror movie that loves women. It’s atmospheric, thrilling, compelling, sexy, beautiful, and scary as hell.
Huesera is the latest in a wave of horror films marketing themselves as ‘folk horror,’ but director Michelle Garza Cervera throws in body horror, feminist themes, and a slowly repressive maternity to create a truly heady and intoxicating thrill ride. The film revolves around the first pregnancy of a young woman named Valeria (Natalia Solián). What begins as a joyful venture into motherhood quickly descends into a nightmarish third trimester as her impending maternity manifests in increasingly terrifying ways.
Valeria is a woman haunted by traditional womanhood. Although delighted when she first finds out she is pregnant, Valeria feels her very identity being stripped away by her future as a mother. She needs to surrender her craft of furniture building because of the dangerous tools and chemicals. She can’t smoke, she doesn’t enjoy food anymore, and her initially sweet but increasingly unsupportive boyfriend Raoul (Alfonso Dosal) won’t touch her. As her pregnancy goes on, she is traumatised by visions of spiders and faceless bone cracking creatures that stalk her every move. The dread of a lifetime of domesticity and the fear of surrendering her identity leads her to reflect on her life as a young passionate punk, and drives her back to her first love, Octavia.
‘Huesera’ roughly translates as ‘bonesetter’ in English, and should give some idea of the supernatural body horror that awaits. While the film has every opportunity to be gimmicky, Garza Cervera establishes an immediate trust with her audience with her skilled and measured hand. This is more of an atmospheric horror than an all-out bloodbath, and much of the tension in the film initially comes from not knowing whether Valeria is actually haunted by a malevolent spirit or whether the disturbing images she experiences are the consequence of her antenatal and post-partum depression. Either way, the horror she experiences seems to be rooted in the frightening experience of losing agency over her own body. She surrenders her pleasure in sex, her pleasure in food, her passion for creating. When deciding whether she should start taking antidepressants, Raul and his mother decide, Valeria is not consulted.
Eventually she goes to the medical woman to have her spirit cleansed, and the bruja tells her that she sees a house, but that the house is also a cage. Indeed, the film presents a realistic but beautifully composed mis-en-scène, replete with vibrant colours and dappled shadows, assisted by director of photography Nur Rubio Sherwell. It almost feels too pleasant and charming for a horror film, with the kitchen almost resembling an IKEA set. This is all very intentional, and brings the horror closer to home, making it feel as though these nightmares could happen in our own living rooms. The natural dialgoue and performances and likeable characters add to this effect, and then the charming spectacle suddenly becomes striking and gothic, lending a wonderful texture to the visual landscape of the film.
From cheering “I don’t like domestication” with her queer punk friends to sitting trapped in her beautifully home-crafted nursery, the horror in Huesera is the manifestation of Valeria’s burgeoning certainty that the life of domesticity laid out before her is a trap. This is a feminist film, in theme as well as in visual representation. After decades of women’s bodies appearing as bouncing curvy pin cushions in horror films, there to be slashed, stabbed, terrified, and generally abused, it is incredibly refreshing to see a real female body possess the screen: pregnant, hairy, yearning. The horror is enacted on her, but it also comes from within her: she is also the agent of horror.
‘La Huesera’ has a double meaning in the film. Originally, La Huesera is the story of a woman who gathers bones in the desert, particularly those of wolves. When she has assembled an entire skeleton, she sings to it until the wolf comes to life. The creature then runs away free towards the horizon. This is the freedom Valeria once had, this is the freedom that haunts her, this is the freedom that drives her back into the arms of Octavia and the promise of a wild, passionate, unregulated life in the mountains.
The steady dread that rises in Valeria and draws dark forces towards her like sharks towards blood represents a truly compelling and deft fusion of real-life psychological horror and supernatural folk horror that is admirably balanced by Garza Cervera. Huesera is a horror movie that deals with women’s fears, women’s rage, women’s passion and women’s interests.
While Huesera is more of an atmospheric horror than its bone-cracking title implies, it is nevertheless a tense, thrilling, maternal body horror that resists the ordinary. It is refreshingly feminist, beautifully shot, and above all, truly, truly frightening.
Words by Eli Dolliver
This film was screened as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. You can find the rest of our coverage here.
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