Huesera is a body horror film about pregnancy and motherhood, but not in the ways that might immediately come to mind when tying that subgenre with those themes. It’s not particularly interested in distended stomachs or bleeding tubes; “huesera” is Spanish for “bonesetter,” and one of its marketing photos (a headless skeleton holding a skull in each hand, contorted to look like a uterus and fallopian tubes) indicates what’s going to happen. The movie is all about nerves, discomfort and contortion—the pain of forcing yourself to try to be and want things you’d rather not be or do. It’s about a queer punk rocker trapping herself in a picturesque, unfulfilling, heteronormative lifestyle to meet [mostly] unspoken familial expectations, excavating parts of herself that she’s hidden, and struggling with what that means for her goals of a family.
Directed and co-written by Michelle Garza Cervera, Huesera stars Natalia Solián as Valeria, a young woman trying to get pregnant with her husband Raúl (Alfonso Dosal). In the opening minutes, we’re introduced to two reproductive rituals: Praying alongside her mother at a giant golden statue of the Virgin Mary, as nearby faithful sing “La Guadalupana,” and a semi-passionate utilitarian sexual experience with her loving (but stereotypically unaware) husband. It is apparent that Valeria is not a huge fan of children, though we see her working in her workshop, using power tools to build a cradle, and decorating the nursery walls. Valeria is presented as beautiful but not dainty, committed in action to the goal of motherhood but mixed in her heart and mind.
After unwittingly attracting an evil that looks like a faceless person, she relies on her closest family relative, a “spinster” aunt (Mercedes Hernández) who brings her to a curandera for help that doesn’t quite last. In the meantime, the mental strain put upon Val by the apparent haunting begins to drive a wedge into her relationship, pushing her into thinking about the paths less traveled. Valeria is full of anxiety, constantly cracking her knuckles as a nervous tick, trying to be the person she thinks her family expects her to be. And, after leaving a Mother’s Day celebration she’s reminded of an old friend Octavia (Mayra Batalla) who she seeks out to reconcile with.
The story of tension between Valeria and her family is more completely about the stress of expectations—the feeling of being a disappointment for not wanting the right things, and for being punished for the change when you attempt to pursue them. It’s about trying to maintain and build bonds over strain, and of grudges and long-remembered woes.
The romance between Valeria and Octavia is an emotional core of the movie, and the flashbacks connecting it with the main action inform the character arcs without redundancy. The audience learns that Valeria’s path away from Octavia and toward Raúl came from the off-screen tragedy of her brother’s death—she felt a need to step up, to fulfill his lifestyle and financial goals by attending university.
Like this year’s Smile, Huesera is based around a woman trying to manage relationships and expectations while being tortured by the supernatural. Raúl starts out even more loving but, as time goes on, he begins to feel like an archetypical man who sees his wife as merely a vessel for his child. Huesera has a tighter dialogue and structure than its peer, though. At times it feels almost too subtle, a vibe that gives it both an air of artsy prestige and that cuts into the horror. Less dreadful, it veers toward sadness and reality rather than camp. Huesera’s use of quiet and calm to create a normal world that the haunting moves through makes the story more of a character study than just a violent romp. All that said, it isn’t without its jump scares and it’s not at all boring. There were nonetheless times when I was ready for something absolutely horrific to happen and nothing did. Of course, I wasn’t disappointed by the near misses and, once the baby is born, stakes are raised dramatically to the point where I said “Oh no” out loud in the theater—evidently the threat of infant endangerment in a horror movie moves me. Who knew?
The calm satisfaction of the conclusion is what felt least like a conventional horror to me—one of the least catastrophic endings of a non-action horror I’ve seen within the context of the genre’s trappings. Yet Huesera leaves us with much to consider, and ties believable real-life costs that may sting worse because of their feasibility.
Cervera makes admirable use of her runtime: Huesera is very well-paced, and it feels like a lot happens without any cramming, alternating moments of slow buildup and scene-setting with sharp moments of tension. Part of that tension comes from the haunting, faceless, spider-person contortionist, who feels scarily real but is deployed with surprising constraint. It’s also beautifully shot by Nur Rubio Sherwell—the imposing framing of the giant Virgin Mary is a great tone-setter, the trance-like ending is spooky and has some of the most threatening moods in the movie, and the scenes between Valeria and Octavia are natural and electric. In fact, the cast is terrific overall, producing some of the most authentically likable (Hernández as Isabel, Martha Claudia Moreno as Ursula) and dislikable (Sonia Couoh as Vero, Anahí Allué as Norma), briefly-written characters I have seen in a horror movie lately, but Batalla was the most entrancing. You absolutely saw in Octavia what Valeria was missing and why she returned, but you also saw that Valeria was missed—that Octavia, cool and independent as she is, lost something of herself when Valeria went out of her life and got it back when she returned. Huesera may have needed more scares or a darker ending to push it over the top, but as is, it’s a thoughtful meditation on choice, love and the anguish of expectation, dressed in the clothing of a clear-eyed, anxious body horror.
Director: Michelle Garza Cervera
Writer: Michelle Garza Cervera, Abia Castillo
Starring: Natalia Solián, Alfonso Dosal, Mayra Batalla, Mercedes Hernández, Sonia Couoh, Aida López
Release Date: June 9, 2022 (Tribeca)
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.