3 ½ stars
Before we start, let’s take a moment to recognize the excellence of Foley Artist Samantha González and the entire sound department of Huesera: The Bone Woman. Their work doesn’t just underscore the film’s actions; it is one of the most terrifying aspects of the movie. Director Michelle Garza Cervera puts a lot of disturbing imagery on the screen, but the accompanying sound in your ears will give you nightmares.
Huesera: The Bone Woman tells the story of Valeria and Raúl (Natalia Solián and Alfonso Dosal), a happy young couple who, after a few fruitless attempts, are getting ready for the birth of their first child. Many horror movies spend the first third of their run time doing little more than giving audiences a selection of potential victims. There’s no actual character development. It’s enough to give the audience a trope or two – a bully, a slut, a virgin, and a comic relief character – so they can just sit back and watch them get knocked off. Cervera takes a different approach and gives us two characters we can genuinely fall in love with. Valeria and Raúl are both beautiful, funny, and so obviously in love that you’d have to be made of ice not to feel warm and fuzzy watching them build a nest for their expected newborn. So when strange things happen to Valeria, it grabs you by the throat. It feels personal.
Putting so much time into building relationships between actors and her audience frees Cervera up to build the tension in Huesera: The Bone Woman at a nerve-wracking pace. One night, Valeria, awakened by a strange noise, goes to her window to investigate and witnesses something horrible. Or did she? Her husband doesn’t see anything when he looks out the window. Is she having hallucinations/visions, or did she see what happened? Again, it seems like a familiar horror story plotline – a character seeing awful things nobody else can see – yet, it feels reinvented under Cervera’s command, thanks mainly to Solián’s performance.
Solián, making her big screen debut, is fascinating to watch in Huesera: The Bone Woman, and it has almost nothing to do with how she reacts once things start falling apart. There is a naturalness to her presence, whether Valeria is having domestic fun with her husband or building a crib in her small workshop. You watch most actors/actresses building something on screen, and they just look like they’re “acting.’ Solián looks like she’s too busy building to do anything else. Once Valeria’s visions intensify, the actress combines the dual roles of a frightened new mother and an equally frightened young woman and blends them brilliantly. There’s never a moment when you don’t see both sides fighting for control, whether in her actions or expressions. Will she fight back? Will she flee? Will she survive?
While Huesera: The Bone Woman takes place in modern Mexico, you always sense the past clawing at the present, trying to reclaim its dominance. It’s in the faces of Valeria’s aunties and how they react when they learn about her visions. It’s in the way they hesitate before helping her and the look of fear that they try to hide from her when she asks them for help.
Director Cervera uses the last half of Huesera: The Bone Woman to take viewers on a deep dive into Mexican culture/folklore, especially the shared culture of Mexican women. It’s fascinating and frightening, even if you have no direct connection/knowledge of the culture or its matriarchy.
As she has throughout the film, Cervera fights back against the expected with her bold ending of Huesera: The Bone Woman. You expect the tension to ratchet up to an almost unbearable level leading up to the final conflict, which it does. And then you look forward to a reprieve, a chance to breathe again, but that never happens. Instead, the director ends the film with a gut punch as shocking as anything you’ve seen.