La Huesera (the Bone Woman) isn’t as well-known a Mexican spook as la llorona (the Crying Woman), which may be why a significant scene includes a clip from La Llorona (1960) rather than any previous screen incarnation of this very distinctive, disturbing apparition. Director Michelle Garza Cervera, who also co-scripted with Abia Castillo, uses the supernatural to tell a story about a woman’s ambiguous attitude to her own pregnancy and a bot of vicious post-natal depression – most pregnancy horror films, including Rosemary’s Baby and It’s Alive, spotlight the fear that there might be something wrong with the baby, but this is all about how there might be something wrong with an expectant mum, and even dares to break a taboo (especially strong in Mexico, as a few asides about Mother’s Day celebrations hint) to suggest that the whole business of having babies might primarily be about ruining womens’ lives (not to mention mental and physical health).
Valeria (Natalia Solián) seems to be willing to go to any lengths – including a Catholic ritual and mediocre sex followed by that legs-up-in-the-air conception trick – to have a baby to complete the perfect picture of her relatively upscale life with ad exec Raúl (Alfonso Dosal), though it means turning the workshop where she crafts hand-made furniture into a nursery. Valeria’s mother-in-law high-handedly wants to buy a chintzy crib with plastic unicorns though she’s already started to make a more distinctive, personal crib herself – and Valeria’s side of the family is even worse, with a bitterly resentful single Mom sister (Sonia Couoh) and horribly judgemental mom Maricarmen (Aida López) missing no opportunity to needle her or put her down. As she puts away a stash of goth gear (including a guitar), Valeria remembers her rebel youth days – when she was a crop-haired, dyed-blonde lesbian (Gabriele Velarde) but changed her life track to suit her family in the wake of the death of a barely-mentioned brother. In a succession of excruciating microaggressions, everyone around Valeria – including her ex-girlfriend Octavia (Mayra Batalla), who still dreams of heading off for the mountains and has a significant copy of the Uzumaki manga on her bookshelves – makes things worse for her, belittling her every impulse or attempt at self-expression, blithely assuming that she is prepared to give up everything from smoking to sex to a habit of cracking her knuckles to rock music to carpentry just to have a fucking baby.
Presented credibly but with enough archness to suggest Valeria’s subjective viewpoint, this would be enough to support a movie, but Cervera also has her heroine haunted by La Huesera … who manifests startlingly early on in Valeria’s pregnancy, broken-legged and crawling like a spectre from a James Wan movie, and turns up in more and more bizarre, mocking, triumphant and dangerous forms throughout. Every attempt Valeria makes to fulfil expectations is thwarted as la Huesera appears and brings about disasters, for which Valeria is blamed – be it a nightmarish evening babysitting her truly horrible niece and nephew, or a dinner with someone important to her husband’s work which drives her to a near breakdown and possible arson. The one person Valeria can count on is her aunt Isabel (Mercedes Hernández), sneered at as a spinster by the family, who is a connection to a coven of female healers and witches, though she bears the scars of a ritual that rid her of a malign presence at great cost – adding a major question to the film about what exactly Valeria is prepared to sacrifice, after she’s given up so much already, to be free of La Huesera. The screws tighten throughout, and even after Valeria’s child is born the bone woman – who is also a doppelganger – continues to persecute Valeria, or perhaps to terrorise her into accepting that she needs to do something for herself.
Like several other films in FrightFest this year (Cerdida/Piggy is one), Huesera is about what society demands of women – that they be unselfish and act against their own individual instincts for the benefit of everyone else – and the catharsis or cataclysm that looms if a woman dares not to go along with the program. It’s also a richly-made film, genuinely terrifying, and defiantly imaginative. Solián’s physical and emotional contortions are powerful – she gives a performance that ought to earn awards nominations.