Directed by: Michelle Garza Cervera || Produced by: Paulina Villavicencio, Edher Campos
Screenplay by: Michelle Garza Cervera, Abia Castillo || Starring: Natalia Solián, Alfonso Dosal, Mayra Batalla, Mercedes Hernández, Sonia Couoh, Aida López
Music by: Gibrán Androide, Cabeza de Vaca || Cinematography: Nur Rubio Sherwell || Edited by: Adriana Martinez || Country: Mexico, Peru || Language: Spanish
Running Time: 93 minutes
A common genre format I’ve noticed over the past decade is the 90-minute (give or take) slow-burn, atmospheric independent horror production built around metaphors of personal trauma, generational guilt, broken relationships, coming of age, or some combination thereof. These films are often female-oriented (e.g. The Babadook , The Witch , I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House , Under the Shadow , Relic , Hellbender , Hatching ), but not necessarily so (e.g. The Ritual , The Vigil ), and are built around a series of subtle, creepy visuals meant to personify their protagonist’s inner conflict, which escalate in intensity until an inevitable surrealist, abstract climax where the main character usually triumphs over their often internal, sometimes supernatural obstacles. In this formula, unobnoxious but repetitive, weird imagery substitutes as some form of cinematic Jungian psychology where screenwriters build their protagonist’s entire arc around merging with their monstrous “shadow self.” This cliched format of contemporary horror filmmaking has become so common it may as well be the independent filmmaking equivalent of the major studio demonic exorcism picture (e.g. The Conjuring [2013, 2016, 2021]).
The near ubiquity of allegorical storytelling in low-budget horror is what makes films like Smile, X, or Barbarian (all 2022) feel like a breath of fresh air to me, because while those latter three movies boast plenty of thematic content under the surface, they don’t hit their audiences over the head with the obviousness of their message. I can’t say the same for the latest horror critical darling by first-time director Michelle Garza Cervera, Huesera, often subtitled as The Bone Woman.
Charismatic though its cast may be and as fun as its spooky visuals often are, Huesera (Spanish for “The Bone Setter,” “Bone Maker”, or “Bone Woman”) plays like the stereotypical trauma-as-horror narrative we’ve seen a million times since the early 2010s. I’m never one to condemn a film for its lack of innovation provided its stylistic execution is up to par, but I couldn’t help but deflate my posture once the familiar cliché of characters’ personal demons manifesting themselves as actual(?) demons revealed itself by the end of Huesera’s 1st act. By the film’s 30-minute mark, I could tell the major story beats in advance and almost all the backstory details of lead Natalia Solián for the rest of the movie. It’s difficult to get too unnerved, let alone scared, when you know the rhythm of the monster that early.
Other notable screenplay features outside the aforementioned thematic imagery and Solián’s arc include the lack of clear rules pertaining to The Bone Maker’s antagonist — how precisely our lead is meant to undo the unnamed spiritual creature by the close of Act Three — as well as how unsympathetic I found Solián’s character herself. For those of you who don’t know, Huesera is another movie about society’s unfair expectations of women and how younger women in particular often find themselves pressured into domesticity (re: motherhood) against their will; these feelings of social anxiety lodged against the heroine’s personal guilt at not living up to what “the community expects of her” soon attract a quasi-pagan entity that harasses her throughout her pregnancy; this element of Solián’s backstory, though somewhat interesting, is undone by how indecisive, accusatory, and dishonest her character is. Our sympathy toward our heroine is limited by how often her life priorities shift on a dime, how she cheats on her husband and emotionally manipulates her lesbian ex-girlfriend, and lashes out at her family members for understandably teasing her for being a terrible babysitter; I’m all for flawed characters instead of impervious, clean-cut protagonists (see most superhero movies), but to a point.
Outside the script and the predictable modesty of our supernatural antagonist, Huesera fairs better on the cinematographic and acting side. The Mexican cityscapes and rural backdrops feel real, the finale’s surrealist demonic confrontation most of all, and I appreciate the way Garza Cervera escalates tension throughout Solian’s various encounters with her psychological/supernatural tormenter. I could’ve gone without the stationary handheld camerawork, however. With respect to acting direction, the entire cast give good performances regardless of personality type or screentime, including child actors.
The larger issue with Huesera is how tired its overall formula feels in this modern age; even if you discount the prevalence of the 90-minute slow (patient?), foreboding, “artsy” horror script that emphasizes obvious metaphorical antagonists, rookie director Michelle Garza Cervera focuses her energy on a main character that isn’t notable beyond her stock rebellious backstory and social anxiety. As someone who’s connected with much of contemporary indie-horror’s general adherence to themes of personal trauma, I find it disappointing how certain filmmakers appear to use that formula as a crutch; I now miss concrete, tangible horror villains (see also Halloween ) that aren’t walking metaphors and whose personalities, abilities, and weaknesses are clear-cut.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: As transparent in its social commentary as its protagonist is unlikable, I found myself wishing Natalia Solián would find an abortionist by the second act of Huesera so as to spare me the predictable beats of her guilt-ridden character development. The film, from its characterizations to its supernatural mythology, just feels way too damned safe.
— However… the film gets points for memorable set-design and cool demonic imagery, the latter thanks to some wacky contortionists. Acting-wise, The Bone Woman shows future promise for co-writer-director Garza Cervera
—> NOT RECOMMENDED; you’ve seen this same film executed better many times before, so you don’t need to feel obliged to like it.
? Were those indigenous/Native American witches, New Age occultist witches, or old-school European witches?
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