‘Huesera’ Tribeca Review – A Folktale Transforms Modern Maternal Fears Into a Nightmare

by Susan Ryant

La Huesera, the bone woman, is a Mexican folk tale of an older woman who wanders the desert and collects bones, often of wolves. Once she obtains all the animal’s bones, she sings by the fire and brings the animal back to life. The legend often tells of revived wolves transforming into women, running free into the wild.  Huesera  reimagines the tale and applies it in a modern magical realism context, exploring the tangible fears and anxieties of maternal identity. That means that while it does offer chilling imagery, it’s more interested in psychology.

Valeria ( Natalia Solián ) and her husband Raúl ( Alfonso Dosal ) finally succeed in getting pregnant after trying for so long. Becoming parents seems like the next step in their blissful lives; they’re over the moon for what’s to come. But the further into the pregnancy that Valeria gets, the more pervasive her dread and worries grow. It’s compounded by strange visitations of an eerie woman trying to break in or other supernatural occurrences that no one notices by Valeria. As everyone around her questions her sanity, Valeria looks to her past for answers.

Director Michelle Garza Cervera, who co-wrote with Abia Castillo, uses horror imagery to shatter the careful façade Valeria created for herself. She seems happy and focused on her husband’s happiness. So much so that she appears to alter parts of herself to maintain his idyllic vision of her. Valeria’s attempts to hide her smoking habit are futile, but an awkward family dinner gives more insight into just how much of her she’s shielded from Raúl. Never mind that her family questions Valeria’s interest or capability in child-raising. Enter the Huesera, a bone-breaking, faceless specter that seems to follow and torment her while no one else is around.

Cervera uses the Huesera to create unsettling moments that build tangible dread and suspense. More prominent than the atmosphere, though, is the way the haunting figure is employed as a tool to crack open Valeria’s psyche and expose repressed emotions and anxieties. The ghastly image of Huesera and cracking of bones, often underscoring Valeria’s nervous tick of knuckle-cracking, forces a terrifying confrontation within Valeria. Folklore becomes the focal point of inner conflict, of Valeria forced to reckon with identity and aspirations that derailed long ago if she’s any hope for her future.

As intense as some of those sequences can be, as much due to the potent sound design as the imagery itself, the horror elements are supplemental to Valeria’s arc. It’s a means of forcing Valeria to accept hard truths, no matter how dangerous her denial becomes. The drama of her emotional journey takes center stage, and Solián deftly navigates the complexities of trying to uphold societal and familial expectations against shifting realities and exposed vulnerabilities.  

When so many pregnancy horror movies isolate the mother-to-be, breeding mistrust from everyone around her,  Huesera internalizes it. Refreshingly, it’s less about motherhood and more about the loss of self. Cervera never pushes the ambiguity of Huesera’s torment, either, which means it’s up to the scare sequences to deliver the surprises. That Cervera uses a lot of restraint with the scares, putting the drama at the forefront means her feature debut is more horror adjacent than outright horror. But her firm grasp of imagery and tension-building is focused and effective, using fear to engender sympathy with laser precision. Even if Valeria’s denial puts her multiple steps behind the viewer; Cervera’s strong debut sweeps you up in Valeria’s nightmare regardless.

Huesera made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. XYZ will release the film in theaters, with release date TBD.