FQ columnist Manuel Betancourt discusses three recent Latin American spins on the horror genre: Huesera (Michelle Garza Cervera, 2022), Clara Sola (Nathalie Álvarez Mesén, 2021), and Medusa (Anita Rocha da Silveira, 2021). As modern feminist fables, these films consciously upend horror conventions, reworking rigid conceptions of female victimhood to reveal how a patriarchal system corrodes a woman’s sense of agency. Together, they show the way forward for a bolder kind of contemporary horror cinema with a decidedly feminist point of view.
I will be the first to admit that horror has never been my genre of choice. Real life sometimes feels so monstrous and terrifying that the prospect of subjecting myself to a constructed and often quite persuasive vision of a world full of terrors (with monsters, murderers, and demons, no less) risks being nothing more than a sadistic exercise. Over the years, I’ve warmed up to it, though. There’s no denying the power that genre classics wield in literalizing an audience’s deepest fears and breaking them apart (or blowing them up, or slashing them, or outright distilling them to their most elemental form) on the big screen. Bloody metaphors about vampires and desire, or gory ones about slasher killers and purity, are ripe for the taking, allowing ambitious filmmakers intent on commenting on the world a way to let viewers see themselves anew.
Contemporary Latin American horror, which boasts Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro as its most famous exemplar, has been mining the region’s manifold anxieties to produce a budding canon of classics that are reshaping what the genre can look like in the region. Everything from del Toro’s El espinazo del diablo (The Devil’s Backbone, 2001) and El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006) to Anita Rocha da Silveira’s Mate-me por favor (Kill Me Please, 2015), Issa López’s Vuelven (Tigers Are Not Afraid, 2017), Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas’s As boas maneiras (Good Manners, 2017), and Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona (2019)—to name but a few—may, at first, call to mind the so-called elevated horror genre that filmmakers like Jordan Peele, Ari Aster, Robert Eggers, Rose Glass, and Jennifer Kent have been producing this century alone. But in making contemporary reality feel like the stuff of nightmares by blending in local folklore, these contemporary Latin American projects owe as much to the literary and oral traditions of their respective countries as they do to their global horror colleagues. They may feel decidedly modern, but their stories call up longer histories and long-ingrained beliefs that remain the stuff of everyday life.
Whether taking on the ravages of a violent colonial project or the violence of a ravaging patriarchal one (and, at times, even both), these contemporary Latin American horror films refuse to abstract their own premises. These are films that are grounded in an embodied history. The jump scares in La Llorona, for instance, may be driven by a ghostly spirit within a haunted-house narrative, but its terrors are rooted in and are physical manifestations of the very real decades-long genocide of Indigenous communities orchestrated by the Guatemalan military for much of the twentieth century. Whether borrowing gothic conventions or fairy-tale trappings, utilizing slasher tropes or local folk tales—all meant to conjure horrifying spectacles meant to rankle viewers out of their comfort zones—what binds these projects together is an insistence that the horror genre is no departure from real life. Even when these projects dream up outlandish creatures (the faun in Pan’s Labyrinth, the tiger doll in Tigers Are Not Afraid, the young werewolf in Good Manners), their inventions are rooted in a setting that demands they be understood in conversation with urgent issues: how and whose (hi)stories are being told, how the violent past cannot be buried, even how childhood trauma cannot be wished away.
Of late, I have been particularly paying attention to the feminist spins on the horror genre throughout Latin America for what they can tell critics and audiences about the pressing concerns of a newer generation of female filmmakers—and women citizens. Even if I hadn’t watched Huesera (Michelle Garza Cervera, 2022), Clara Sola (Nathalie Álvarez Mesén, 2021), and Medusa (Anita Rocha da Silveira, 2021) within the context of the Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision—which effectively reversed close to half a century of reproductive rights battles in the United States in the summer of 2022—I’d have still emerged from this self-fashioned triple feature with the sense that to be a woman in 2022, be it in Mexico, in Costa Rica, in Brazil—and yes, even in the United States—is to constantly be forced to confront an onslaught of endless terrors designed to codify one’s body, one’s behavior, one’s desires.
A teaser poster for Huesera offers insights into the thematic concerns of this award-winning feature-film debut. Looking like a cursed amalgam of an X-ray of a torso and a hand-drawn diagram of a woman’s reproductive organs (with two skulls placed where the ovaries would be and a thin rib cage standing in for a uterus), the poster blends the sterile imagery of modern medicine with a much older and disquieting iconography. Here, birth and death are emblazoned, as they are in the film itself, as echoes of one another, twinned concerns that cannot be uncoupled. That’s exactly how it feels to Valeria (Gabriela Velarde), who knows she should be happier about her pregnancy. Instead, though, the knowledge that she’s finally one step closer to leading a quiet, domestic life alongside her partner, Raúl (Alfonso Dosal), in their Mexico City apartment rattles her. Initially, it seems she’s just anxious about what motherhood will mean for her life. But soon, as she starts seeing visions of women with blurred faces haunting her every waking hour, it becomes clear to her that whatever is growing inside her may be ushering in evil spirits.
As Valeria seeks guidance from local brujas eager to help ward off whatever evils are tainting her pregnancy, she finds herself reconnecting with who she was, who she used to be. Far from the image of domestic bliss she’s called upon to project these days, Valeria is shown to have been a rowdy punk feminist in her youth. In flashbacks, with short hair, she’s a vision of antiestablishment attitude, an element of her teenage years she’s left perhaps all too begrudgingly behind. Sparked by a visit to her ex-girlfriend, Valeria’s memories of the past end up haunting her almost as much as those blurred women who frighten her in visions and make her feel alienated from her life at home. Even when her baby is born, Valeria’s paranoia never ends—at one time leading her to fear she’s so far gone that she’ll actually hurt her child. With its supernatural trappings, Huesera makes a clear case for the ways its protagonist feels adrift in a world that’s intent on breaking her down so she’ll conform. So it seems she’ll become the mother she perhaps never wanted to be; the wife she was never meant to become.
The ending of Huesera marks a decisive rebuke of the domestic life Valeria was leading. Rather than propose a comforting denouement wherein the young mother embraces the stability of the nuclear family, the film proposes a total break from such a life. It’s a liberating moment for the young woman, who refuses to be boxed in by labels such as “wife” or “mother,” which the film associates with the terrors that had been following her for months on end. Valeria’s future lies not in her present but only in her past.
Just as Valeria finds a way out by the end of Huesera, recognizing that she cannot hold herself to the expectations for women in her position, the titular character in Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’s Clara Sola similarly comes to the conclusion that it is preferable to carve out her own path. Set in rural Costa Rica, Álvarez Mesén’s dreamy and dreamlike drama is filtered through Clara’s eyes. Despite being in her forties, Clara (Wendy Chinchilla Araya) is constantly treated like a child—a mystical one at that. Lithe and aloof, Clara may need to be reminded to bathe and to wear appropriate clothing when setting out for the day (and to avoid masturbation, even if the stricture requires having her mother rub chilies on her fingertips), but she is revered by the local community for her uncanny connection to a spiritual realm. She may be intellectually challenged, but that merely reinforces to those around her that her visions are all the more authentic: her “simplicity” is divine. And it must be kept untouched.
Clara isn’t merely sequestered in the pastoral environment surrounding her home. She’s constantly belittled and condescended to by her family members. It is up to the ever-curious young woman to slowly find ways to broaden her own horizons and claim agency for herself—and to pursue romance and desire, like the kind in those telenovelas she absentmindedly watches on television. Clara Sola bears witness to how a community—a family, really—socially circumscribes the world of one of its members, so much so that even a possible cure for Clara’s twisted spine is rejected lest she find herself more like those around her.
The family unit is not a safe space; it is a makeshift prison made all the more insidious by the way it’s constructed with well-meaning thoughts. Clara has no agency until she suddenly does, through an awakening that is, of course, a threat to those around her. Clara’s divinity depends on her purity. Her desires have long been suppressed, both from within and from outside. Her move toward embracing her sexuality destabilizes the careful balance that her family and community had established and rankles Santiago (Daniel Castañeda Rincón), whom Clara pursues aggressively if rather awkwardly, at one point even stalking him all the way back to his home. This is not how women, let alone one like Clara, are supposed to behave—a dictum that’s upheld by men and women alike.
Medusa offers an exaggerated version of that kind of policing. Set in a dystopian vision of Brazil where religious fascism has taken hold, Anita Rocha da Silveira’s neon-tinged horror opens with a staple scene of the genre: a young woman is walking home alone at night. She’s been watching a particularly suggestive modern dance piece where a female dancer writhed onstage in a way that suggested both pleasure and pain. As the empty streets around her begin to feel more threatening, she’s approached by the unlikeliest of foes: a group of teenage girls donning white masks. “Slut!” they call after her, admonishing her for walking alone: “Jezebel! We’ll nail you to the cross!” The taunts don’t stop there. The group of girls eventually circle the young woman and beat her while demanding she pledge her love of Christ and promise to walk a righteous path by finding herself a man.
The sexual-religious vigilantism that Rocha da Silveira depicts in Medusa barely exaggerates the fanaticism that permeates many religious extremist groups all over the world. The youth-focused church that the girls attend encourages them to be attentive toward any wayward nonbelievers—using violence if need be. The use of a mask and the choice to bully “Jezebels” out at night is revealed to have been inspired by what may be an apocryphal anecdote about a “loose woman” (an actress, naturally) who had acid thrown on her face by a devout woman intent on showing the local community that such wanton desires would not be accepted and would be punished by those righteous enough to commit to a life of sanctified purity.
As with Huesera and Clara Sola, Medusa traces one woman’s decision to break away from the conventions and expectations laid out for her. The film follows Mari (Mariana Oliveira) as she begins to question the violence that she and her vigilante friends so gleefully unleash on those they deem unworthy. It’s an awakening that coincides with her own estrangement from the inner circle once she’s scarred by a failed attack on another late-night “Jezebel,” who fights back. Unable to appear as beautiful on the outside as she’s supposed to be on the inside, Mari finds her own worldview starting to shift. Everything she’s taken for granted slowly starts to melt away—especially once she convinces herself she’s located the estranged face-scarred actress (at a local hospital) who had first driven her and her friends toward their insidious vigilantism. But that late-night encounter, brief and terrifying as it is, leaves her with more questions than answers (and, much to her chagrin, little proof). Still, she can’t shake off the feeling that maybe there’s room for a more empathetic way of leading. Soon, as she learns more about her close friends (including the way one has been quietly dealing with abuse and repressed same-sex desires, and putting up a front lest her picture-perfect life come crumbling down), Mari better understands the damage that the high standards to which they’re all clinging truly inflict. And how such control empowers them at the cost of shackling everyone around them.
The final moments of the film find the teenage girls literally screaming their way away from the men who’d hold them back against their will and eventually fleeing to those same desolate streets that first opened the film; it’s there that Mari finally comes face to face with the actress whose acid attack had first radicalized her and for whom she’s spent so long looking. This time, when confronted with a disfigured face, instead of shying away in shame or revulsion as she had days before when she’d been terrified by such a vision, she smiles. Huesera and Clara Sola focus on individual choices and journeys; Medusa extends those considerations into an imagined collective action. Its final scene stresses the emancipatory power of sisterly solidarity.
What makes these three films so much more affecting—and effective, really—is their central performances: Velarde’s wearied frenzy as Valeria ponders just how out of touch with reality she’s become ever since giving birth, Chinchilla Araya’s feral grace in bringing Clara’s coming-of-age tale to life, and Oliveira’s disorienting paranoia in tracing Mari’s own shocking discoveries all anchor their respective films. In each instance, these visceral performances keep audiences keenly aware of how these women’s extreme responses to the world around them are not just well-founded but necessary. Their hysteria, which is how their respective reactions to the horrifying circumstances they’re each trapped in may well be described, become requisite weapons with which to fend off a world that would have them succumb and quiet down.
At a macro level, these films and filmmakers are also consciously upending what horror has taught audiences to expect from female protagonists; after decades of final girls running away from slasher villains or lily-white damsels awaiting the bite of a seductive vampire, the characters in these films rework such rigid ideas of victimhood. It’s telling, for instance, that with their keen-eyed distillation of how a patriarchal system corrodes a woman’s sense of agency, these projects stress how women can be both victims and victimizers, saviors and terrorizers. There’s a shared commitment to depicting the complexities of how misogyny operates. There are no neat lessons to be learned here—except, perhaps, that there is a bolder kind of contemporary horror cinema that’s emerging with a decidedly feminist point of view. To look at the crews behind these films, for instance, is to witness a group of female filmmakers rallying together and recruiting writers (like Huesera cowriter Abia Castillo and Clara Sola’s Maria Camila Arias), editors (like Huesera’s Adriana Martínez and Clara Sola’s Marie-Hélène Dozo), and producers (like Medusa’s producing team of Mayra Auad, Vania Catani, and Fernanda Thurann), who are driven to explore the vicissitudes of a modern women’s lives. And who, in the cases of Medusa and Huesera, imagine a queerer future as the only way to break through (and away from) the strictures of what’s expected of nice, subservient mothers, sisters, wives.
As modern feminist fables, Huesera, Clara Sola, and Medusa are flags planted on the path to a thrilling new chapter in Latin American film. Together, they read as belated diagnoses and overdue prognoses. Therein lies, perhaps, the terrifying promise of female-centered horror cinema, constantly rife not just for reinvention but for reappraisal. As long as countries legislate against bodily autonomy, as long as organized religions circumscribe rigid gender roles, as long as nuclear family structures remain intact, women will continue to experience the world, both on-screen and off, as a never-ending hall of terrors.