The press kit for The Old Ways refers to the film as director Christopher Alender’s narrative feature debut. But a quick look at IMDB reveals he and writer Marcos Gabriel made the slasher Memorial Day back in 1999. For some reason, the fact they tried to hide it made me more apprehensive than its low rating. Or the fact much of his subsequent work has been Muppet videos. Thankfully I didn’t let it turn me off.
Cristina Lopez (Brigitte Kali Canales, Thumper) witnessed a failed attempt to exorcise her mother (Michelle Jubilee Gonzalez, The Haunting of Sharon Tate, Fear the Walking Dead) when she was a child. After that, she was sent to the US to live with relatives, but the memory haunted her. Now she’s returned to Veracruz to do a story on local magic and witchcraft. She promptly ignores the warnings of the locals including her cousin Miranda (Andrea Cortés, Is It Me?) and visits a cave known as La Boca, or The Mouth. She seems to see something and then passes out.
She wakes up to find herself chained up in a small cell. Her captors are Luz (Julia Vera) the local Bruja and her son Javi (Sal Lopez, Velvet Buzzsaw). They believe she was possessed when she entered the cave. And they intend to exorcise it, whatever it takes.
The first thing that sets The Old Ways apart from all the other exorcism films we’ve sat through is Luz herself. She’s not a priest or even Catholic. She’s a Bruja, witch, shaman, whatever term you prefer. So instead of sprinkling holy water she somehow reaches through the intact skin into Cristina’s abdomen and pulls out live snakes. It’s a scene worthy of an 80s Hong Kong horror film.
The other twist Alender and Gabriel throw at us is that Cristina is a heroin addict. Is what she’s experiencing real or the result of withdrawals? A point that becomes more interesting as she begins to believe she may actually be possessed. Maybe it’s actually Stockholm Syndrome.
Unfortunately The Old Ways gives the answer to that away a bit too early. If you’re paying close attention you’ll notice some subtle hints before it becomes obvious. It would have been better to keep the uncertainty going a bit longer and keep the audience guessing.
But that’s one of the few real missteps that The Old Ways makes. The script makes good use of our unfamiliarity with the rituals being performed here and keeps the audience off guard. Much of the film is driven by performances, but there are some fairly gruesome moments courtesy of Nick Lively (The Wind, Body at Brighton Rock).
This all dovetails quite nicely with the film’s subplot about Cristina becoming reacquainted with her own culture. Having been raised in the US she’s forgotten her heritage to the point she doesn’t even understand Spanish anymore. All she can remember of her life here is flashbacks of her mother’s exorcism. She’s forced to re-examine her values and struggle with the demons she brought with her. And they can be every bit as bad as the literal ones. It all builds up to a fast-paced and quite fitting last act. The final scenes got a well-deserved chuckle from me.
I should also mention cinematographer Adam Lee who pulls some great atmosphere out of the dark shack much of The Old Ways is set in. He also gets equal beauty out of the Puerto Rican countryside that stands in for Mexico. And Ben Lovett’s (I Trapped the Devil, The Dark Red) score is another of the film’s assets.