by Jordan King
A fresh even if flawed new take on the classic exorcism sub-genre of horror, director Christopher Alender and writer Marcos Gabriel’s The Old Ways is an intriguing exploration of the perils of denying one’s roots and a literalisation of the possessing hold our childhood traumas have upon us.
When investigative reporter Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales) returns to her ancestral home in Veracruz to look into a story of sorcery and healing that chimes with the exorcism of her mother that she witnessed as a child, an ill-advised jaunt to a cave known to be a hotspot for sinister presences sees Christina knocked unconscious. When she awakes, Christina finds herself in an undisclosed abode, kidnapped by Luz (a suitably unnerving Julia Vera) and her son Javi (a comparatively softer Sal Lopez). Unable to communicate with her captors as she has entirely divorced herself from her mother tongue, Cristina is subject to a slew of rituals that suggest a fear of demonic interference – sage burning and the drinking of goat’s milk are staple ‘So you’ve been possessed by a demonic spirit’ tools. When her cousin Miranda (Andrea Cortes) shows up, revealing to Cristina that Luz and Javi do indeed believe her to be possessed by a demonic entity, a battle both for Cristina’s sanity and for her soul commences. As disturbing dreams turn to grim realities and Cristina’s past, present, and future converge in a maelstrom of malevolence, Alender cranks up the nasty and goes for broke in pursuit of ever-intensifying shocks and scares.
Anchored in a lead performance by Canales that gets more believable somehow as the film itself finds itself farther and farther removed from any illusion of reality, The Old Ways is a competent if slightly frustrating affair. Alender is at the peak of his directorial powers in the film’s opening act as he inculcates the sense of an enquiry into the tension between supernatural possession and the human experience of trauma. When Cristina is first captured, it is genuinely emotionally and experientially captivating to witness her fight to prove her sanity and dismiss any talk of possession. Unfortunately however, whilst the film’s first act subverts generic expectations intelligently, Alender and his screenwriting collaborator Marcos Gabriel play their hand too early in revealing the true nature of what is happening to Cristina. This means that whilst the film maintains a slickly executed sense of atmosphere and foreboding that freshens up an otherwise quite stale sub-genre, it suffers from a refusal to lean into the story’s far more interesting initial roots as a character study that uses the mechanics of an exorcism as a means of extrapolating more complex notions of cultural identity and the consequences of traumatic repression. A lack of artistic flair in the film’s effects department does nothing to help lessen the disappointment of the film’s third-act nose-dive, which leaves us to ponder better things that could have been wrought from the film’s promising premise.
Burning slowly superbly and then burning out prematurely, The Old Ways is a third of a brilliant horror film and two-thirds of a decent if entirely recognisable and predictable one.
The Old Way is playing as part of the Glasgow Film Festival
Buy tickets now.