The Old Ways (FrightFest) review – a possession horror with character of its own The Mexorcist

March 7, 2021
Alix Turner 0
Film Reviews
3.5

Summary

Lush and gruesome horror set in the Mexican jungle, about inner demons and cultural identity. Really.

3.5

Summary

Lush and gruesome horror set in the Mexican jungle, about inner demons and cultural identity. Really.

Seen one film about demon possession and you think you’ve seen them all? Not so fast. The Possession of Michael King is as far removed from The Taking of Deborah Logan as it is from The Exorcist, and all three great quality in their own way. Now we have The Old Ways, set in Mexico, but with not a word about Christ compelling anyone: this tale is grounded in ancient witchcraft instead of any tradition that Westerners like me might be familiar with, almost verging on folk horror.

The central character in The Old Ways is Cristina Lopez (Brigitte Kali Canales), Mexican by birth, but raised American since the loss of her mother as a young child. Now an investigative reporter, she visits the place of her family’s past, seeking out a story about “forgotten cultures”. Having wandered into La Boca, a cave that Cristina had been warned was dangerous, she finds herself held captive by the local “bruja” (witch) and her assistant son: did Cristina become host to a demon residing in that cave, or are these local characters too superstitious for everyone’s good?

There you have it: imprisonment, rituals, and enforced exorcism. Oh and “psychic surgery”, snakes, body horror… and heroin withdrawal. For a while, it’s impossible to know whether Cristina is imagining things and being sucked into the indigenous mentality by chemical influence or if she genuinely does start to believe there is something nasty inside her. The special effects (especially when the bruja draws awful-looking things out of Christina’s abdomen) are remarkable, not Night of the Demons-naff in the slightest; but that section of the film is certainly ambiguous enough to make one pay attention.

As well as the effects, what also works really well is the sense of place. I’ve never been to deepest Mexico, but I certainly felt like I was there while watching The Old Ways. The bruja (Julia Vera) and her son (Sal Lopez), who conducted the rituals certainly helped with that: their manner, their make-up, dances, clothing, and absolute sincerity pulled me right along. Perhaps that’s how things worked on their subject, Cristina, too. The other person present, Cristina’s cousin Miranda (Andrea Cortés), bridged the gap between Cristina’s modern world and her cultural background (tight jeans, and books about demons), keeping the whole group grounded together in the present situation.

The Old Ways was written by Marcos Gabriel, from Puerto Rican ancestry himself; and directed by Christopher Alender, who has immigration firmly in his family’s history. When I started watching the film, I had worried that it was going to smell of cultural appropriation, with a clearly South American story told by a USA team: were they going to look down on the traditional customs (as I’d seen in Death of Me), laugh at them, or make money from them? That worry faded pretty soon, fortunately. Cristina’s story, and that of the people she was confronted by, was very clearly used to express what it can feel like to be separated from one’s own history and heritage, to feel called back to it, and how these feelings may not necessarily be comfortable. It was also very interesting to see a film in which there was a single token white person (AJ Bowen, as Cristina’s editor, Carson), in complete contrast to a more familiar viewing experience.

The Old Ways is a very well-made film, written with understanding and presented with care. It’s creepy, gruesome in parts, has an intriguing story and fascinating basis in lore. The only snag (for me, anyway) is that it is neither exciting nor scary, and I had been led to expect it would be at least one of those. But that’s fine: I appreciated the film in unexpected ways, and enjoyed it for what it was; a strong diversion from a familiar subgenre, with good representation of people and fears from another land.

The Old Ways enjoys its UK premiere at Glasgow FrightFest, 5 March 2021.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.