If there’s one lesson to be learned from horror movies, it’s to respect people’s traditions and no-go zones, especially when they belong to indigenous peoples. We’ve all seen what happens when people don’t listen; they usually end up shuffling off this mortal coil in a supremely gory fashion. Or worse, they end up being possessed by a Mayan deity.
The latter is the setup of The Old Ways. Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales) is a hotshot Los Angeles journalist who convinces her editor to let her do a story on the culture of her home state of Veracruz in Mexico. However, the picture begins in an interesting way by having Cristina stuffed into a small room with a sack over her head, which immediately sets off several scenarios we associate with that imagery, including places like Guantanamo Bay and the drug cartels of Latin America. But Cristina has been taken not by narcos but by people of her home village after finding her at La Boca, a dark underground cave that is off-limits to everyone, not just outsiders.
From here, we’re introduced to an old woman – Luz – and her helper, Javi. Luz is a bruja, a term which means witch, but she’s more of a shaman, and she’s here to exorcise the demon which has taken hold of Cristina, whilst Javi is the son of a brujo who died during a particularly difficult exorcism. And then there’s Miranda, a young village woman who just happens to be Cristina’s cousin, and who warned her to stay away from La Boca. And of course, none of them is prepared to leave until the demon – Postehki, the “death god of broken things” – has been dragged out of Cristina.
READ MORE: Dementer + Jug Face – Blu-ray Review
The Old Ways doesn’t just refer to what you’d expect, which is the use of witchcraft and shamanism, something which has been a regular thing in horror for decades – everyone remembers Chris MacNeil going to every doctor and hospital under the sun before plunking for Merrin and Karras – but an umbrella term for what Cristina has long left behind since ditching the forest for an altogether more urban jungle. She’s forgotten the language, the customs, she doesn’t feel like someone who knows and respects her home. It feels like she’s a trespasser.
What’s interesting is that Cristina’s life is posited as something that has long fed the demon, because, like many of us, she is a broken thing. After her mother died, she spent time in foster care and developed an addiction to heroin, one she still has. With this, The Old Ways is similar to the 2013 remake of Evil Dead, where the lead character undergoes demonic torture after being taken to a remote cabin to cure her addiction. It’s a bit on the nose, as it was in that film, but it helps as a visual metaphor for Cristina’s fight against Postehki.
Director Christopher Alender doesn’t hold back when it comes to Cristina’s ordeal, and there are some quite disgustingly horrific moments, such as when Luz performs a sort of surgery that sees her removing several things from Cristina’s stomach, including animal teeth and a pustulent tumour. A snake, however, is still in there, and this is another metaphor for the demon, who is eventually seen in the flesh later in the film, in what can only be described as a disappointing reveal. Alender spends a lot of time keeping Postehki in the shadows, making it feel like a real threat and something terrifyingly malevolent, but when it’s actually shown, it just feels like another horror creature.
Much of what isn’t shown is the main strength of The Old Ways, with Adam Lee’s cinematography capitalising on the shadows in Cristina’s cell, with the real terror in what we think she’s about to see versus what we actually see. Lee’s work is certainly a highlight of the film, with some remarkably beautiful vistas of the countryside, pinpointing the feel of the village as a lost treasure Cristina certainly shouldn’t have forgotten. Together with Ben Lovett’s evocative score that ranges from the expected tribal percussion to gorgeous etherealism, the sights and sounds of the film really help sell the story convincingly.
Canales does a remarkable job of pushing Cristina on her journey, which ends with her being more connected to the old ways than we might think. She also plays annoying outsider well, even with some clunky dialogue that sounds right out of an Evil Dead film – and was written for Bruce Campbell. Julia Vera’s Luz is appropriately mysterious and creepy, with a lovely mischievous grin and laugh that puts her somewhere between the Cheshire cat and Yoda, and Andrea Cortés does a fine job as Miranda, who acts as a foil for Cristina. Perhaps the best performance comes from Sal Lopez as Javi, whose understated acting helps sell the realism of Cristina’s plight without making Javi the villain, which pays off when they later develop a relationship.
Alender does well to keep a consistently unsettling feel throughout the film, although this is not a rollercoaster ride. It does have some very effective jump scares, but it’s a film that, much like Luz’s fingers, finds itself scratching under your skin and making its way inside you. Which in turn, will have you looking in the shadows with a torch, like you’re exploring La Boca yourself.
One thing that doesn’t really work is the film’s attempts to be ambiguous. It’s not a big thing – there’s no question that Cristina has a demon inside her and it’s not a metaphorical one – but there are little moments along the way which feel like they’re glossed over. You’re never sure whether it’s Alender’s intention to leave questions to be unanswered, but it feels like it hurts the film’s cohesion. Also, there’s a two-part ending that doesn’t quite work and feels like it’s a homage too much to The Exorcist.
The Old Ways isn’t an easy film to get into initially, and you may feel as disorientated as Cristina, but stick with it. The picture will reward you as you watch, and it’s not only creepy as hell to see that unfold, it’s also fascinating. We seem to be in an age where horror is as interesting as it is terrifying, and The Old Ways cements that.
The Old Ways is out now on Netflix in the UK, and will be released in the US on Digital, DVD and Blu-ray on 12th October.