The Old Ways is a mid-budget genre gem with a few tricks up its sleeve to keep these fresh.
Possessions and exorcisms have been a staple of the horror genre for decades now, thanks in no small part to the enduring reputation of William Friedkin’s seminal The Exorcist. Click around Netflix or Amazon Prime (or stop by your local Redbox) and there’s bound to be numerous titles featuring demons possessing children or young women, usually with titles like “The Possession of… [insert proper noun here].” It’s a cheap and easy sub-genre to pull off, requiring just a few sets and little in the way of elaborate special effects. The downside is that almost all of them are absolutely awful. So, while Christopher Alender’s The Old Ways isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel here, it’s extremely well-made and features some standout set pieces, which is enough to set it apart from a crowded field of generic mediocrities.
To crib an idea from Adrian Martin, exorcism films create a fascinating fissure by pitting science and reason against faith, as religious ideas butt up against Freudian psychoanalysis. It’s fertile ground offering ripe exploratory possibility, which Alender and writer Marcos Gabriel make good use of. After a brief prologue that finds a young girl witnessing her mother’s demonic possession, we find Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales) chained to a bed in a locked room. She has no idea where she is, and assuming that she’s been kidnapped, offers money to her stone-faced captor, Javi (Sal Lopez). But rather than elucidating any demands, he instead forces goat milk down her throat. Soon, an elderly woman named Luz (Julia Vera), covered in elaborate face paint, begins performing various spells and rituals. They’re both convinced that Cristina, an L.A.-based journalist on assignment in Vera Cruz, has been possessed by a vengeful demon while investigating an old cave system deemed cursed by the locals. Cristina is obviously alarmed by Javi, particularly so because she doesn’t speak Spanish and can’t communicate with her captors. Soon, her cousin Miranda (Andrea Cortés) arrives, and acting as interpreter is able to tell Cristina what’s going on — that she has been possessed, and it is Javi and his mother Luz’s job to expel the demon. Cristina, of course, blanches at such nonsense, but decides to play along anyway, assuming that she’ll be released once the exorcism is complete. It’s a clever subversion of a standard trope, making Cristina a willing participant in the proceedings, even if she isn’t actually a believer. And so the film charts a course that finds her gradually coming around to the idea that something might actually be amiss, and even embracing Javi and Luz.
The Old Ways has a few tricks up its sleeve, which would be a shame to ruin here. But in between the scares, Alender and Garbiel manage to work some subtext into their film without beating you over the head with it; Miranda is angry at Cristina for leaving Mexico as a child and never returning, severing their relationship in the process. Luz and Javi’s “old ways” are intrinsically linked to the historical lineage that Cristina has abandoned, and it’s suggested that in this particular mythology, demons feed on people who have an absence in their souls. Less successful, then, is Cristina’s drug addiction, which is introduced as a possible rational explanation for her condition, this before it’s quickly forgotten (her big “getting clean” scene is her literally just dropping paraphernalia into the garbage). Still, the idea that a makeshift familial unit and the embracing of tradition might actually be fulfilling is an unexpectedly hopeful idea in a film otherwise concerned with monsters.
Working with cinematographer Adam Lee, Alender maximizes the limited space that the film is set in (other than a few flashbacks, the entire movie transpires in and around Luz’s home). Deep, recessed shadows make the corners of Cristina’s locked room disappear into each other, hiding all manner of creepy crawlers, and prominent windows create contrasting points of light and dark. It’s nice to see a film that’s actually been directed, one that creates tension and dread via simple camera movements and subtle shifts in focus. In one particularly nice long take, the camera tracks behind Javi as he walks down a hallway to Cristina’s cell. He walks into the room, and as the camera enters behind him, it pans right to center Cristina in the frame. Javi then pops back into the scene, now out of focus in the background. This isn’t some ostentatious oner designed to show off, but a simple moment that clarifies the layout of the home, builds tension, and maximizes cinematic space with a simple, precise clarity. There’s also the standard bodily contortions that go hand in hand with the genre, but here rendered as “psychic surgery,” allowing for grievous bodily harm that eerily leaves no real marks. The Old Ways is one of those mid-budget gems, content to tell its story well, spook the audience, and move on. Far from damning with faint praise, this is the kind of solid flick the genre can always use more of.
You can currently stream Christopher Alender’s The Old Ways on Netflix.