As tends to be the case, the horror movie genre, like many others, loves to find a new area to chase down and then pick the bones clean. Recently, one such avenue has been a delving into the folklore and superstitions of Latin and South America, with such recent films as La Llorona and Luz. In that tradition, filmmaker Christopher Alender has crafted The Old Ways by merging aspects of Mexican mythology with the time-honoured horror staple of an exorcism.
At the outset of the film, world-weary, substance-abusing journalist Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales) wakes up shackled to the bed in a small shack. Periodically, an old man and woman peer in to feed and shout at her in Spanish, while force-feeding her goat’s milk, drawing arcane symbols on the walls and performing strange incantations. It’s only when Cristina’s long-lost cousin Miranda (Andrea Cortés) arrives that it is revealed Cristina has been possessed by an evil demonic entity, and only through a series of rituals (performed by the old woman) can she be freed of this horror.
Part of the beauty of The Old Ways is that it’s a film that never lets its audience forget how offbeat many of the conventions of many horror films like this are. One of the great charms of the story is Cristina’s unflagging cynicism towards the weird hoodoo being performed around her, and her suspicion that everyone around her is a barmy nutcase. Kali Canales does brilliant work balancing the fine line between making her character endearingly complicit in events and at the same time believably unwilling to buy into the situation she’s clearly stuck in. It also manages to take the decades-old concept of an exorcism movie, with all the baggage that holds, and shake it up into something that feels new and exciting.
There’s a little in the way of an on-the-nose allegory that threatens to bludgeon its way into the plot, as the story starts to parallel the supernatural aspects with the failings in Brigitte’s life, but luckily the film knows when to steer away from that and compound the mystery and grotesquery with Grand Guignol levels of body horror and lashings of fake blood.
It does, however, also suffer from more than a few signs of a fledgling filmmaker. While the first two acts of The Old Ways play out in a measured and entertaining way, the film takes a leap at the midpoint and loses a lot of believability. That’s particularly noticeable when throwing a lot of the common sense of the story to the wind in favour of a neatly tied ending which feels slightly unearned, and stretches logic and credulity even in a fantastical story such as this. It’s almost as if the third act is from a completely different film, or the film has skipped over a large chunk of the narrative, allowing characters to master complex skills that were all but alien to them only a day earlier. Added to this are some unnecessary practical effects during the finale that look a little cheap; what’s worse, they are completely unnecessary and point to a lack of trust in the genuinely well-built tension and dread the movie has evoked throughout.
That said, there’s a good deal of fun to be had here. The grounded and believable performances of the cast never come across as false, or over the top. It’s especially impressive as they tread the fine line between seriousness and the slight tongue-in-cheek that is required in a horror film like this. Therefore, it’s an easy recommendation to fans of the genre, and of horror films that like to treat foreign myths and mythology with the respect they deserve.
Screening as part of Glasgow Film Festival 2021