The demonic possession tale is one that has been recounted on screen for decades thanks to the success and infamy of The Exorcist. In the years that have followed we’ve had plenty of films seeking to replicate that same magic, but whilst a few have conjured up something special, the rest have paled in comparison. With so many films following exactly the same formula – Christian priest tries to save a lost soul – the shine has dulled, and audiences have become bored. These apathetic are set to change thanks to director Christopher Alender and writer Marcos Gabriel as they approach it from an entirely new perspective in The Old Ways.
Set in Veracruz, The Old Ways joins Mexican American reporter Cristina Lopez (Brigitte Kali Canales), as she returns to her ancestral homeland to investigate a story on witchcraft and faith healers. Whilst exploring notorious cave La Boca, she is kidnapped by the local “bruja” and her son. The pair have captured her because they believe she has a demon within her, and they won’t let her free until they exorcise the malevolent force… no matter what it takes. As Cristina struggles to make her escape, she slowly comes to believe that they may be telling the truth after all. Along with her captors – and her estranged cousin Miranda (Andrea Cortés) – Cristina’s fight for survival turns into a fight for her soul.
As well as exploring a different cultural viewpoint, Alender also offers some compelling parallels between demonic possession and addiction. Cristina is hiding an opioid addiction, and this presents an intriguing quandary as to whether her perceived demonic possession is real, or just a psychological manifestation of her problem. Going through withdrawals is hard enough, but when you have a potential demon controlling your body too, it makes it even more intense. Alender couples this with an analysis of familial bonds. Cristina and cousin Miranda may be blood, but after growing up in two completely different worlds, they are practically strangers. Watching these women attempt to reconnect, especially under extreme conditions, adds a necessary layer of warmth to what could be just another heartless and cold horror.
It being a horror film, The Old Ways also has bags of scares up its sleeves. Alender attacks the viewer from all angles, threading unnerving thoughts with nightmarish visions. This ensures The Old Ways is a film that startles during viewing, but also gets under the skin enough to stick around in the mind well after watching. In terms of what is actually on screen, Alender packs the film with sneaky scare moments that literally creep up and out of the dark.
The Old Ways masks it’s humble budget brilliantly; it’s easy to forget that this is an independent production. The production design and settings not only feel 100% authentic, but look sumptuously rich and detailed. Much time and effort has been painstakingly put into every aspect of what we see on screen, and the hard work pays off in dividends. One could easily be forgiven for thinking it had a budget on a par with the later Conjuring universe movies, and as such, it’s a shame that it’ll be sometime before it can be screened on its intended cinema screen medium.
Set almost entirely within the confines of the Bruja’s hut, Alender has created plenty of visuals to keep the viewer entrapped. Films with a single location can often lead to viewer fatigue seeing the same old walls over and over, yet here, there always seems to be something new to explore and unearth. Again it’s a testament to the set design and work of Bryce Perrin, but also the thought process behind the camerawork and shot framing. By moving around the room and offering new vantage points, it almost feels like we’ve moved location when in reality we’re still trapped in a single room. The exterior shots are equally gorgeous, capturing luscious landscapes that scream “come visit me”. The immersion into the world is solidified with an immensely designed soundscape that is overflowing with sounds of nature, and the occasional demonic roar.
Brigitte Kali Canales is the actor granted the opportunity to play within this beautifully constructed environment. With such a strong aesthetic it’s important to have a lead that can manage the task and Canales gives a phenomenal performance. Cristina goes on an emotionally intense journey and Canales taps into and conveys these extreme feelings superbly. The Cristina at the end of the journey is far removed from who we meet initially and the metamorphosis on screen is a delight to watch thanks to Canales beautiful work.
The Old Ways is a sinister and vibrant reworking of the conventional exorcism story. By tapping into the history and superstitions of Mexian culture, Alender gives a tired genre trope a new lease of life. With so much rich history and mythology only dipped into, Alender paves the way for further welcome exploration into this world. This exciting new direction is backed up by a strong sense of visual style, and an even stronger central performance from Brigitte Kali Canales, making The Old Ways an absolute must-see.
Films of the “power of Christ compels you” ilk have been done to death, but finally in The Old Ways we have a fresh offering. Christopher Alender transplants the expected story into a different cultural viewpoint, and thus creates the most exciting possession and exorcism story in years.
The Old Ways is available to watch on Netflix now.
This review first appeared on THN.