THE OLD WAYS is a film about demons and exorcism, but unlike the films that you are used to, it is set in Veracruz, Mexico, and stars Latino actors. Instead of the usual demon out of water story where a white person is suddenly possessed by evil, this film is the story of a woman who has returned to her childhood home to face the demons that she carries with her and one that possesses her when she goes where she knows she should not. Directed by Christopher Alender, written by Marcos Gabriel, and starring Brigitte Kali Canales as Cristine Lopez, Andrea Cortés as Miranda Flores, Julia Vera as Luz, The Bruja, and Sal Lopez as Javi.
The story starts off strong with a surprising and effective opening sequence and then skips ahead to the story of Cristina and how she came to be in a homemade cell in Catemaco. The area is, as the filmmakers observed in interviews for the film, known for witchcraft, specifically brujos or sorcerers. As the story unfolds, you are drawn into the plight of Cristina and slowly along the path of belief. One of the most difficult parts of any type of horror film that involves the unseen is getting the audience to believe in that which is not right in front of their faces. In movies with monsters, you can show the audience a vampire or zombie and most people will accept it in the context of the story as monsters are visible and part of the overall horror mythos. The difficulty with the unseen, such as ghosts or demons, is that most people don’t believe in them and are not easily convinced to be scared by something that isn’t there. As an example, see the trouble that we have currently convincing people that COVID-19 exists and is dangerous. There is a delicate balance of the belief and performances of the actors, the story, and the craftsmanship of the film needed to win the audience over to fright. THE OLD WAYS is successful, since I am one of those people who are skeptical of the occult, and I was easily carried along with the story. I think the refreshing setting and story were a great help as were the convincing performances of the lead actors and the script’s ideas.
In addition to the paranormal aspect, there is also an element of character development with Cristina vs her cousin Miranda, Luz, and Javi. The difference is between the Mexican woman who has forgotten her roots and the people who still revere the tradition of their people. Cristina is a pocha who, while she was born in Veracruz, no longer speaks Spanish. In a way, it asks if we are truly whole without recognizing and honoring the traditions of our people. I think this is a positive message, especially for Latinos, in this time where we are disparaged for who we are.
I think there is a very interesting part of the ritual in this situation related to this. While in most exorcism stories the onus is put on belief in the Christian God or Catholic ritual, the power of the exorcist in THE OLD WAYS is in the woman and her personal power and belief in her magical skills and determination. I think that is another reason why the movie is so effective. It is an empowering story for women, specifically Latino women, but not in a really obvious way. Even though the script was written by a man, there is this strong theme of female empowerment that doesn’t seem overdone or preachy. The Bruja is very strong and wise and passes that certainty and wisdom on to a younger woman who is very much in need of it. Stripped of the mystical aspects, it is exactly the kind of message that many might need to hear. You are not useless as you grow older and, as a younger woman, you should respect and learn from your elders. That family, even people who are not explicitly related to you – but who step up to care for you, can make the difference. Plus there are some very effective scenes of psychic surgery, which I don’t think I’ve seen in an exorcism movie before. I don’t believe in psychic surgery either, but in the film, it really works.
THE OLD WAYS is an enjoyable and fast-moving film about possession and exorcism that engages the audience with new ideas and a new presentation that the subgenre so desperately needs. It’s well done and uses the beauty of Mexico to its advantage. The movie is shot well with a shrewd sense of restraint by DP Adam Lee and a score by Ben Lovett (Sun Don’t Shine, The Ritual, The Wind) that relies mostly on strings and chanting to a pleasing, from the standpoint of scares, effect. It’s a very effective and entertaining version of the possession and exorcism story that I would recommend completely.
THE OLD WAYS had its world premiere at this year’s Sitges Film Festival.