3 out of 5 stars

The “old ways” of Christopher Alender’s unusual, uneven exorcism movie aren’t only the Mexican folk beliefs that Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales) first rejects and later comes to accept, but also the mutual affection and respect of family, which similarly she has no time for at the beginning of the movie but fully embraces by the end.

Along with the female-dominated cast, this examination of membership and identity eventually turns what initially seems like a routine horror-exoticism outing into a more interesting film that asks questions more sensitive than its lurid surface might suggest: Where do you belong? Who are you, really—the person you’d like to consider yourself today, or a more fundamental person deeper inside? Exorcising your family and cultural background from yourself might be even harder than expelling a creature of unholy darkness, perhaps.

Cristina is a US journalist who’s returned briefly to her native Mexico to research a story about a mysterious site called La Boca (“The Mouth”, presumably of Hell). But as the movie begins she wakes up chained inside a small, locked room with only chickens for company… and, she’s relieved to find, a bit of her own heroin too. She soon learns that the locals holding her, including her own cousin Miranda (Andrea Cortés), believe she’s been possessed by a demon at La Boca, and must thus undergo an exorcism.

At first, Cristina is incredulous and only tries to convince her captors the rituals are working, so they’ll let her go. But in time she comes to believe it herself, enthusiastically so. She becomes “possessed”, in effect, by her previously estranged family, by Mexico, and by the old ways. “Maybe this is where you belong,” Miranda suggests to her at one point, to which Cristina replies: “That place doesn’t exist.” Yet by the end of The Old Ways she has discovered where she belongs.

There’s a clear emotional journey for Cristina alongside a more familiar genre tale of increasingly violent struggles with the demon, who (a bit like Cristina abandoning Mexico in favour of California) seems unwilling to leave his new home and go back whence he came. The exorcisms themselves are atmospheric and icky, with a lot of screaming and gagging, and only grow more disturbing as the story progresses. While brief sequences depicting another, earlier possession are fully frightening in the way their demonic energy occupies the entire frame.

But the real heart of The Old Ways is the more personal story, largely told in the relationship between Cristina and Miranda, although later on another of the group holding her, the older man Javi (Sal Lopez), also becomes significant.

It’s nearly all set in one room, apart from a few flashbacks, with a small cast (in these respects coincidentally resembling another new horror release, the somewhat superior Gaia). Director Christopher Alender—whose recent work has been dominated more by Muppets than monsters, although he began his directorial career two decades ago with another horror feature, Memorial Day (1999)—makes the most of the space; we can feel Cristina’s isolation when she’s alone as much as her helplessness when the exorcists crowd in on her.

All four of the main performers are persuasive enough, too. Cristina isn’t a particularly likeable character at the beginning, being self-centred and insistent, and Canales is wise not to transform her too much as it goes on. Even if the audience (like Miranda) will warm to her, she remains recognisably the same person. Cortés is more sympathetic as Miranda, trying to keep a lot of anger in check at the beginning and then gladly letting tenderness take over as her relationship with Cristina improves, while Julia Vera is striking in the painted face of Luz, the elderly bruja (witch) who performs the exorcisms. Make-up, indeed, is impressive at several points.

These strengths make it a pity that so much of The Old Ways is devoted to rather worn tropes—a mysterious child, an ominous hand-drawn book of demons—when more time spent on context (why is La Boca such a bad place? Exactly what transpired in Cristina and Miranda’s past?) would’ve bolstered the human tale more effectively. The ending is rather predictable as well, and Ben Lovett’s score is self-consciously “scary” with that annoying habit of “Mickey Mousing” à la Max Steiner—underlining specific occurrences on-screen as soon as they’re shown, for example with a thump each time a light goes out.

There’s a lot to like in The Old Ways, however, and it offers some powerful moments of out-and-out horror and a new slant on the genre’s exploration of family. It’s unfortunate that Alender and writer Marcos Gabriel didn’t concentrate more on that, and discard some of the more tedious paint-by-numbers spookiness. Still, even if the film doesn’t entirely convince as a whole, it’s a promising new direction for the Muppets veteran.

USA  | 2020 | 90 MINUTES | 1.78:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • SPANISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Christopher Alender.
writer: Marcos Gabriel.
starring: Brigitte Kali Canales, Andrea Cortés, Julia Vera & Sal Lopez.