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Film Festival Review

Review: The Old Ways (Dir. Christopher Alender, 2021)

GFF 2021 – FrightFest

After taking an assignment in Veracruz, Mexico Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales) finds herself hooded and imprisoned in small cell. Despite begging to see her cousin Miranda (Andrea Cortés) and general protestations: “I’m an American… and a reporter” there she remains, shackled to the beautifully rendered and chalked wall, forced to ingest goat’s milk and pee in a bucket.

Keeping her ‘prisoner’ is local witch Luz (Julia Vera) and son Javi (Sal Lopez). Both are convinced that Cristina has picked up a demon that has hitched a ride on her soul following an illicit trip to the ruins of La Boca. As the days turn to night, Cristina tries to find ways to escape, however, soon she starts to feel that maybe she does ‘have it’ or something which is holding her hostage.

Exorcism films as a sub-genre are ten-a-penny and usually contain some white child/young woman losing the battle to find the devil within. Or there’s a haunting with a vengeful spirit/lost soul possessing a house or member of a family. Sometimes there are rites, rituals, a cassocked Priest, or perhaps a Rabbi, prayers, chants and holy water. It is refreshing therefore when a film tries to do something that little bit different with the well-worn tropes – Christopher Alender’s – making the leap from shorts and TV to his first feature – The Old Ways does just that (albeit with some old faithful). 

This is exorcism as repatriation. Cristina’s soul was up for grabs because she wasn’t quite fulfilled, living with trauma in a country she never quite belonged to, even if she didn’t realise it until now, drug addled and empty. She needs to commune with her forgotten heritage – one she was ripped from as a child – in order to heal and rid herself of the demon ‘Postekhi’. Her childhood trauma is never far from her mind revisiting her in flashbacks and nightly visits of a small boy.

The beauty of this film is its subtlety, it takes its time and doesn’t outstay its welcome which make the last fifteen/twenty minutes all the more forgiveable. There’s still fun to be had but it loses the nuance it worked so hard to build on and it is those moments which feel somewhat unnecessary. Joy-of-joys, however, the practical effects are great with the odd stomach churning moment, hair regurgitation is never pretty, and special mention goes to Luz’s make-up (courtesy of Josh and Sierra Russell); the cracking white face paint, the blood-red cross across the eyes and cataract lens is striking.

The cast of four play off each other brilliantly but it is Canales’ Cristina who is the standout. She doesn’t play her as a victim but survivor, fighting tooth and nail against what is or isn’t missing inside of her. This is less about restoration of a possessed soul – the snakes and milk symbols of renewal and rebirth – but more about reclamation of a heritage as a way of life and forging ahead. Forget the passive female protagonist bed-bound and helpless to prevent what’s happening, this one schools herself with a red leather bound book of demons (Jung’s manifesto of the same hue also detailed the recovery of a soul). There’s even humour with some amusing play-acting, bribery attempts, and the cell may be dotted in candles but there’s still an electric fan to help with the heat and humidity.

All-in-all The Old Ways is a smart and surprisingly subtle horror film. A really attractive looking feature which deftly goes beyond the expelling of demons, speaks to the migrant experience and embraces cultural significance (the Mariachi-instrumental of “La Bamba” is a nice touch). If you can take one thing from it it’s to never forget who you are or where you come from… and always invest in practical effects.

The Old Ways screens at GFF FrightFest from 5-8 March

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