The Old Ways

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Old Ways
"Canales gives an intensely committed performance in a role which saw her strapped down on a freezing cold floor for hours." | Photo: Courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

It has been a long time since Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales) visited Mexico. Having left as a young child following a traumatic experience with her mother, whom other local people believed to be possessed, she moved to the US and immersed herself in a different culture. Now she's back in Veracruz looking for some titillating tales of witchcraft with which to thrill her US readers. She may no longer take such tales seriously, but when she visits a forbidden cave and is kidnapped as a result, it becomes apparent that others still do.

To Cristina's captors, a white-haired old woman and her son, this kidnapping is not a hostile act but a rescue mission. The cave is a haunt of evil spirits and Cristina's family history means that she's at elevated risk. A demon inhabiting her could put the whole community at risk. But could a family history of mental illness manifest similar signs? Could the fact that Cristina is an addict deprived of her fix be responsible for the behaviours they take as suspicious? Could she, in fact, simply be freaking out about being held prisoner in a tiny room by two people whose language she can barely understand, who force-feed her goats' milk and carry out rituals who significance and portent she can only guess at.

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Writer Marcos Gabriel and director Christopher Alender wanted to explore exorcism in a different way in this film, which merges very specific ritual elements with enough familiar material - chanting, spitting out goo, a bound body arching up as if about to explode - to make it accessible to an international audience. The specificity is more than just a gimmick, however, as this is a story about dislocation from one's heritage and, if you like, possession by another culture. After Cristina receives a visit from her cousin, who has remained in the area, she begins to see things a little differently. Gradually, she seems to recognise a need to reclaim her Mexican soul.

Canales gives an intensely committed performance in a role which saw her strapped down on a freezing cold floor for hours and obliged to fill her mouth with all manner of unpleasant substances, an experience where only so much can be done to make it less unpleasant for the actor than it is for the character. She also interacts impressively with puppets and empty spaces as the special effects team create monstrous things which can only be seen in their final form onscreen. With most of the film set in the same small room, Alender makes great use of darkness and shadow to suggest something more expansive, an occluded otherworld brushing up dangerously close against our own. Still, viewers will wonder how much of what they are seeing is real (in the film's universe) and how much hallucination or delusion. Cristina's mental state is clearly deteriorating even as she is developing (or recovering?) a kind of strength which her comfortable life in the US meant she had no need for.

A deceptively simple piece of work, The Old Ways has a lot going on beneath the surface. It offers plenty of shocks and gore for horror fans (and had no difficulty winning over Frightfest fans) but also speaks to bigger themes, and acts as a reminder that we trivialise others' approaches to understanding the world at our peril.

Reviewed on: 06 Mar 2021
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The Old Ways packshot
A journalist of Mexican origin, travels to her ancestral home in Veracruz to investigate a story of sorcery and healing. There, she is kidnapped by a group of locals who claim she's the devil incarnated.

Director: Christopher Alender

Writer: Marcos Gabriel

Starring: Brigitte Kali Canales, Andrea Cortés, Julia Vera, Sal Lopez, AJ Bowen, Weston Meredith

Year: 2020

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: US

Festivals:

Glasgow 2021

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