The Old Ways Slow Burn Ignites Too Late

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The Old Ways

The history of Mesoamerican culture is bathed in blood. Rituals of human sacrifice were a cornerstone of Aztec faith, buttressing their belief that ravenous gods required victims to allow the sun to rise. With the Spanish conquest such ideas became interwoven within the fabric of Christianity, and to this day in remote areas of Mexico there exists a pervasive folk religion hidden beneath the modern veneer, a spiritual quilt that's part Catholic creed, part ancient native custom and part superstition. Even the notorious drug cartels that prey upon the population pray for the protection of Santa Muerte, the so-called Narco Saint, and for some the acceptance that the rites and deities of antiquity still exist comes easily.

It's against this cultural backdrop that Soapbox Films and Darkstar Pictures' latest release, The Old Ways, is set. When ambitious twenty-something reporter Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales) travels against the advice of both her boss and her cousin to an isolated ruin near Veracruz named La Boca, she's kidnapped by locals who fear her transgression to such a forbidden place has left her enthralled by a demon that may have also taken her mother's soul hostage during Cristina's traumatized youth. Waking up at the film's onset in a squalid, makeshift prison cell, Cristina is forced by her elderly captors, quiet believer Javi (Sal Lopez), and painted Nahuatl bruja Luz (Julie Vera), to endure the torments of their primitive exorcism. She's strapped down, forced to drink goat's milk, and Cristina's subsequent hallucinations are the stuff of nightmares: snakes coil around her near-naked body and Javi extracts what seems to be teeth from within her abdomen. Throughout such tribulation Cristina reiterates pleas of innocence, and flashbacks revealing her addiction to heroin support the notion that perhaps her harrowing visions are a byproduct of withdrawal instead of infernal interference. Yet when an escape attempt is thwarted by an invisible barrier around the room and a dark, shadowy figure appears, even Cristina begins to accept the reality of a malevolent presence, leading to a surprising, bloody and literally heart-wrenching climax.

Unlike the overtly-familiar patterns of demonic possession movies loosed on cinemas in the wake of The Exorcist, The Old Ways benefits from an unconventional narrative structure and welcomed south-of-the-border flourishes. How Cristina is introduced to viewers--chained to the floor, confused, hysterical--works with the surroundings to induce a stiflingly claustrophobic atmosphere, and the audience is thrown as unceremoniously into her startling situation as the character herself. It's a clever conceit on the part of writer Marcos Gabriel; jumping the story straight to the devilish chase allows director Christopher Alender to build tension and hook an audience from the first frame. The deft utilization of sound compliments the dark visual style, too; a high-strung, nerve-jangling score is infused with shrill howls that are as grimly pitch as the underlying message of the film. Unsubtle parallels exist between Luz and Javi's insistence in Cristina's possession and the scourge of addiction; these inner demons are explained as a coping mechanism she's adopted to deal with the emotional pain of her childhood and the rigors of her job, but to the locals, the drugs are merely the open door necessary for malicious forces to enter her.

If there's any fault to The Old Ways, it's one of pacing. While the viewer may be thrust immediately into Cristina's dilemma, interest begins to wander fairly early in the proceedings, and the slow burn of the tale's telling may ignite too late to truly capture one's attention for the duration. That being said, if there is a movie intent on overthrowing established possession tropes, this is it, and with that in mind, I give The Old Ways an acceptable 3 (out of 5) on my Fang Scale.

3.0 / 5.0