At some point over the last ten or fifteen years there was a huge commercial boom in possession movies. It felt like suddenly every horror with even the tiniest whiff of supernatural about it was trying to be the new Exorcist, squashing watered-down religious chicanery into everything from cheap found-footage moulds to studio level haunted house movies. For the most part, they were white and western as ever, and very few came even close to scratching the surface of what Williams Friedkin and Blatty managed several decades earlier with their seminal Best Picture nominee.
The Old Ways is ironically, a new breed, however. A very different type of possession movie that comes a helluva lot closer to what The Exorcist got so fundamentally right all those years ago. It is, of course, a horror movie through-and-through, with nasty jumps and plenty of gnarly, go-for-broke bumps to boot. But Christopher Alender’s film is also positively brimming with subtext. All the back-breaking, spirit shirking mayhem is certainly still in tact, but it’s careful too, to make sure everything always, always, always comes back to character.
Brigitte Kali Canales’s Cristina is a Mexican-born American journalist taking the long journey back to her remote home town decades after watching her own mother succumb to what might well have been a fatal demonic possession. It’s been so long, she can’t remember the language, the culture, or the locals; a few of whom quickly decide she’s carrying a demon of her own, and one that needs to be exorcised pronto.
What follows is an often powerful chamber piece; an exorcism movie largely set in one cell (bar a few flashbacks), as much about personal demons – and the guilt of leaving one’s ancestral culture – as it is the fantastical ones.
That’s not to say we don’t get any of the full-blooded horror stuff though; if anything, quite the opposite. Alender certainly knows his way around a good jump, always delivered with plenty of venom too to spite the more diluted PG-13 fair that’s become increasingly common. There’s a real physicality here that’s often lost in more modern possession movies; spells and trials and incantations that have a very grounded (and often incredibly bloody) effect. The scares are plentiful, and as creative as they are impactful.
The cast of four are terrific too. Canales is a surprising iceberg of a lead; it’s easy to mistake her early stern-ness for the same kind of hard-nosed story-chasing journalist we’ve seen a thousand times before, but when all is said and done, she’s much more driven by reveals that are oddly difficult to spot coming. And the same goes for Julia Vera and Sal Lopez’s backwards-seeming locals; Alender and co. bank on us assuming they’re the villains of the piece, but the gradual shifts the plot takes as the film hurtles on put much more emotional weight behind them than one might expect.
If there’s one thing that might’ve been improved on, it’s that there’s often too much being juggled here. Despite a lean 90 minute run-time, Marcos Gabriel’s script turns itself upside down over and over, and some of the fundamentals, from the appearance to the motive or even just the name of the demon in question, are all left somewhere up in the air. The action, as suspenseful as it is, also often gets a little too caught-up in the spokes of the film’s momentum too, without much space to breath once the going gets tough. Numerous climactic face-offs seem over and done with in the blink of an eye, and one in particular gets a little garbled under some tricky editing.
All-in though, The Old Ways is a bit of a triumph for possession movies, and is, by some way, the best and most inward looking since Daniel Stamm’s under-appreciated The Last Exorcism some ten years ago. It’s a smart, slender little exorcism thriller with plenty of bang for its buck, and a lot to say about cultural and personal identity.
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