Old Ways

The Old Ways (2020)

The Old Ways first published by VODzilla.co

“There are many demons,” Miranda (Andrea Cortés) explains to her long-lost relative Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales), in The Old Ways from director Christopher Alender (Eye of the Storm, 2011).

After a brief introductory flashback to decades earlier, in which Cristina’s mother (Michelle Jubilee Gonzalez), on her deathbed and very much not herself, appears possessed to her terrified little girl (Elizabeth Phoenix Caro), the narrative shifts to the present, and in medias res, as Cristina finds herself trapped in a barn, with her arms in chains and a sack over her head. How she came to be in this predicament will be revealed only gradually, through dialogue and more flashbacks, in a narrative strategy that makes the viewer share the protagonist’s wrenching sense of dislocation and alienation. 

After her mother’s death, little Cristina was moved north across the border and fostered in Los Angeles, where she grew up to be a troubled journalist. Now, for the first time in 28 years, she has returned to her ancestral home in Veracruz, Mexico in pursuit of a story, and after stumbling alone into a taboo cave known as La Boca (or ‘the mouth’), she is being held captive by the middle-aged Javi (Sal Lopez) and his bruja (or ‘witch’) mother (Julia Vera), both of whom are absolutely convinced that Cristina is hosting a demon inside of her. Mother and son are determined to ascertain exactly which devil has taken possession of her, and then to cast it out through a series of painful rituals. 

Urbanised and secularised, Cristina thinks these two are obviously deranged, and will do anything to escape their clutches – but she has come with her own personal demons hidden within: a specific addiction to heroin, and a more general sense of emptiness and despair. So there are indeed many demons, and as Cristina undergoes her ordeal in the barn while trying to recruit the conflicted Miranda’s help, her exorcism runs in parallel to the trials of going cold turkey. This ensures that the The Old Ways operates simultaneously on literal and metaphorical levels in its telling of one woman’s journey back to integrity, wellness and purged, purified selfhood.

The bruja is conspicuously blind in one eye. It is a marker of her clairvoyant ability to see in two distinct worlds, one material, one spiritual. Yet in this film of divisions and dualities, the witch is not alone in bridging irreconcilable borders. After all, the bilingual Miranda too is caught between community tradition and family allegiance, local superstition and her university education, while Cristina herself, rootless and estranged, straddles the boundaries of north and south, old ways and new, as she struggles to navigate a language and culture that are her own but long forgotten, and to separate out her true identity and destiny from any baleful influences, external or internal. Cristina is a broken soul in need of repair, and her homecoming is also a restorative return to values lost.

Written by Marcos Gabriel (who previously collaborated with Alender rather improbably on television’s Muppets Now), The Old Ways certainly offers all the diabolical intrusions and body-horror effects that you would expect from a conventional exorcism movie – but it also reflects on the fluid borderlands between the US and Mexico, city and country, Christian and pagan, while wisely avoiding the spectre of Trumpian xenophobia that haunted Michael Chaves’ The Curse of La Llorona (2019).

Watch out for indie genre stalwart A.J. Bowen (The Signal, 2007; The House of the Devil, 2009; You’re Next, 2011; I Trapped the Devil, 2019) in a small but significant role as Cristina’s editor/boyfriend Carson, as damaged in his way as she is. Indeed, ultimately this is a therapeutic story where a long abandoned legacy is finally, willingly embraced. For here, as everywhere, there are many demons, and the battle between good and evil, far from ever ending, is merely passed down the generations – yet in this world the one-eyed will always be queen, and we get to see its ongoing curses and cures both through her eyes and embodied within her person.

strap: Christopher Alender’s layered horror uses the tropes of exorcism to stage cross-border, cross-cultural clashes.

© Anton Bitel