REVIEW: The Old Ways (2020)

dir. Christopher Alender.

After venturing into a ‘cursed’ cave in the jungle of Veracruz, reporter Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales) finds herself abducted by superstitious locals who believe she’s possessed by a demon. Her rational pleas are ignored by all – including her cousin Miranda (Andrea Cortés) – and despite her protests they begin an increasingly invasive Mexican exorcism: this is, if you will, “The Mexorcist”.

There’s a rich texture of cultural history to Christopher Alender’s sophomore outing: Cristina may be an Americanised secularist but she’s originally from Veracruz, a flashback revealing she witnessed similar ritualistic practices as a child. Whether she’s supressed those memories, forgotten them or simply stopped believing is unclear, but whichever it is she’s disconnected from the folklore of her upbringing: she may be done with her past, but that lineage is in her DNA and it’s calling her home.

To make matters more complex Cristina’s also managing a low-key heroin habit whilst staving off imminent psychological collapse, teetering on the edge of a full blown death wish. With Alender’s lensing locating us claustrophobically with her as a perplexed captive, the boundaries between supernaturalism, substance misuse and mental illness feel unsteady and porous.

Marcos Gabriel’s script stacks these layers with impressive skill, levelling up the tension and making us doubt – as Cristina does – the reality of what’s presented: when signs and wonders start to unfold is this evidence of genuine demonic oppression, the hallucinations of a traumatised mind or the chicanery of tricksters? The film is most intriguing when it walks between these tensions, fuelled by some genuinely alarming scares.

Unfortunately this is not sustained, and after reaching a natural climax an hour in the remaining run-time plays like a half-realised coda, efficiently managed but with some tantalising threads left undeveloped. Still, this doesn’t detract from the power of what went before, or the verve with which the leads bring this tale of heritage and horror to life.

Tim Coleman

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