I’m a sucker for a good possession film, but I’ve always had a hard time explaining why...
...I’m not religious, and I don’t think there’s some race of evil beings who lie in wait just outside of our visible world, hoping for a chance to take over the body of an unsuspecting victim. Still, something about possessions creeps under my skin, wrapping its spindly fingers around my very soul. I discovered my fear (and love) of possession during my first viewing of The Exorcist some 30 years after its initial release. Since then, I’ve challenged myself to watch every possession film I come across.
While each addition to the genre adds something new, there’s a basic framework for possession based on Catholic teachings that pervades most exorcism movies, and it can sometimes make even the best iterations feel a little stale. Fortunately for fans of those films that portray victims dominated by demonic entities, director Christopher Alender and writer Marcos Gabriel offer a solution via The Old Ways, which is celebrating its regional premiere at Panic Fest 2021. The Old Ways showcases a possession and exorcism story that eschews the Catholicism usually featured in the genre in favor of traditional indigenous practices.
Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales) is a journalist who’s returned to her family’s hometown in Veracruz, Mexico, for the first time since she was a girl to report on the local people and culture. There’s just one catch: she’s been kidnapped by a stoic bruja named Luz (Julia Vera) and her assistant Javi (Sal Lopez), and the duo believe she’s harboring a demon. Cristina thinks Luz and Javi are just a couple of kooks holding her hostage based on antiquated superstitions, but she soon finds out that her cousin Miranda (Andrea Cortés) is in on it too. While these locals work to oust the demon they’re sure is possessing Cristina, she’s left trying to figure out what’s true and how she can escape the horror she’s found herself in.
The Old Ways is a powerful story about redemption, healing, and finding our place in the world. Along with potentially housing a demonic creature, Cristina has a few metaphorical demons of her own. Her mother died when she was very young, and she never came to terms with the loss. She also suffers from a heroin addiction, which only exacerbates the traumatic experiences she suffers while in the custody of the bruja. As the truth is revealed, Cristina is forced to face her demons, figurative and real, and learn to move past them in an all too familiar and universal struggle.
Don’t let the positive message underlying its story fool you; The Old Ways is as unforgiving as all other possession films we love. There are some terrifyingly grotesque depictions of the traditional exorcism ceremonies with all the bone-crunching, skin twisting, bloody visuals bound to satisfy your bloodlust. The intensity of these ceremonies, Alender’s direction, and the cinematography of Adam Lee all work together to create an ominous atmosphere that permeates every corner of the screen. The Old Ways seeps into your brain, building tension through sound and keeping you on edge by playing with darkness on the screen. Every patch of blackness in the room becomes a place of danger, and Lee and Alender use our expectations to increase our unease. It’s done so well that I found myself watching through my fingers more than once.
Its fresh take on the possession genre and anxiety-inducing use of tension create an experience that every possession fan is sure to enjoy, but the film suffers from erratic pacing. The Old Ways could be an intense, unrelenting experience, but its strongest scenes are separated by too-long slow moments that help to build some character but mostly end up creating peaks and valleys in the action, giving the viewer too much time to breathe and slowing the film down when it should be ramping up.
There are also some story elements that pull the film down. The first is in Cristina’s character, who experiences several serious shifts over the course of the film. While some make sense, others seem unearned, like a sudden change in how she approaches the situation that seems to stem from absolutely nothing. There are also several unanswered questions about the demonic creature and the forms it takes that left me wondering exactly what it was Cristina and her exorcists were dealing with. As terrifying as it is, too little is known about the creature for it to seem like a real threat. These questions keep the story from feeling fully fleshed out, instead making the demon seem like an afterthought despite being a central piece of the story.
Even with uneven pacing and a few weak points in its story, The Old Ways is a fantastic and distinctive addition to the possession film genre every demon lover should give a chance. Plus, with any luck, it’ll inspire an even larger group of diverse possession films that make use of a variety of traditional belief systems to scare us shitless.
By Tim Beirne
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