Drug-addicted and depressed American journalist, Cristina, travels to her ancestral home of Veracruz, Mexico to investigate local folklore and shamanism. Upon visiting the local feared and shunned caves of La Boca, the next thing Cristina knows she awake locked up in and chained inside a makeshift cell and is told a demon is inside her by an elder Bruja and her assistant who still practice the old ways of exorcism. Skeptical and scared, Cristina endures the primitive, and sometimes painful, religious rituals to extract the demon out from her soul, hoping they would eventually let her go if she feigns the demons release from her body, but when plagued by strange visions and unexplainable occurrences, Cristina comes to realize the real danger is actually from within.
Shot on location in Catemaco, Veracruz, Mexico, “The Old Ways” clashes good versus evil in one small corner of the world while also enhancing the already enriched central American state known for its cultural brujo, or sorcery, celebrations and activity. “The Old Ways,” which aims to symbolize spiritual demons to confront personal ones, is the first feature length venture from director Christopher Alender over 20-years since his first feature that was also, too, a horror, an off brand federal holiday themed slasher from 1999 entitled “Memorial Day.” The 2020 demonic possession thriller reteams the “Memorial Day” writer and director as Marcos Gabriel pens the script that has become a miniscule reflection of himself being a Puerto Rician expat losing his own sense of heritage and culture of his ancestral land. Full pin drop scares and profound depth of personal complexities, “The Old Ways” is a production of Soapbox Films (“The Wind,” “Southbound”) from Alender and Gabriel as executive producers along with Christa Boarini (“Spree”), David Grove Churchill Viste (“The Voyeurs”), and T. Justin Ross producing.
The lean characters keeps the story intimate and personal, rarely straying away from the rough-and-ready holding cell single location. Only in Cristina’s backflashes of her Stateside office or the caves of La Boca do we dip into non-linear fractions of the what, when, why, where and how she became a befuddled prisoner to her Bruja host. No white washing here as the main cast is comprised of Latin-American actors and at the lead is “Fear the Walking Dead’s” Brigitte Kali Canales as the journalist with a death wish. You see, when Cristina embarks on her journey down to the La Boca caves of Veracruz, the troubled druggie searches for relief against an emptiness she can’t shake. Most of this narrative is backlogged backstory eventually worked on and worked out through flashbacks and through the excavation by her national residing cousin Miranda (Andrea Cortés). Canales really leans into her Americanized impediment delivering impatience, ignorance, patronization, and scoffing at Miranda and the Bruja teams’ beliefs and cultural responsibilities. The Bruja team, what I like to call it, is comprised of Julia Vera (“All Souls Day”) and Sal Lopez (“Return of the Living Dead III” ) as the last practitioner of primordial exorcism techniques, aka the old ways, and her assisting son, Javi, and the mother-son dynamic teeters of the customs and exercises of combating evil, a task that has been long withstanding against a beaten down and weary Javi. AJ Bowen (“The House of the Devil”), Julian Lerma, Michelle Jubilee Gonzalez, and Weston Meredith as the demon Postehki.
Now, Postehki is not a real demon from any culture’s cache of fiends. In fact, the whole mythos of “The Old Ways” is entirely fabricated for the sole sake of the story and I find that to be thrilling. Anything is possible with new folklore if done soberly without ostentatiousness and if mixed with some realism of the surrounding area, such as the Bruja element, that grounds the story with that much more of a terrifying blueprint. Plus, the allegories give the story tremendous depth with the demon inside Cristina that mirrors her addiction with drugs that initially obscure the audience from knowing if the evil within is real or is the drug effects the underlining culprit. Cristina’s addiction also plays into her immense sadness after her mother, the last connection to her heritage identity, dies and that melancholy she suffers forms a device that motivates her to return home looking to die herself. Cristina situation resembles being a satellite vessel cut off from the mothership and is lost and alone, leaving it up to Miranda to be that beacon of reconnection with not only her heritage but also her family. The third theme is the carryover of traditions from an older generation to a younger one that becomes very prominent between the Bruja, Luz, and Cristina to come to way of understanding the importance of keeping with the tried and true no matter how beyond crazy it may seem. The first two acts set up perfectly the puzzling nature of Cristina’s imprisonment and unraveling while touching upon subtopics and crowd pulling moments of breath holding terror, but the third act begins to spoil the salivating juiciness of what’s next behind each layer after a couple of false endings, a cheesy transition of character, and an eye-rolling one-liners essentially kill the visceral vibe.
Old habits, old feelings, and old origins pry open the emotional armor to a pervading and harbor-seeking evil in “The Old Ways” now on Blu-ray home video from Dark Star Pictures. The not rated, dual-layer, region A BD25 is a presented in 1080p High-Definition with an aspect ratio of 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen. Cinematographer Adam Lee shoots a terrene-cladded and flat color incubus with strategically placed shots that trigger strong reactions that go toe-to-toe with a thumping tribal score and piercing ambient track from the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track in the English and Spanish language. Robust and formidable, the score packs a punch with a pulsating drum and pan flute score by “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” composer, Ben Lovett. Dialogue is clean and clear and the errorless subtitles align nicely with the vocals. English SDH subtitles are also optional. Special features include over 2 hours of bonus content with a feature length behind-the-scenes documentary The Old Ways: A Look Beyond that provides cast and crew opinions, history, and everything else in between about “The Old Ways” origins and reactions, a commentary track with director Christopher Alender and writer Nicholas Gabriel, deleted and extended scenes, and storyboards. “The Old Ways” is old world horror for the modern age, poised rightfully so to be a part of the possession genre canon even if coming off the tracks just a tad.