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The Old Ways Review: Folk Elements Keep Horror Film Interesting

The Old Ways continues a trend of horror films taking inspiration from local folklore to craft an engaging film with strong performances.

Since the beginning of time, humanity has come up with stories and legends to explain what we don’t understand. Most of these myths have burrowed their way into pop culture and have now become easily recognized plots and characters, from Thor’s appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the never-ending stream of big-budget action films based around a pantheon of gods. These stories are popular because they appeal to our sense of imagination. While we now know how lightning forms in clouds, it is fun to suspend your disbelief for two hours and chose to buy the explanation that weather is caused by a bunch of suspiciously attractive Scandinavians running around in ornate outfits.

But, as of late, there has been a trend of horror and thriller films that focus on the more sinister aspects of those myths. Skyrocketing to fame with Robert Eggers’ The Witch, we’ve seen an increasing number of films that focus on the evil aspects of the supernatural, usually demons or witches that wreak havoc on an unsuspecting group of individuals somehow cut off from society. These films work because they prey on our fear of the unknown, frequently keeping the antagonist hidden and letting the viewer’s imaginations fill in the gaps to thrilling effect. The latest in this line of folk horror is Christopher Alender’s The Old Ways, which draws from Latin American folklore for a film that is frequently thrilling but somewhat forgettable. 

With a runtime under 90 minutes, The Old Ways wastes no time in getting the plot moving. Christina Lopez (Brigitte Kali Canales), a Mexican-American reporter, returns to her homeland of Veracruz to research a story on local myths about faith healers and witchcraft. Christina has already had an experience with the supernatural, as shown through a prologue and various flashbacks of her ill mother and the healers who attempted to exercise what they thought was a demon from her body. But the Christina we see now holds little stock in the traditions she was raised around and refuses to engage with the folklore outside of academic fields. Alender does a great job at keeping the natural landscape simultaneously gorgeous and foreboding, thanks to Adam Lee’s lush cinematography and immersive sound design from Sam Plattner that help the jungle brim with possibilities of the wonderous and sinister.

the old ways
The Old Ways (Soapbox Films/Courtesy of 2020 Sitges Film Festival)

Unfortunately for Christina, her assignment quickly derails when she visits a forbidden cave known to host evil spirits and is attacked, falling unconscious. She awakes in a cramped room somewhere in the wilderness, where The Old Ways will stay for the rest of the runtime. She is subject to various rituals, ranging from chugging goats’ milk to sage burning by an older woman (Julia Vera) and her son (Sal Lopez). The language barrier serves to keep both Christina and the audience in the dark as to their motives and to further accentuate Christina’s separation from the culture she was raised in, a neat storytelling choice by Alender.

Just when things seem to be hopeless, she receives a visit from her cousin Miranda (Andrea Cortés), whom she has not seen in many years. At this point, we leave the setup and move into the bulk of the plot. The two locals have kidnapped Christina on suspicion that she has been possessed by a demon, and they won’t let her leave until it has been exorcised from her. Now the question turns to the validity of the claims made by the two locals: Christina was definitely attacked by something in that cave, and her previous experience with her mother’s supposed possession lends credibility to the story the locals believe while Christina’s heroin addiction allows us to question her reliability as a protagonist.

Unfortunately, the last two acts of the film are not as engaging as the first 30 minutes. The mother and son try a myriad of different techniques to exercise the supposed demon inside Christina, while Alender struggles to figure out what type of horror film he wants the film to be. The first thirty minutes are an eclectic mix of sudden jump scares and slow-burn anxiety that don’t quite work together, but don’t take away from the viewing experience. The second act keeps the jump scares and tension and also adds in moments of stomach-churning gore and light body horror that make for a profoundly uncomfortable viewing experience. The inability to be consistent in the type of horror utilized turns the rest of the film into a series of jarring moments rather than a cohesive narrative that slowly builds in terror and anxiety. This does allow the film do go by at a relatively quick pace, but prevents it from forming a satisfying narrative, so, when the finale arrives, we find ourselves too exhausted to be invested. 

While the inconsistency in the approach to horror is a glaring issue, the rest of the film is good enough to make it worth watching. Each cast member imbues their role with personalities and complexities that make them feel like real people while giving them different motivations that allow for authentic interpersonal conflicts in addition to the supernatural threat. Alender’s interpretation of Marcos Gabriel’s script keeps the emotional beats intact and allows for themes of past trauma and the authenticity of myth to be explored in a satisfying way. With time and a little bit of luck, The Old Ways could earn itself a spot as one of the cult classic horror films of the new decade, and it’s more than deserving of the title. 

The Old Ways had its world premiere on Friday, October 16 at the SITGES Film Festival in Sitges, Spain.

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