By Scott Dorward
The Old Ways (USA, 2020)
Every time I undertake the October Horror Movie Challenge, I like to pick a few films pretty much at random. All I really knew about The Old Ways before watching it was the title, the poster, and that it had gone straight to Netflix. While there have been some remarkable horror films debuting on Netflix, there have also been some real stinkers. So this entry was a total roll of the dice. Happily, they’ve come up sixes.
While Cristina was born in Veracruz, Mexico, she was raised in the USA following her mother’s death. Cristina believes that her mother was ill, but as we see in the opening sequence, she was actually possessed. Now an adult, Cristina is a journalist, and she has returned to her birthplace in search of a story.
Straight off, Cristina is kidnapped and held in a hut in the jungle. Her captives, a taciturn man and a bruja in heavy ceremonial makeup, don’t appear to speak English, and Cristina has forgotten all but the basics of Spanish. Happily, her cousin, Miranda turns up, explaining that Cristina was found unconscious in a forbidden cave. Her captors believe she is now possessed by a demon and have brought her here to exorcise her.
Over the following days, Cristina’s doubts about her possession weaken. The bruja and her assistant perform strange and often terrifying rituals to expel the demon. But can she be saved? What kind of entity is living inside her? Can Cristina learn enough of the old ways herself to fight back against it?
As well as being gripping horror film, The Old Ways explores how it feels to become separated from one’s roots. While Cristina is Mexican by birth, her disconnection from the language and culture confound her at every turn. The isolation this creates creates the perfect environment for horror. It also adds an emotional dimension that engages us well beyond a few scares.
Not every aspect of Cristina’s character works, however. We learn that she is a heroin addict. She manages to conceal her stash, shooting up when her captors are distracted. This has little impact on the story, however, even when the stash runs out. We see no evidence of her going through withdrawal and no one else is even aware of her situation. Maybe her addicion was supposed to complicate the healing rites performed by the bruja, but it feels like the screenwriter just forgot about this plot thread.
The exorcism rites themselves are the high points of the film. It’s nice to see non-Christian practices portrayed in a positive light. It’s a refreshing change from the way beliefs like Santeria and Voodoo, for example, so often appear in horror films. These appear to be Aztec beliefs, which I know nothing about, so I cannot vouch for their veracity. Some rites just seem to be there to look cool, such as the use of an Aztec death whistle. The bruja also performs psychic surgery, plunging her fingers into Cristina’s abdomen and pulling out horrors — something I remember seeing in a TV documentary about the Philippines in the 1970s.
According to IMDB, the writer and director are American, not Mexican. This does make me wonder how much of the folk beliefs we see are genuine and how much has been made up for the film.
I went into The Old Ways with low expectations and I had a damn good time. What could be a standard exorcism yarn is enlivened by the setting and culture portrayed. This is a film about, well, the old ways, and these Aztec rites neatly save the film from feeling like just another Exorcist knock-off.
The Old Ways makes terrific use of its budget. Most of the film takes place in a single room, using lighting and sound to build tension, but never suffers for this. Where there are creatures and gore effects, however, they are beautifully executed. For a film that must have been inexpensive, it never looks cheap.
While the first two acts are creepy, filled with hints of terrible things, the climactic exorcism lacks any such restraint. I’m not convinced this works. While it’s exciting to see objects flying around and demons running rampant, this is more thrilling than scary. I was reminded of The Autopsy of Jane Doe in how it flips from slow terror into violent mayhem at the cost of all the atmosphere it had painstakingly built up.
Despite this reservation, however, I was delighted by the actual resolution. Cristina’s character arc may be predictable but it is still satisfying. The journey we take with her is an entertaining and thrilling one. And, ultimately, The Old Ways earns a lot of good will with its fresh take on one of the most worn-out subgenres in horror.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Possessor (2020)
- The Boogey Man (1980)
- Jakob’s Wife (2021)
- The Queen of Black Magic (2019)
- Cold Hell (2017)
- Seance (2021)
- The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
- Dachra (2018)
- Isle of the Dead (1945)
- After Midnight (2019)
- The Baby (1973)
- Hagazussa (2017)
- Frightmare (1974)
- The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
- Dave Made a Maze (2017)
- Raw (2016)
- The Old Ways (2020)
- Terror Train (1980)
- mon mon mon MONSTERS (2017)
- Sator (2019)
- Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
- The Lighthouse (2019)
- Anything For Jackson (2020)
- Warning: Do Not Play (Amjeon) (2019)
- Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
- The Field Guide to Evil (2019)
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
- The Wizard of Gore (1970)
- Fingers (2019)
- Lake Bodom (2016)
- Island of Lost Souls (1932)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!