“The old ways die with her. We have no more moves left…”
In the tropical forests of Veracruz, Mexico, there is a place that blends natural beauty with unnatural and ageless evil. That place is known as La Boca, a cave that leads deep underground. Reporter Cristina Lopez (Brigitte Kali Canales, Baby Driver, Fear the Walking Dead) was born in Veracruz, but left when she was a young girl after witnessing something traumatic and inexplicable. Years later, Cristina returns to her birthplace under the guise of following a lead on a story about the region’s faith healers, practitioners of an ancient strain of witchcraft. Deeper than this, Cristina is also trying outrun her personal demons, which she hopes to leave behind her when she leaves Los Angeles. Along the way, something went wrong… horribly wrong.
When we first meet Cristina as an adult, she is chained in a sparsely furnished cell, a burlap sack covering her head. One of her captors, a man, asks Cristina why she had gone to La Boca. The camera pans over more of the room, showing the walls covered with strange symbols. Soon an older woman enters the scene, her face painted in stark tones of red, white, and black. One of her eyes is cloudy, though it’s clear she sees more than most would. Cristina is also reintroduced to her childhood friend Miranda (Andrea Cortés). Cristina pleads with Miranda to release her, but this request is refused.
A quick flashback shows Cristina’s visit to La Boca. The cavern and its surrounding landscape are deceptively beautiful—but as Cristina travels deeper into the cave, she is confronted by a shrieking, faceless creature. Back in her cell, Cristina looks frightened, and she looks sick as she slips into withdrawal symptoms. Was this flashback real? Was it a nightmare? A delusion? A side effect of the drugs Cristina has been using? The old woman, Luz (Julia Vera), believes in a much more sinister explanation, and begins an ongoing process to cleanse Cristina of this invading evil.
What follows is a spiritual battle between the demon hiding inside Cristina and the forces of good comprised of Luz, her son Javi (Sal Lopez), and Miranda. Frightening visions, psychic surgery, books of ancient lore, and lots and lots of goat milk all play into this as the audience learns more about the strange sigils covering the walls, and about the demon hiding inside Cristina.
There are a number of elements that make The Old Ways worthy of a recommendation. First off is the diversity of the cast, all of whom turn in solid performances. Though the cast is rather small, it is headed by three distinct female characters leading a cast that is almost completely comprised of actors of Hispanic heritage. Two additional actors—AJ Bowen (I Trapped the Devil, You’re Next) and Weston Meredith—have brief but memorable roles. Much of the film takes place within the confines of Luz’s house, but when the film steps outside into the wider world, the locations are gorgeous (the credits mention the film being shot in Puerto Rico). Composer Ben Lovett (The Ritual, I Trapped the Devil, The Wind) turns in another memorable score that veers from claustrophobically oppressive to joyful and uplifting. Visual effects artists Josh and Sierra Russell (The Ritual, Bliss, VFW) provide some shocking and gory effects work.
There are a few minor points that, while they don’t greatly detract from the film, are worth mentioning. The film practically breezes by at roughly 90 minutes. I found myself wishing that I could have spent a little more time in the film’s world—to glimpse more of the books and artifacts, to learn more about Luz’s old ways, to see more of the creatively designed demons. More than anything else, there is a specific character thread that arises in the film’s third act that I feel would have had more impact and resonance had it been given a little more time to breathe. But really, if the greatest criticism I can level at the film is that I would have liked to have spent more time in the world and with the characters, that shouldn’t be viewed as much of a negative.
The Old Ways incorporates bits of films I’ve seen before and enjoyed years. I occasionally found myself reminded of Martyrs, The Evil Dead, and The Exoricst—but I never felt that The Old Ways was derivative. Director Christopher Alender and and writer Marcos Gabriel take aspects of these films, blending them with their own visions, and present them in a way that feels fresh, bringing a new vision of folk horror to the screen.
The Old Ways had its world premiere at the 2020 Sitges Film Festival.
[Sitges 2020] ‘The Old Ways’ brings something new to folk horror
The Old Ways offers up a unique new vision of folk horror and bloody frights.