“The Old Ways” is an intriguing Mexican twist on the exorcism thriller.
It imagines a demonic possession diagnosed and treated in “the old ways” in a remote corner of the culture that’s more tribal than Spanish, more pagan than Catholic.
A young reporter has been taken hostage, dragged to a remote house with her head covered in a sack. She (Brigitte Kale Canales) doesn’t speak Spanish, but protests all she can in English. And she can’t answer her 60ish captor’s (Sal Lopez) Spanish questions.
“What were you looking for in La Boca?”
She throws a name out in desperation, a cousin from here. Miranda (Andrea Cortés) shows up, somber. She hears “She has it” from the face-painted one-eyed crone (Julia Vera) and stays. She will act as Cristina’s translator and guide to what’s about to happen.
“They think you have a demon inside you.”
Cristina has stuck her nose where she oughtn’t. But as she and Miranda talk, their mutual connection to this place and Cristina’s reasons for returning to the town of her birth become clear. Her mother went through something similar, with little Cristina witnessing it.
Now, the reporter whose “job is to go places people tell me not to go” will be subjected to the ritual, strapped down as “la bruja” (the witch) practices psychic surgery, pulling stuff out of her abdomen, chanting and dancing and blowing smoke to lure out the demon that mother may have passed to daughter.
The effects and production values set the gloomy scene for Christopher Alender’s (script by Marcos Gabriel) take on the genre. The body-contorting tropes of “possession/exorcism” films can seem to span many cultures, but the music (listen for the pre Valens “La Bamba”), face-painting and tribal incantations give this film it’s Mexican flavor.
But the tone is set by the performances, and they generally give the whole film the feel of a low-stakes game.
Seasoned reporter Cristina may be, but Canales under-reacts to her horrific plight, others render the ceremonial exorcism more matter-of-fact than part of a grand struggle against evil.
Dealing with this Postheki demon should feel terrifying to the outsider, if not the grimly-resigned locals. It isn’t.
“The Old Ways” never builds empathy for anyone, making it a horror movie you watch but don’t “experience,” its bland heroine someone who never makes us fear for her sanity, her safety or her life.
Rating: TV: MA, violence
Cast: Brigitte Kali Canales, Andrea Cortés, Julia Vera, Sal Lopez
Credits: Directed by Christopher Alender, scripted by Marcos Gabriel. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:30