An American photojournalist, Cristina, researching a story about witchcraft, wakes to find herself captured and bound in a small room somewhere in the jungles of Mexico. A man and a creepy old witch leer over her, convinced that she is possessed by a demon. This follows an opening sequence depicting an exorcism many years earlier, showing a bedevilled woman lunging at her own daughter.
You guessed it, the daughter is the journalist and it would seem that she’s been a host to the demon ever since. Enter her cousin, who believes in the curse and is reluctant to help, and the result is The Old Ways – a very small four-character film set in the one room, with a lot of talking and some admittedly cool gross-out moments. It is an atmospheric venture into the black magik sub-genre of horror that delivers on aesthetic, but offers very little else.
First and foremost, credit must be given to director Christopher Alender, who has circumvented the limitations of budget by emphasising his vision with beautiful cinematography and production design. By having his story unfold in the one room and knowing that his design won’t be changed for the duration of the shoot, he allowed himself time to get it right. And for what it’s worth, he has conjured a nightmarish design that falls somewhere between Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow and Carter Smith’s The Ruins.
In some cases, a strong aesthetic can carry a film across the line, but in this case the story comes undone by a weak and laborious screenplay by writer Marcos Gabriel (Memorial Day), who scripted this story while serving as a writer on Muppets Now. To the average Joe, a one-setting film might seem like a walk in the park. But when you confine the story to such an extent and remove the need for action sequences or, in fact, character subtext, then the weight of the film relies on dialogue and character interactions.
When the captors interact with Cristina, there is plenty for the viewer to engage with. The elderly witch, with her one white eye and ritualistic face paint, is an imposing figure and her grotesque practices keep the film rooted in horror. Putrid moments involving regurgitated clumps of hair and serpents being pulled from inside Cristina’s stomach also offer horror fans something to celebrate, however, all of the moments in between – making up the bulk of the film – are dull and onerous.
Unfortunately, Brigitte Kali Canales is sorely miscast in the lead. Despite coming from such a genre-heavy television series as Fear the Walking Dead, Canales doesn’t tap into what is needed for horror and what it takes to carry such a personal story to the edge of sanity. Her performance lacks depth, and any fear she’s trying to get across to the audience comes across as though she has just read the script and is delivering her first readthrough.
Needless to say, The Old Ways is a hit and miss affair. It ticks all of the right boxes from a technical perspective and definitely deserves a look-in for what that’s worth, however, the script and weakness of the lead performance let it down completely. With that said, given that there’s obvious talent on display from Alender, I will err on the side of favourable and afford the film an added half a star to its score rating. I look forward to seeing what he can take from this film and apply it to his next.
‘The Old Ways’ is released in the US on Digital, DVD and Blu-ray on October 5th and is currently available on Netflix (in certain markets) right HERE.