Monday, October 19, 2020

THE OLD WAYS (2020) Movie Review

SCARE-A-THON Totals to Date:

Total Movies Watched: 16
Total First Time Views: 9 
Amount raised for BOXVILLE: $1,141.12

The Old Ways (2020) d. Christopher Alender (USA) (90 min) (1st viewing)

When Mexican/American reporter Cristina Lopez (Brigitte Kali Canales) returns to her ancestral home of Veracruz chasing a story on witchcraft and faith healers, she becomes the subject of her own story. Kidnapped by a local “bruja” Luce (Julia Vera) and her son Javi (Sal Lopez), Cristina is held against her will for a terrifying reason: They believe she has a demon within her and won’t let her free until they exorcise the malevolent force… no matter what it takes. As she struggles to make her escape, she slowly comes to believe they may be telling the truth after all. Along with her captors and her estranged cousin Miranda (Andrea Cortes), Cristina’s fight for survival turns into a fight for her soul.

A well-textured and suspenseful slice of paranormal horror that manages to skillfully blend time-honored horror beats with a very human tale of cultural disconnect. With the aid of their focused, dedicated cast, director Alender and screenwriter Marcos Gabriel have conjured a rich and multilayered examination of “civilized” society’s dismissal of natural – and supernatural – forces to its own peril.

As hauntingly portrayed by Canales, the character of Cristina is a flawed and damaged individual, traumatized as a child watching her mother perish before her eyes and fleeing the tiny rural village seeking a better, more affluent life in the States. Though she barrels through her journalistic assignments with fervor, she’s fueled in part by narcotics and denial; by constantly moving, she is able to avoid any legitimate self-examination. But when the chance to confront her pain arises in the form of a story, she pushes aside the gentle warnings of her editor Carson (A.J. Bowen), as well as those of the locals, and dives headlong into a “cursed” area of the jungle around Veracruz.

When we next see her, she is being held prisoner by Luce, Javi, and Miranda, who are convinced that the reporter has been inhabited by an ancient and malevolent spirit. Force-fed goat’s milk and kept chained in a small hut, Cristina (and the viewer) wonder how far these people are willing to go in order to protect themselves and Cristina herself.

It’s here that I wish Alender had been a little less explicit or at least delayed his reveal, because this element is the film’s greatest strength: How terrifying is it to be held captive by people who truly believe they have your best interest at heart even though their methods resemble bizarre ritual and torture? Especially when you are convinced that there is nothing wrong with you. But because Alender tips his hand early on, providing a “tell” (a subtle shift in the pupil of the human host), we know that the trio is correct, that Cristina is indeed possessed, and their cause is just. As such, that potent and unique question/doubt is resolved sooner than it needed to be and we’re on to familiar exorcising ground. It’s not a huge flaw, it’s just something I would have liked to have seen explored a tad bit longer.

However, once we do start the possession proceedings proper, it’s an assured and well-crafted locomotive of tension and release. As the wizened shaman, Vera is a stunner, switching back and forth between benevolent abuelita to mystical powerhouse against the forces of darkness, and she is ably supported by Lopez who sustains the gravity of the situation. Because Javi truly believes (and doesn’t enjoy his role in the proceedings), his character lends an air of authenticity; this is not some bloodthirsty maniac getting off on the torture of his fellow man, but rather a reluctant hero fighting the good fight (and enduring a great deal of abuse as a result).

In the pivotal role of Miranda, Cortes provides the human connection between captors and captive, while providing valuable exposition regarding Cristina’s backstory and the current situation at hand while tracking her own emotional journey. It’s a deceptively difficult role, and the young New York actress handles it flawlessly.

Despite minor quibbles, Alender’s second feature-length offering is a winner from start to finish, with well-timed flickers of black humor and a reliance on performance over overblown effects (although there are some nice visual “boo!” moments to be enjoyed as well). The Old Ways may in fact be the best ways after all.

The Old Ways recently debuted at the Sitges Film Festival and should be making its North American debut later in 2021. Keep apprised of release dates at Soapbox Films.

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