Catholic horror cinema has seen something of a resurgence over the last near-decade off the back of the Conjuring series (although it may be on its way out, if The Devil Made Me Do It is any indication). But, much like with the prevalence of Catholic doctrine in the Western world, its persistence in modern cinema can give the impression that this is the only way that the natural and spiritual worlds are understood. It grips the spotlight, while its myriad of offshoots around the world, linger in the shadows. Offshoots like Brujeria, a Mexican witchcraft practice that owes as much to the traditions of the indigenous population as it does to those brought over by colonisers.
It is Brujeria which forms the core of this film, a very different look at the standard exorcist horror flick.
As shown through the psychological lens of main character Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales), the way her reactions and Marcos Gabriel’s writing establish the scepticism of the story is quite effective. First shown bound by the wrists and with a sack over her head, the audience is put in the same position as her, fearing the circumstances that led to this. And throughout, there’s a continual Flanagan-ian tinge, where questions are asked about how much of what is shown is actually happening.
But as the narrative progresses, and more of Cristina’s own history is made evident, the question of how much is real fades away and is replaced by another, potentially even scarier question: Is she still meant to be here?
While framed with Brujeria tradition and an emphasis on demons made corporeal, the film’s structure is closer to the cold turkey scene in Trainspotting than it is to any recent films involving exorcism.
Cristina’s own figurative demons of addiction and childhood trauma are refracted to depict rehabilitation and demonic possession in a similar light: You’ll lie all you need to to get out of being helped, but it’s only with confrontation that the healing can begin.
It adds interesting textures to the larger story, which is made up of two-thirds psychological detail and one-third proper buckwild horror cred. And as captured by Canales’ amazing performance, ramping up the on-screen charisma to match the raw watchability of the film around her, it makes for an invigorating character arc with relatable chuckles and even a genuine moment of fist-pumping badassitude.
The Old Ways is a refreshing change of pace for one of horror cinema’s favourite cliches, imbuing it with equal parts gripping character work, chewy thematic subtext, and a cultural aesthetic that deserves more shine than it usually gets in this part of the cinematic world. It’s a story of personal triumph that, both in-story and on our side of the screen, serves as an example of persevering not just for one’s own sake, but so that others can be helped to overcome their own demons.