Bruja (Review: The Old Ways)
I’m a genre nerd. While a thoughtful documentary or smart drama will capture my attention, nothing gets my nerd radar pinging faster than a film that Wikipedia defines as, “a stylistic or thematic category for motion pictures based on similarities either in the narrative elements, aesthetic approach, or the emotional response to the film.”
Luckily, there’s an awful lot of room for filmmakers to operate in when it comes to genre. A war movie only has to feature…well, war. A vampire movie simply needs to have something within it that can be recognized as some sort of vampire. Science fiction can comfortably fit Pi, The Matrix, Forbidden Planet, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan inside and make room for more.
What’s even better for me is when a genre movie takes your expectations and tweaks them. A good example of this is the 2010 horror comedy Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. The film follows a pair of friendly rednecks who have bought the fishing cabin of their dreams. While on vacation, a group of dopey college kids mistake Tucker and Dale for murderous hillbillies of the Texas Chainsaw variety, and proceed to accidentally die in increasingly ludicrous ways. Not only is Tucker & Dale funny as hell, it’s also smart. It uses what you know about a certain kind of horror movie against you.
In the exorcism subgenre of horror, you’d likely expect a few details. Flickering candles. The possessed arching their back in a decidedly unnatural manner. A spiritual warrior bellowing prayers against the forces of darkness. I’m good with that. I’m even better when a clever little film like The Old Ways comes along and keeps us guessing as to what’s really going on.
When Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales) wakes up, she’s imprisoned. She knows this wasn’t supposed to happen. What was supposed to happen was a simple journalistic assignment. Her plan was to return to Mexico, return to the small village where she was born, and report on the local faith healers and their traditions. Easy, right
It was bad enough when she was abducted, tossed into a dank cell, and chained to the wall. It gets worse when Javi (Sal Lopez) arrives, an older man with glowering eyes who’s not exactly talkative. He doesn’t respond to her pleas and won’t answer her questions. She’s simply trapped, with no idea why she’s there or what the hell is going on.
Things get worse because of course they get worse. A small family reunion takes place, as Cristina’s cousin Miranda (Andrea Cortes) enters. She’s the only one left who remembers what happened when Cristina was a young girl and when the exorcism of her mother (Michelle Jubilee Gonzalez) took place. Foster care took young Cristina out of Mexico, and as she’s grown into adulthood, she’s positively sprinted away from her past. Her drug problem feels more like a drug solution, and it’s the preferable alternative to her memories. She still can’t shake the sight of her beloved mother in the grip of something unspeakable.
It all falls into place when the bruja Luz (Julia Vera) sets foot in Cristina’s cell. Miranda explains that Cristina was taken for her own good. Luz fervently believes that Cristina is now the victim of possession, and must perform dangerous rites to free her. But is Cristina truly possessed, or is she held captive by a group of dangerous fanatics?
The Old Ways didn’t tip its hand for about 45 minutes. During that time, I wasn’t sure if we were dealing with supernatural shenanigans or some kind of wackadoo cult. Director Christopher Alender knows that viewers have little patience with Shyamalan-esque mind games. He keeps us guessing for just the right amount of time, then commits fully to the narrative. Alender didn’t have the biggest budget in the world to work with, which was also a blessing in disguise. There’s very little CGI tomfoolery or jump scares going on, and he efficiently wrings scares out of a creepy atmosphere and very impressive use of sound. That makes for a film that’s more elegant and more intelligent than your standard horror fare.
What’s also a nice change of pace is a horror film that intertwines genre thrills with a clever character arc. The screenplay by Marcos Gabriel lays out the pieces at just the right pace. We’re slowly given information and figure things out along with Cristina. Gabriel’s script also forces Cristina to confront her inner demons, her rejection of her heritage and her past, while also having to confront what might be literal demons. This is exactly how smart genre filmmaking should work, where conventions are simultaneously honored and used as a jumping-off point.
Oftentimes, contained films like The Old Ways require a smaller cast, which means a much smaller group must handle the narrative heavy lifting. It’s fortunate that this cast is up to the challenge. Brigitte Kali Canales has the toughest job as Cristina. She needs to play a victim with agency and a strong woman with a boatload of flaws. It’s a stellar job of acting, and Canales shows us a number of sides to her character. As Miranda, Andrea Cortes is playing more than just a country bumpkin. I liked seeing her grapple with her familial obligations, her fear that Cristina is harboring something evil, and her suspicion that maybe she’s not that close to her cousin, anyway.
I appreciate it heartily when a genre movie pushes boundaries and goes to interesting places. The Old Ways does more than feature people conducting spiritual warfare, though it handles that aspect well. It’s got things to say about how we reckon with the past, where we come from, and why you should listen when someone warns you not to go to a cursed place.