The Austin Chronicle

The Old Ways

Not rated, 90 min. Directed by Christopher Alender. Starring Brigitte Kali Canales, Andrea Cortés, Julia Vera, Sal Lopez, AJ Bowen.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Aug. 27, 2021

Smart junkies hide their demons, and Cristina (Canales) is a smart junkie, a reporter for a Vice-style publication who goes to the kind of places that most journalists avoid. Like La Boca, a forbidden cave near the Mexican village in which she grew up. She's not smart enough to avoid being kidnapped but – unlike most south-of-the-border abduction dramas – it's not the cartels. It's her own family, who think that she's hiding more than the track marks between her toes.

Bar some location flashbacks, The Old Ways is restricted to the room in which Cristina is chained, tied, and then bound by something less earthly than just some old straps. What director Christopher Alender does in that room is a fun, inventive riff on the old exorcism flick, but with a whole bunch of new twists. First off, no smells and bell Catholicism. Instead, this is brujeria, the witchcraft of Latin America, and exactly the kind of old ways that Cristina, journalist and junkie, has put behind her. But once she's in the room with the local bruja, Luz (Vera), it's a wild trip with snakes, spirit surgery, visions, pus-filled sacks of bird skulls, and a refreshingly different take on the whole genre: not least that it's from the doubt-riddled Cristina's point of view, not that of the true-believer exorcist.

Alender's gooey horror flick seems like a change of direction after directing several episodes of the recent Muppets Now (he's also responsible for Beaker's rendition of "Ode to Joy"). However, much as Chris Baugh proved with Irish bog monster mash Boys From County Hell, former Muppet directors make great creature feature creators. They're also close kin because both center on characters dealing with their misguided belief that they're beyond ancient traditions (hint: They've survived to become ancient for good reasons).

Yet beyond surprising thematic depth, The Old Ways is an exercise in putting every cent on the screen, and hiding what you don't need. The effects team (which includes Alender and writer/fellow Muppets Now alum Marcos Gabriel) put Canales through an ichor-splattered endurance race. She goes full-bore for the "what the hell is happening to my body" vibe – not in a Cronenberg way, but more in the style of Bruce Campbell, with a laconic sense of disbelief. When those elements combine just right, The Old Ways feels like something new.

Available on Netflix now.

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