What makes a horror movie good? Depends on who you are asking. Some like theirs with ample jump scares, while others seek heavy themes like familial grief. However, both sides can agree that basically, all they want is to be frightened by a horror film. If it has raised your hair or made you fearful of the dark corners in your house, then the film has done its job. But at times, you come across well-made movies that really try to send chills down your spine. Unfortunately, they are either executed shabbily or lack sufficient meat for the audience to bite. Director Christopher Alender's The Old Ways is an example of this type of film. One part of you wants to appreciate it for the effort it puts in, while the other sits disappointed due to the scarcity of scares.
The most notable thing about The Old Ways is that it treats possession as a disease, and the people who deal with the possessed are referred to as healers. Our patient here is a reporter named Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales). She is chained to a bed and given goat milk by a man in white hair, Javi (Sal Lopez). Cristina pleads that she is not the person they are looking for, but an old woman, Luz (Julia Vera), believes otherwise, which means everyone is on Luz's side, including Cristina's cousin Miranda (Andrea Cortés). For a while, fascinating questions swim in your mind: Is Cristina telling the truth? Is she really possessed? Maybe they have actually chained the wrong person. The film allows you to doubt yourself and everyone in it. The slow pans of the camera and the story's gradual way of revealing crucial plot points make you feel as if you are tied up with a rope so that you don't get to see what's coming.
The exciting mood does not sustain for long as The Old Ways is possessed with tonal inconsistencies that act as a malevolent spirit and destroy the entire film. It's odd and jarring to see Cristina making sarcastic jokes, followed by the scenes where she screams when weird things are taken out from her body during psychic surgery. The shift is not as smooth as the one you saw in, say, Haseen Dillruba, where the change from comedy to the serious drama was carried out without any difficulties. The Old Ways wants to say many things, but the words are truncated to a great degree. The idea of a family reunion runs through Cristina and her long-time-no-see cousin Miranda, but their bond is not fleshed out enough for us to care for this half-baked reunion. For a film that tries to present itself as a slow burn, the events here fly by so quickly that they don't get the time to stay and breathe. Before you know it, the girls find themselves confronting the demon for the last time.
You cannot help but wonder if most of the portions were shaved off or not filmed due to some constraints. But then, you don't see how an extended runtime could have resulted in a better movie. We would have probably gotten more of those flashbacks of Cristina in Los Angeles that would have resulted in a filler. Cristina could have been given more talking scenes with Miranda, but they would have further dissipated the tension. A movie that is almost entirely filmed in a single room or location should always be tight, and more scenes might have further damaged this one. The opening of The Old Ways is genuinely stimulating. However, it makes the mistake of repeating it so many times that any thrill attached to it just flows away like blood from a wound in the body. If you dip your hands deep inside the belly of The Old Ways, you might come up with an interesting narrative. Sadly, what you see on the screen is not that movie.