Holy Ghost People (2013)
Directed by Mitchell Altieri
Directed by Mitchell Altieri (one half of the directing duo known as The Butcher Brothers), Holy Ghost People takes viewers on an often hypnotic and surreal journey through a snake-handling Pentecostal church in the heart of the Appalachian mountains as a young woman named Charlotte (Emma Greenwell) attempts to discover what happened to her sister with the help Wayne (Brendan McCarthy), an alcoholic ex-Marine who feels as if he has little left to live for before crossing paths with his new sidekick.
It's an eerie exploration of power and religion, especially when set within a community that's largely populated by those who have been either shunned by society or given up on by their friends and family. And while it's by no means a traditional horror movie, Holy Ghost People is by far the riskiest film we've seen from Altieri, who has made a career of never shying away from provocative material, as well as his most confident work to date.
While it's never plainly spelled out for us, it certainly seems that this Holy Ghost People is loosely based on the documentary of the same name from 1967; throughout his story Altieri uses brief clips from that doc, which studied the behaviors of a small Pentecostal church in Scrabble Creek, West Virginia, adding a nice heightened sense of bizarre realism to the tone of the film. While certainly not a flawless effort (it was mentioned at the SXSW screening that the cut we were seeing was less than a week old so it seems that there is still time for a few adjustments), Holy Ghost People manages to still be a mesmerizing and almost intoxicating Southern Gothic tale that perfectly taps into this twisted world of power-hungry religious zealots and those that would choose to follow them.
Altieri does a remarkable job of setting up an uneasy feeling in Holy Ghost People the moment Charlotte and Wade enter the Church of the One Accord property as he paints the compound with a strange idyllic quaintness balanced out with a nagging sense of dread, a wonderful tonal juxtaposition that Altieri masterfully infuses throughout the story. It should also be noted that the cinematography in Holy Ghost People by Amanda Treyz is quite stunning as well and really does a fantastic job of immersing you inside this world.
In regards to the performances in Holy Ghost People, Joe Egender is the absolute standout in the film as Brother Billy, the enigmatic leader of the Church of the One Accord with his own rockabilly sensibilities and a no-nonsense hold on his followers that makes it easy to understand just why these people would be willing to trust and put their faith in this guy in particular. Greenwell and McCarthy share great chemistry together, their twisted souls making for an interesting playing ground once they arrive at the spiritual compound that certainly has a lot to offer these two who have both arrived with their own personal demons at work.
As mentioned, Holy Ghost People in its current state does have a few minor flaws- nothing that derails the film by any means but just things that could be adjusted before it gets distributed that could take Altieri's project to an entirely new level. The film begins with narration from Greenwell's character, and it's a device that is used throughout much of the film that complements her character as an observer of this world she doesn't quite understand.
However, once the gritty action of Holy Ghost People's final act is well under way, Altieri goes back to the voiceover, which feels slightly out of place at this point since the character is no longer a silent observer. As a storyteller Altieri has already taken us this far; he should trust the audience to find their way to the film's conclusion without relying on the use of narration. He's already done his job (and quite well) in delivering a compelling story, and nothing in that last 20 minutes needs additional explanation. The visuals do a great job of telling this tale so hopefully he'll do some trimming there before future screenings.
There's no doubt though that fans of The Butcher Brothers should be pleased with Holy Ghost People on nearly every level as it delivers on that trademark swagger and unexpected vibe we've grown to love from their films throughout the years. Its content may be difficult for some people to dig on as some may just dismiss it as "religious horror," but as someone who grew up in a Pentecostal family and would attend church with my grandma on our vacations in West Virginia, it's a subject I found all too chillingly familiar and enthralling but also highly accessible and engaging just the same. So whether you consider yourself someone of faith or one of the faithless, Holy Ghost People will undoubtedly slither under your skin once Brother Billy gets finished with you.
3 1/2 out of 5