As one half of the Butcher Brothers, Mitchell Altieri (along with Phil Flores) has been earning attention for creating compellingly written, genre-straddling films that have found appreciation in horror circles for nearly a decade. The Butcher Brothers’ catalogue has been largely written off by mainstream critics, though it has received respectable-to-positive acclaim from nearly any publication that has “horror,” “dread,” “fear,” or “gore” somewhere in its title.
Holy Ghost People (available for On Demand and for rent via iTunes), Altieri’s post-Butcher Brothers directorial debut, is very loosely based—“inspired by,” for extra wiggle room—on the acclaimed 1967 Peter Adair-directed documentary of the same name that explores a Pentecostal community in West Virginia. It’s about a young woman and the man she recruits for a search-and-rescue mission finding themselves in a community that looks like the one portrayed in Adair’s film. Its villainous antagonists are the aforementioned Pentecostals, who are portrayed here as conspiratorial cultists. Also monstrous, the movie hints at, are the characters the audience is initially poised to identify with. This is a suggestion Altieri and company clumsily point their audience towards as it enters its messy third act.
Charlotte (Emma Greenwell) pays Wayne (Brendan McCarthy), a down-and-out alcoholic veteran, $200 to help her find her missing sister. They venture to a Pentecostal outpost filled with occasionally homicidal, snake-handling zealots. The sect is overseen by Billy (Joe Egender), a half-way charismatic cross between Hank Williams and Giovanni Ribisi. All signs point to creepy, but Wayne inexplicably sticks around and serves as a vehicle for the progression of the twisty plot ahead.
The movie is stuffed with a great deal of unrealized potential. It pulls off a subtle, eerie atmosphere throughout and the performances are solid. Particularly strong are Brendan McCarthy’s Wayne, a loser struggling with PTSD, and Joe Egender’s Bill, a charismatic cross between Hank Williams and Giovani Ribisi. Unfortunately for the actors, their performances are bogged down by forced and inexplicable motivations and a plot that crosses into absurdity, especially near its end. It is worth spending time with for the cast alone, though, as disappointing as the fates of their characters ends up being.
The terror of snakes as a plot device is enjoying a small revival as of late, particularly in independent cinema. Snakebites play as important a role in the plots of Mud and The Kings of Summer as they do in this movie. If the zombie is a symbol of mindless consumerism, the vampire a symbol of fear of discomfort with the hyper-sexual other, then what is the snake? In the case of Holy Ghost People it as serves less of a plot device or symbol and more of a nod to the film that inspired it. If the past 20 years have taught us anything, it’s that zealous religious folks unafraid to die for their beliefs make formidable foes.
In this way the movie’s snakes serve as an ever-present reminder that when they are your enemy, people that match this description are especially dangerous. In a 2013 interview with Dread Central, co-screenwriter, Phil Flores said that actor Joe Egender read famed snake enthusiast Jamie Coots’ 1995 book Salvation on Sand Mountain when doing research for his role. A recent LA Times article reports that Coots was bitten at least 8 times when he was a preacher. One time he allowed the poison from a bite to eat away his finger and refused to go to the hospital. Coots has played a substantial part in the re-popularization of snakes outside of the aforementioned re-emergence in cinema. The National Geographic reality show Snake Salvation focuses on Coots and his congregation.
I would have loved to have heard his opinion of the film, but he was bitten and died the day before Holy Ghost People became available on demand.
On a few occasions it appears evident that Altieri is positing that yes, the most fervent of religious cults are weird and terrifying, but perhaps they are no more weird and terrifying than we are to each other. But from Breaking Bad to the Nolan Batman trilogy, the “who is the bad guy, really?” theme is one that’s been recently tackled consistently and more compellingly in even the most mainstream titles. It attempts to pass our protagonists off as imperfect themselves by offering a confounding background for Charlotte in particular. She works at a bar called Saints and Sinners, and she tells the audience via voiceover that perhaps the story she is telling is not altogether truthful. Contrasted against homicidal, snake-handling cultists, though, the comparative exploration lacks the nuance essential for it to be moving.
For a movie that’s ultimately about a young woman’s journey into what becomes a horrific and terrifying scenario—one that consistently straddles the line between thriller and horror—there is surprisingly no ascent of a so-called final girl. This would be refreshing if the decision to go down a different road struck as intentional. Charlotte is initially portrayed as scrappy and forceful, but ultimately written to be fumbling and incompetent in order to serve unforeseen and outlandish twists. To be fair to the strong young woman the audience comes to know in the movie’s first two acts, Charolotte couldn’t have been privy to the number of convenient plot holes that exist to make its climax possible and so it was really lazy writing, not our beloved protagonist, that is responsible for her fall.
The alternative Holy Ghost People offers to its viewers is impressively brazen. Without giving too much away, Wayne, long-haired, scraggily bearded and beaten physically and psychologically in Passion-Play-like fashion is resurrected by “holy ghost in a vile” and saves the day with a shotgun in hand. In doing so, he rescues a wounded girl and a captive woman from an evil collective pretending to be holy, a series of Christ allusions even more over the top than what is offered in Verhoeven’s Robocop.
Were the closing symbols intentional, their presence in the movie would suggest that the filmmakers possess a level of self-awareness that goes unillustrated through much of the movie. The primary fault of Holy Ghost People is its aversion to acting deliberately. It over explains itself via voiceover and uses the device to offer explanation for otherwise unexplainable actions. The concept of a Christ-like figure wielding a shot gun is hilarious and over the top, but that hilarity doesn’t match the thoughtful tone that defines the first two thirds of its run time and as such it feels embarrassingly accidental. Towards its end in particular, it misses exponentially more than it hits. Audiences looking for a smart cult-focused genre film will find some things about the movie worthy of celebration, though will leave them wishing it lived up to the potential it flirts with but never fully realizes.