“HOLY GHOST PEOPLE” (SXSW Movie Review)
While not exactly the type of film where one ends up asking themselves just who the title refers to (that line is drawn pretty clearly), there is a unifying trait in the entire ensemble of Mitchell Altieri’s thriller HOLY GHOST PEOPLE. The past haunts, and subsequently seems to catch up no matter how deep you embed yourself in something else; be it snake-handling backwoods church, be it isolation, be it alcohol, be it whatever it is you can sell yourself.
Although co-written with his partner Phil Flores, HOLY GHOST PEOPLE is not a Butcher Brothers affair. They, who brought us vampire family THE HAMILTONS and far-out Rockabilly horror THE VIOLENT KIND, have seemingly taken a step back so that Altieri can tell a visually rich noir, surrounded by Southern gothic. It’s certainly a different rhythm than Butcher fans would expect (despite their films being often unexpected) and undeniably the most beautiful looking, accomplished work from the director.
Altieri, while making no bones about the uglier side of Charlotte and Wayne’s life pre-Church of One Accord, really showcases just why the Appalachian sect of snake handlers is a haven for the troubled. Mannered and often stunning, their rural environment really does seem like an escape, a crutch Wayne flirts with trading his alcoholism for. The duo (played by Emma Greenwall and Brendan McCarthy) first arrive searching for Charlotte’s drug-addicted sister, Liz, who she shunned for being so destructive. With last word that she took up with Brother Billy (Joe Egender) and his followers, Charlotte enlists ex-Marine Wayne to help, in case they find more trouble and less Liz.
As things go with hidden, misunderstood churches, they do. Brother Billy is a fiery man of God, who believes in the power to reform, but also believes in harsh punishment for those who break their commitment to do so. A Butcher Brothers veteran, Egender packs a lot into his portrayal of someone who no longer jives with the outside world. Billy and those who live with him look stuck in time, reviving a rockabilly-meets-cult aesthetic that’s just neat enough to lull folks in. Much like the breathtaking lake, this surface has a sheen.
As Charlotte goes covert to find out all she can, the daily practices and services become hers to take up, as well. A slower-minded story, Altieri and HOLY GHOST PEOPLE really take the time to live in the Church of One Accord, and the film is at its best when it lets everything breathe. Building dread as the characters confront themselves before they can clash with each other would be much more immersive, however, if it wasn’t for the extensive voice over that’s employed. Charlotte regales the audience on a very frequent basis and—while Greenwall isn’t flubbing—it becomes more about telling, than showing. But when Altieri is showing so much already, a redundancy is bound to hinder our engagement.