Its title (and some footage) borrowed from Peter Adair’s classic hourlong 1967 documentary about a snake-handling Pentecostal church in rural West Virginia, “Holy Ghost People” fictionalizes that setting in service of a suspense story indicting the dangers of blind religious cultdom. A bit less frustrating than a similar-themed indie that preemed at fests this year, Ti West’s Jonestown-inspired “The Sacrament,” this thriller from Mitchell Altieri (one of the Butcher Brothers, best known for 2006’s clever vampire spin “The Hamiltons”) likewise arrives at a somewhat underwhelming payoff after a promising buildup. It should draw moderate interest from horror fans — who’ll be disappointed at the relative absence of horror content — in VOD/iTunes release Feb. 18 and limited theatrical launch Feb. 28.
After picking a fight outside a bar, tough guy Wayne (Brendan McCarthy) awakens to find he’s been dragged back to his trailer home by waitress Charlotte (Emma Greenwell). Though he’s a surly cuss, she later asks him to drive her up Sugar Mountain to visit her sister, Liz, dangling $200 as incentive for the favor. She doesn’t tell him the whole story, however, including suspicions that Liz is being held against her will in the secluded community inhabited by followers of the Church of One Accord and its charismatic leader, Brother Billy (Joe Egender).
Getting a cautious welcome there, the duo — now passing themselves off as father and daughter — find no sign of Liz, feigning interest in getting with the spiritual program in order to stay on and investigate. To a point, Wayne (an ex-Marine wrestling with PTSD and the bottle) is actually attracted by the possibility of salvation, and angered when he discovers Charlotte hasn’t been entirely truthful with him. But evidence emerges that Liz (who herself had serious substance-abuse problems) was indeed here, and there are signs the church takes one of its mantras too seriously: “Through suffering we find our true selves.”
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The script, written by playwright Kevin Artigue, thesp Egender, helmer Altieri and his fellow Butcher Brother, Phil Flores (who co-directed their prior features), builds a fair head of intrigue. But the horror-oriented turns one might expect from these filmmakers never really arrive, and the eventual plot revelations feel a bit undercooked even for a straight thriller.
We never get a sense just how pervasive wrongdoings are in the cult — is the entire community in terror of a few bullies, or are most residents oblivious? Are all the women ill treated, or just a few? “Holy Ghost People” reaches its resolution before any of these questions are fully dealt with, leaving it unclear just how much danger the church poses or has posed to anyone beyond our protagonists and Billy’s ex-wives. Though we glimpse a few disturbing behaviors (and lots of poisonous snake handling), the screenplay finally doesn’t articulate the sect’s philosophy and practices enough to create an especially convincing or memorable sense of menace.
Nonetheless, the atmospherics are strong enough to hold attention throughout, with good use of Tennessee locations, solid design/tech contributions and effective performances, particularly from McCarthy as an old-school man-of-few-words rugged hero. Brief black-and-white clips from Adair’s original documentary are used to suggest the church’s back history.