×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Holy Ghost People’

After a promising buildup, Mitchell Altieri's thriller about a religious cult arrives at a somewhat underwhelming payoff.

With:

Emma Greenwell, Joe Egender, Brendan McCarthy, Cameron Richardson, Roger Aaron Brown, Don Harvey, Jayne Entwistle, Buffy Charlet, James Lowe, Jalen Camp.

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.”

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Holy Ghost People'

Reviewed on DVD, San Francisco, Nov. 27, 2013. (In SXSW Film Festival.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 88 MIN.

Production:

An XLrator Media release of a San Francisco Independent Cinema presentation of a Found & Lost/Indie Entertainment/Butcher Brothers production. Produced by Joe Egender, Kevin Artigue, Phil Flores, Mitchell Altieri, Jeffrey Allard. Executive producer, L.C. Nussbeck. Co-producer, Don R. Lewis.

Crew:

Directed by Mitchell Altieri. Screenplay, Kevin Artigue, Joe Egender, Altieri, Phil Flores. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Amanda Treyz; editors, Altieri, Brett Solem; music, Kevin Kerrigan; production designer, Alessandro Marvelli; costume designer, Amanda Riley; sound, Nikolas Zasimczuk; re-recording mixer, Jason Gaya; assistant director, Joel Pincosy; casting, Paul Ruddy.

With:

Emma Greenwell, Joe Egender, Brendan McCarthy, Cameron Richardson, Roger Aaron Brown, Don Harvey, Jayne Entwistle, Buffy Charlet, James Lowe, Jalen Camp.

More Film

  • Renee Zellweger Rufus Wainwright Sam Smith

    Renée Zellweger: Judy Garland Was 'My Childhood Hero'

    Awards buzz is building around Renée Zellweger for her performance as Judy Garland, emerging as a frontrunner in the Oscar race for best actress. But for her, the real prize was paying tribute to Garland, of whom she’s been a lifelong fan. “Nobody was prettier, nobody sang prettier…the adventures she had, [she was] my childhood [...]

  • Topic Studios

    Layoffs Hit Topic Studios as TV Division Relocates to West Coast (EXCLUSIVE)

    A small round of layoffs has hit Topic Studios this week in the television division, insiders familiar with the company told Variety. One of the insiders said three executives at the New York-based producer and distributor are out: senior vice president of scripted programming and Viacom alum Lisa Leingang, vice president of development Mona Panchal [...]

  • 'Downton Abbey' Music Gets 'Bigger, Better,

    As 'Downton Abbey' Hits the Silver Screen, the Music, Too, Gets 'Bigger, Better, Grander'

    When “Downton Abbey” fans hear that familiar strings-and-piano theme, a Pavlovian response ensues: Get to the television immediately, because you don’t want to miss a minute of the addictive Crawley family melodrama to follow. This week, with the “Downton Abbey” movie reaching theaters on Friday, fans can’t wait for their fix of Lady Mary and [...]

  • 45 Seconds of Laughter

    Film Review: '45 Seconds of Laughter'

    “Everyone is worth more than their worst act,” said Roman Catholic sister and anti-death penalty advocate Helen Prejean, and it’s with these words that “45 Seconds of Laughter” closes. It’s an apt sentiment on which to leave Tim Robbins’ sincerely felt documentary study of the therapeutic acting workshops run by his own theater company in [...]

  • Julie Andrews

    Julie Andrews Selected for AFI's Life Achievement Award

    The American Film Institute Board of Trustees has selected Julie Andrews as the recipient of the 48th AFI Life Achievement Award. The award will be presented to Andrews on April 25 in Los Angeles. The ceremony will be telecast on TNT. “Julie Andrews is practically perfect in every way,” said Kathleen Kennedy, chair of the [...]

  • 4127_D001_00007_RC Phyllis Logan stars as Mrs.

    'Downton Abbey' to Dominate Box Office Weekend With $30 Million

    The feature film version of “Downton Abbey” is heading for an impressive $30 million opening weekend at 3,079 sites for an easy victory at the North American box office, early estimates showed Friday. The launch of Brad Pitt’s space drama “Ad Astra” will land in second with about $20 million, while Sylvester Stallone’s action-thriller “Rambo: [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content