Mitchell Altieri’s Holy Ghost People is billed as a psychological thriller set deep in the Appalachian mountains. The film is a sometimes-hypnotic journey into a snake-handling church hidden from modern, mainstream society. Charlotte (Emma Greenwell) and Wayne (Brendan McCarthy) attempt to infiltrate the church to rescue Charlotte’s sister, who she believes is hidden somewhere on the mountain. It’s an eerie film that touches on the relationship between power and religion, especially in communities largely populated by those who have somehow been shunned or tossed out of polite society.
Sometimes called holy rollers, the religious community that Altieri has chosen for his film is very real. Some of the footage in Holy Ghost People seems to be borrowed from Peter Adair’s 1967 documentary of the same name. The mix of the largely ethnographic old, black and white footage with Altieri’s storyline is compelling but also psychologically disturbing. It makes a movie that we might otherwise be able to dismiss as not very realistic seem a lot more accurate. As Charlotte and Wayne travel into the heart of the Church of One Accord, they meet the congregation’s leader, Brother Billy (Joe Egender). They also meet a trouble woman, Sister Sheila (Cameron Richardson), who seems to be hiding in the community more than she is reveling in religious ecstasy.
The battle to find Charlotte’s sister is grueling. Most of the congregation stand in the way as Charlotte and Wayne attempt to find out what happened to the woman. They are haunted by a particularly violent church member, Brother Sherman (Don Harvey). Those who want to help them are few and far between. Only Sister Sheila and Brother Cole (Roger Aaron Brown) make any meaningful contribution to the search. As we watch the story unfold, we begin to understand that they do so at great cost. What they face is more dangerous than what the church’s members face when they handle deadly snakes, because deadly snakes don’t deliberately harbor malice towards humans. They bite because they are scared; humans bite because they like the taste of blood.
It’s evident at the outset of Holy Ghost People that something is wrong in the Church of One Accord. Smiling Bobby (James Lowe) strikes us at first as a man who is perhaps mentally challenged; we later realize that he’s just a sociopath. Brother Sherman asks to be beaten with a belt in front of the congregation for having impure thoughts about a woman who isn’t his wife. Sister Sheila has mysterious scars on her face. She’s evasive when Wayne asks about them, but later alludes to Brother Billy as the perpetrator in his pre-church leadership life. The idea of the troubled finding refuge in religious fanaticism is a bit cliché but probably unavoidable, at least in a movie where organized violence becomes a central plot point.
The real ugly parts of Holy Ghost People are scattered throughout the last twenty minutes, which have been shot and edited to evoke that badass action feeling Altieri has worked hard to develop during his career. At the film’s climax, Charlotte and Brother Billy march to an empty meadow in a scene whose visual design evokes both old Westerns and modern Tarantino. Unfortunately, the film goes on just a bit too long after these crucial scenes. It’s sudden shift back to the voiceover narrative that it opened with seems out of place and a bit dishonest.
Those shots, and the high-action scenes that follow, make Holy Ghost People both a thoughtful film and a high-octane thriller that a wide audience can enjoy. The film is happening in layers, so inevitably some viewers will just be stuck on the action sequences (whose sound editing seems almost unrealistic — every punch and strike is just a touch too loud). However, viewers who want to contemplate some of the film’s deeper themes will have the opportunity to do so even if they don’t have to in order to understand the story.