MRR Review: "Holy Ghost People"

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On the trail of her missing sister, Charlotte enlists the help of Wayne, an ex-Marine and alcoholic, to infiltrate the Church of One Accord - a community of snake-handlers who risk their lives seeking salvation in the Holy Ghost.
2.5

Rating: R
Length: 88 minutes
Release Date: March 10, 2013
Directed by: Mitchell Altieri
Genre: Drama / Thriller

Do not let the campy poster and macabre themes fool you: "Holy Ghost People" is more thriller than horror. The focus is on the psychological ramifications of group think, unchecked charisma and skewed ideology. All in all, the movie tells a tale more desperate than devilish and more sad than sinister. It is speculated that "Holy Ghost People" is loosely based on Peter Adair's 1967 film of the same name.

Charlotte (Emma Greenwell) is a career waitress living in a small town near the Appalachian Mountains. When she learns that her younger sister Liz (Buffy Charlet) is in trouble, she starts devising a plan to rescue her, but she soon figures out that she will need help. One night, she finds an alcoholic ex-Marine named Wayne (Brendan McCarthy), being beaten up behind the bar where she works. Charlotte offers Wayne her life savings, $200, to go into the mountains with her to help find her sister. Wayne, who is down on his luck and feels that he is good for nothing, sees this as an opportunity to do something altruistic and so agrees.

Charlotte had once lived with her sister but kicked her out due to Liz's drug addiction. Liz got sober and took refuge at the Church of One Accord, a notorious cult in the Appalachian Mountains. When Charlotte and Wayne reach the Church of One Accord, they find that Liz is not among the congregation. The two suspect that Liz has been harmed and done away with by the group. Knowing that the cult distrusts outsiders, Charlotte and Wayne decide to become members in order to infiltrate the group and find out more.

The cult's bizarre faith is centered around the use of systematic torture to remove fear, pain and sin from its members. Charismatic leader Brother Billy preaches sermons with poisonous serpents wrapped around his arms under the premise that, "When you handle a deadly serpent, all your pain, all your fears just disappear." The church's congregation is comprised of social pariahs who have been rejected by traditional churches. The people, hungry for inspiration and purpose, are drawn to Brother Billy like moths to flames and immediately grab onto his teachings no matter how destructive, empty and nonsensical they are.

Despite the cult's pull, Charlotte remains focused, uncovering more and more clues that the church members are lying about not knowing who or where Liz is. Wayne, however, begins suffering from alcohol withdrawal in the dry environment and starts clinging to Billy for solace. In the end, Charlotte must fight to resist the cult 's spell, collect Wayne and Liz and get out alive.

The film's primary strength lies in its ability to maintain a strong sense of atmosphere, even when there is not a lot going on plot wise. As far as looks go, the film is consistently overcast, gray and stark, giving it an appealing art house feel, and the palpably eerie atmosphere is strong enough to make the storyline effective. Clips from the black and white documentary "Holy Ghost People" are interspersed throughout the film, further heightening its bizarre and surreal nature.

Director Mitchell Altieri and writer Phil Flores form a filmmaking duo known as the Butcher Brothers. Though it is not a horror film in the tradition sense, "Holy Ghost People" is the riskiest film the pair has worked on by far. The Butcher Brothers, whose credits include "Lurking in Suburbia," "The Hamiltons" and "The Violent Kind," exhibit confidence and poise in handling the more cerebral elements of "Holy Ghost People." It is a provocative departure from their more traditional horror films.

"Holy Ghost People" benefits from a solid cast. Joe Egender is compelling as Brother Billy. He injects the role with a dark charisma that conveys how unhinged, manipulative and terrifying Billy truly is. Emma Greenwell plays Charlotte as a wily and complex character full of grit and plenty of surprises. As Wayne, Brendan McCarthy does an excellent job of portraying a guilty, tortured soul who is fighting desperately to claw his way out of the darkness and not get sucked back in. All of the actors are fully committed to their roles and deliver engaging performances.

At its heart, "Holy Ghost People" is about lost people looking to be found. It is a sharp, well-executed and thought-provoking thriller that does an admirable job of exploring the dense gray area between good and evil, especially as it relates to misguided religious zeal. This mesmerizing Southern Gothic film is shocking, saddening and satisfying all at once and is a worthwhile contribution to the genre.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5