There isn't a whole lot on this big, beautiful Earth that scares me: clowns, tornadoes, hill people, you know... legitimate things. But religion; well my friends, religion terrifies the hell out of me. First and foremost on the list of religions that freak me out (barely edging out Scientology), is any religious organization that engages in snake handling or speaks in tongues. Granted, every so often the universe engages in a bit of poetic justice, and things like this happen (I like to believe such events are part of a coordinated snake plot, because they're sick of being used as props for spiritual nut cases), but mostly, I believe these organizations exist solely to bilk people out of money and exploit the fragile psyches of folks desperate for guidance.
It is for all of these reasons that I found Mitchell Altieri's Holy Ghost People to be an eerie and terrifying southern gothic thriller that is well worth a watch.
The Plot: While searching for her missing sister, Charlotte follows her sister's trail to a church hidden high on Sugar Mountain. The Church of One Accord is lead by a charismatic snake handler who may or may not know what has become of Charlotte's sister. Aided by Earl, a soldier suffering from PTSD and alcoholism, Charlotte must figure out what the church is hiding, before she unwittingly becomes their next recruit.
While Holy Ghost People is beautifully directed, it is really the performances in this film that made it so damn impressive. Joe Egender (who also starred in The Hamiltons, perhaps my favorite modern vampire film) stars as Brother Billy, the snake-handling preacher who controls The Church of One Accord. Just the concept of a man who seeks spiritual enlightenment by playing with snakes is unsettling, but Egender plays Billy with such smarmy charm, he never appears to be more than an actual snake oil salesman. There is no question that Billy is up to something awful; discovering what that something is make Holy Ghost People one of the most thrilling southern gothic films I've ever seen.
Emma Greenwell as Charlotte and Cameron Richardson as Sister Sheila make for fascinating lead female characters. Charlotte is a woman overcome with guilt for her sister's disappearance and Sheila is girl trapped in a place that she doesn't trust; both characters are layered so well that their pain and strength is evident in each scene. Brendan McCarthy is dark, brooding, and wonderful as Afghan war veteran Wayne. In his initial scenes, he appears to be little more than an angry Joe Manganiello-clone. But as the movie progresses, it is slowly clear that the performance is far more complex. One of the most interesting elements of Holy Ghost People is Wayne's turmoil over what he truly believes.
Even if you aren't as petrified of Evangelists and cult-like religions as I am, Holy Ghost People is still a film that will keep you totally enthralled from beginning to end.
Rating: 4 Snake Bites out of 5