For the first hour or so, Mitchell Altieri's Holy Ghost People is a tense backwoods thriller centered around a small charismatic Christian community somewhere in the Appalachian mountains.
Once that hour is up, though, things turn a bit wacky and the film devolves into something significantly less tense and more simplistic. A film is only as good as its ending, and Holy Ghost People really had me going up until the ludicrous finale that conjures memories of some other great films, just rehashed and with less style. What went wrong? Just enough. However, there is more to the film than just the last fifteen minutes, which is perhaps why that last section is so frustrating.
Holy Ghost People begins in a trailer, naturally, where the beaten and bloodied Wayne (Brendan McCarthy) awakens to the sound of his shower running. Upon inspection, he finds the sexy and slight Charlotte (Emma Greenwell), who apparently had ulterior motives for getting him home safely from a night of carousing and fighting.
Charlotte has a problem; her sister is apparently in the sinister clutches of a local religious commune of snake-handling charismatics, led by the perpetually smiling and magnetic Brother Billy (Joe Egender). It seems too dangerous to tackle on her own, so she works her feminine wiles on Wayne to help her extract her sibling from this backwoods horror. Her plan -- to insinuate herself and Wayne among these people and slyly find her sister and escape -- is significantly less simple than it sounds on paper, and not everyone is as they seem.
The first hour of the film does a fine job setting up the community and characters. We get a really solid sense of who Wayne is; an ex-marine just home from Afghanistan and having serious trouble adjusting to the real world. Charlotte is a guilt-wracked sister who turned her junkie sister away and drove her into the arms of Brother Billy and his flock. She therefore feels a sisterly obligation to save her.
Brother Billy and his followers are, by necessity, more of a mystery, but as Charlotte gets nosier, things start to clear up. When her story to Wayne starts to sprout holes, he makes a rather convincing turn toward the holy light, only to get burned. This would all make for a fantastic story, if only they could have found a better way to end the damned thing.
So begins the section of my review where I start bitching.
[Note: The following deals with the conclusion of the film and may contain what some people consider spoilers.]
Apparently you can't have a backwoods thriller without a bunch of gun play, and Holy Ghost People is no exception. I have no opposition to gun play, apart from the fact that there was not a firearm in sight for much of the running time. However, I do have a problem with CG blood. Yup, CG blood, and lots of it. What is most frustrating is the fact that by the end of the film, many of the leads were covered in practical blood, which only make the CG squibs look even more fake. I try to focus on the film and not the process, but in this case, the distinction was so jarring that it took me out of the story. That's the first problem.
The other major issue I had with the film was the turn it took towards the unbelievable during the climax. Combining elements of the original The Wicker Man and Wes Craven's Last House on the Left, Holy Ghost People's climax goes to a place that just does not mesh, tonally, with the rest of the film. The people who follow Brother Billy in church are not the same people who exact their revenge on interlopers in the climax, and the execution is far too stage-y. It just doesn't match the tenor of the rest of the film.
[End possible spoilers.]
I always find it irritating how much a forced climax can taint my experience of a film as I walk out into the light of the real world. Holy Ghost People isn't a bad film. In fact, it's quite well made and features a number of credible performances, but I can't get the aftertaste to go away.
If you're going for crazy, by all means do so, but do it well and go all the way. .Holy Ghost People holds back at all the wrong times and turns into an entirely different, and inferior, film in the last reel. It's disappointing to see so much promise left behind.
Review originally published in slightly different form during SXSW in March 2013. The film is currently available to watch via various Video On Demand platforms. It opens in select theaters in the U.S. on Friday, February 21.