SXSW 2013 Movie Review: ‘Holy Ghost People’
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Holy Ghost People
Director: Mitchell Altieri
Screenwriter: Kevin Artigue & Joe Egender, Mitchell Altieri & Phil Flores
Cast: Emma Greenwell, Brendan McCarthy, Joe Egender, Cameron Richardson, Roger Aaron Brown, Don Harvey, Buffy Charlet, James Lowe, Jayne Entwistle, Jalen Camp

Directed by Mitchell Altieri, Holy Ghost People follows 19-year-old Charlotte (Emma Greenwell) as she infiltrates a snake-handling Pentecostal church in the depths of the Appalachian mountains to find her missing sister with the help of Wayne (Brendan McCarthy), an alcoholic ex-Marine.

Holy Ghost People is no doubt inspired by the 1967 documentary of the same name by Peter Adair. Throughout his film, Altieri uses clips from Adair’s film, which explored the behaviors of a small Pentecostal church in Scrabble Creek, West Virginia, including faith healing, snake handling, and speaking (and singing) in tongues.

Altieri’s narrative, however, fails to be the disturbing, unsettling account that Adair presents in his documentary. This “psychological thriller” takes a pretty great premise and confounds it with subpar performances, and a script that often feels like a first draft.

Greenwell’s recurring voice-over narration is overwritten and far too poetic and contemplative for the character. I’m from the Appalachian Mountains – I grew up around these kinds of people – and I can tell you that a backwoods drug addict who spends her nights at dive bars with strange men doesn’t spout the kind of existential drivel-disguised-as-poetry on display here.

It’s the first clear sign of bad writing – Greenwell’s character has no other means of conveying her motivations unless she speaks them out loud to the audience. When we’re not being beaten over the head with narraration, we’re witness to Charlotte’s memories of her sister, conveyed with pseudo-VHS footage. Apparently, our brain stores dreams and memories as blurry, shaky camcorder video. Then there’s Wayne (McCarthy), the alcoholic ex-Marine sidekick. Wayne is a walking cliche – a veteran of war plagued by flashbacks (also on VHS) and bad dreams who can’t put down the bottle.

The cinematography by Amanda Treyz is pleasing to the eye – but the writing is so underwhelming that the images are tainted by their lack of meaning. One redeeming factor about Holy Ghost People for me is Joe Egender as Brother Billy, the charismatic leader of the Church of the One Accord. With his rockabilly sensibility and silver-tongued sermons, Brother Billy is the only interesting thing in Alteri’s film. Egender has a kind of Giovanni Ribisi quality about him – and he does his best with a weak script, but it just isn’t enough to make Holy Ghost People a success.

The most offensive part about Holy Ghost People for me is its lack of authenticity – a film that deals in Southern stereotypes that refuses to find any truth in the characters or environments it puts on screen. Alteri was born in Chicago, raised in San Francisco – and while I won’t pretend to know him or the writers of this film, it feels like someone saw a documentary about “those crazy snake-handling rednecks” in the Appalachians and wanted to make some sort of statement about religious fanaticism – without any sort of knowledge about the topic or the region.

Holy Ghost People desperately wants to be the next Martha Marcy May Marlene or Sound of My Voice, but it isn’t. It’s one of the few films I’ve seen at South by Southwest over the years where I pondered, “How did this get accepted into the festival?” I would say avoid this one – you’re better off watching Adair’s documentary or The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia if you’re in the mood for bewildering, backwoods cinema.


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