SXSW Review: Holy Ghost People


Somewhere up in the hills is a group of true believers – believers in God and sin testing themselves to show their purity. Old fashioned snake handlers, with no love or tolerance for the outside world. Lonely, secretive bartender Charlotte’s (Emma Greenwell) sister has disappeared up there somewhere, though, and she and her reluctant companion (Brendan McCarthy) are going to find out where.

Fans of the Butcher Brothers could certainly expect to be forgiven for expecting a blood-soaked romp of crazy cult killing and mad rituals out such a set up.  For his newest film, co-writer/director Mitchell Altieri  (one half of the Butcher Brother team) has gone a far more meditative, character driven route, however. And if the fit isn’t exactly good here, there are enough suggestions at the edges that he will be getting better with future films.

The shift should be clear enough right from the start as Charlotte’s raspy voiceover introduces us to her and the battered Wayne, an Afghanistan war vet still dealing with PTSD with a big helping of Johnny Walker. Charlotte has decided he is going to help her whether he likes it or not, and Charlotte tends to get his way.

What she needs him to do is accompany her up to the mountains where her drug addict sister has joined the revivalist community of Brother Billy (co-writer Joe Egender).

It’s when Billy arrives that Holy Ghost People is at its a best. A swaggering messiah who oozes charm, Altieri and Egender have crafted a well-rounded villain who sees a kindred spirit in Wayne – whether Wayne likes it or not.

Unfortunately, when Billy isn’t around, the film slows quite a bit.  Meditative is a good way to describe the experience. A not so good way is to describe the film as unfinished. There is just enough plot to get Charlotte and Wayne up to the mountain and then it stops dead waiting for the end.  That would be fine if Holy Ghost People were the kind of character study it seems like it wants to be. But Wayne is too quiet and contemplative to let us in on what he’s thinking, and Charlotte’s back story is held on for so long to create a third act twist, there’s not enough left to fill the space with.  You’re often left with a great sense of waiting for what feels like a solid pay off, but it never comes.

And then it turns into The Wicker Man.

Old school horror fans probably won’t get what they’re looking for out of Holy Ghost People, and neither will mainstream moviegoers.  The production is slick and the film is beautifully shot, but it’s missing that spark to become more. Still, it’s nice to see a filmmaker stretching his wings, and even if it doesn’t work great, it portends good things to come.

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Weekend: Apr. 25, 2019, Apr. 28, 2019

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