Thursday, March 21, 2013

HOLY GHOST PEOPLE (2013) movie review

Holy Ghost People
(1st viewing) d. Altieri, Mitchell (USA)

Troubled small town gal Emma Greenwell recruits alcoholic ex-Marine Brendan McCarthy to help track down her missing sister, whom she fears has been indoctrinated into a mountain-dwelling religious cult. The two attempt to infiltrate the snake-handling order by posing as father and daughter, but charismatic leader Joe Egender and flunkies Laurence Harvey and James Lowe have their suspicions and don’t seem too willing to let the pair into the fold...or out of the camp.

Altieri has been kicking around for several years, though his name might be less familiar than the handle he adopted with Phil Flores: The Butcher Brothers. Over the past half-dozen years, the duo have banged out several well-received genre efforts, including The Hamiltons, The Violent Kind, The Thompsons, and the less-well-received April Fool’s Day remake (but we can blame that one on studio interference). For his solo directing effort, Altieri teams up with Flores, frequent onscreen collaborator Egender and producer Kevin Artigue to pen a slow-burn thriller that takes its inspiration from Peter Adair’s 1967 documentary about a West Virginia Pentecostal church (brief snippets of which are scattered throughout the film).

The result is a moody, dark and atmospheric examination of alternative faiths and lifestyles, one that surprisingly does not paint the sequestered community as a bunch of Bible-blinkered loonies. (Well, not right away at least.) As with 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, the commune at first seems to be a fully functional assembly, and while we might judge them as “weird” or “other,” they don’t really seem to be invested in harming themselves or others. It’s almost unfortunate that the screenwriters feel inclined to turn up the mustache twirling in the third act, revealing homicidal tendencies lurking beneath the members’ holy visages—the ambiguity is actually a lot more interesting. Once cats are out of the carry-on, we move into familiar suspense territory where it’s standard brave heroes against the baddies programming, with several sequences requiring serious viewer suspension of belief. Things get undeniably loopy in the final lap, but it doesn’t completely undo the good work that has gone before.

Like previous Butcher efforts, Altieri has assembled a group of performers that find interesting shades to their characterizations, even if a few never feel entirely realized. Egender and McCarthy prove intelligent and worthy foils, each studying the other for signs of deception or duplicity, two alpha males with very different M.O.’s. Greenwell is a bit of a cipher; her performance recalls that of a punished animal attempting to sneak back into the kitchen for another ill-advised snack—weakness driven by overwhelming desire. It’s not an uninteresting approach, but her incessant need for McCarthy as backup leaves her stranded in “weak female” terra. Harvey lends the same thick-lipped, evil-eye menace he’s been serving up since Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War, though Lowe’s resident simpleton feels too mannered to be genuine. As congregation members straddling the lines of loyalty, Roger Aaron Brown and Cameron Richardson are also worthy of praise.

Holy Ghost People skirts outright horror, though genre fans should appreciate the impressive aura of dread conjured by the rustic setting and clear-eyed religious fanaticism. There’s a bit of CGI splatter, but real reptiles and a nasty practical festering wound go a ways toward balancing the scales. Overall it’s a bit of a mixed bag, but it works more often than not and shows consistent improvement on the part of its makers.

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine

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