It’s becoming increasing clear that we are in a time of non demonic religious horror. After watching a film like Holy Ghost People more films of that caliber have surfaced. The idea is plain and simple. That there are still other ways of thought on religion dwelling in the backwoods of the American culture. So luckily I was able to speak with the director of Holy Ghost People Mitchell Altieri on the film and why this trend of movies is currently on the forefront.
Where did the original idea for Holy Ghost People come from and have you ever witnessed a real life snake healer?
I’ve wanted to do a thriller for sometime now. Something different from my other horror films, but still working with a dark and frightening subject matter…. I had this idea of a girl trying to track down her missing sister and placing it at a snake handling church up in the Appalachians Mountains. But at that particular time Phil Flores (the other Butcher Brother) and I were leaving for London to shoot the sequel to THE HAMILTONS, THE THOMPSONS. I wanted to do another film with Joe Egender (Brother Billy) so I pitched him the idea and he and his writing partner Kevin Artigue wrote the script based on the concept. Once Phil and I returned from the UK we jumped back in towards the end.
The character Brother Billy seemed to come from a long line of snake healers, do you feel it was important to show the glimpses of how long the practices have been in existence?
Absolutely. For Brother Billy it’s all he’s ever known. I felt like it was really important to show flashes of the fact that this religion has been around for quite some time… as well as outlawed. And that played a big part in Brother Billy’s character. A man who people follow, a man who believes he saves souls, but is also an instant outlaw just by practicing his own religion. He has swagger, his followers love him, and he’s caring… yet you don’t ever cross him.
Did you guys use any footage from the famous documentary Holy Ghost People from the 60’s?
Peter Adair’s film is amazing and was a huge influence on me. Besides the fact that he was an SF filmmaker (both Phil and I are SF filmmakers as well), his film is beyond beautifully haunting. It was a perfect piece to show the history of the religion. Peter Adair and his work have been a great inspiration to this project.
What is it about the human psyche that would draw them into such a dangerous practice of their faith?
I believe faith itself. I have never been part or practiced Pentecostal snake handling but I can only imagine it must give you such a rush, a fearlessness that is beyond words. I think the more intense your practices are, the more intense your faith becomes in your mind. I do admire these folks for that.
Joe Egender really seems to flourish in the roles of your movies. What about him makes it easy for you to cast him in your films?
Joe and I have been working together for quite some time now (five films together) and I think that we just understand each other. I know what he is looking for and he knows my style… that makes it real simple. I can depend on him for so much more than just the bringing the role itself to life. He works with the other actors, has great ideas and suggestions… And we have an amazing shorthand where we can communicate by looks and quick hand motions. That’s gold for any director.
Do you feel your film will make movie watchers seek out more information on this type of practice?
I hope so just based on how wild and wonderful it is. You’ll see the church service scenes in the movie, which were just so intense to shoot with the snakes and the extras… I think for people who don’t know much about it, it might get their curiosity a flowin’.
Why do you feel it was important to make Billy hold off on telling the truth to Charlotte about her sister and how could that have changed this film?
The film is ultimately about three very broken people, Charlotte, Wayne, and Billy. Three people who are blinded by their own guilt regardless how it came to be… drug use, the war, or power misused in the church. These three people spend the movie feeling and figuring each other out. I think they are also extremely curiosity about one another. And Billy is no dummy, he needs to hook them in…. he wants to hook them in. He is confident but he also knows that the outside world’s laws are mighty different. As much as Charlotte and Wayne are looking to heal, for salvation, I believe Billy is also looking for sometime… maybe he knows he needs more salvation than anyone else.
How did the cast handle the lives snakes and what challenges did you face?
I get this question a lot… and it was easily one of the hardest things to deal with on set. No one wanted to handle the snakes. Almost everyone was deathly afraid of them including myself. I was fortunate that most of those scenes I got to hide in video village (that’s where all the monitors and sound gear lives) because there were so many extras and crew members running around, we needed to hide people. But we had an excellent snake wrangler, Jules Sylvester (Snakes On A Plane, City Slickers) and after a few hours with everyone he really put everyone at ease.
I was really pleased by the performance of Cameron Richardson as Sister Shelia how do you feel she did with her role in Holy Ghost People?
She is great. I cannot say enough good things about her. The funny thing is we weren’t necessarily looking for someone as young and attractive as Cameron but when we met with her, she started singing gospel songs and had experience herself with southern religion. We knew she was Shelia right there. And her beauty contrasted with her scars really brought it home with such a powerful performance.
Holy Ghost People is not your typical religious thriller how do you think it will hold in the supernatural based, possession laden, CG religious horror world?
I think it’s just a different film and doesn’t really quite belong in that world. There are a lot of great religious horror films out there but we really set out to make a Southern Gothic thriller. Yes the film is dark and violent at times and we were interested in taking a disturbing tone like True Detective or Killer Joe mixed with Winters Bone.
Holy Ghost People is currently playing on demand and in limited theaters. Read my review for Holy Ghost People here. Holy Ghost People is directed by Mitchell Altieri and stars Emma Greenwell, Brendan McCarthy, Joe Egender, and Cameron Richardson. It is being distributed courtesy of Xlrator Media.