[Note: This review of the film is for the 2013 version shown at SXSW. Producer Joe Egender emailed me and said the final version, which releases tomorrow, is significantly different. I will try to have a review of that version up soon]
There is a nice, spooky, atmospheric feel to “Holy Ghost People,” which releases to limited theaters on Feb. 21. But that’s about all you’ll gain from this film about a crazy, backwoods cult led by an even crazier preacher.
Charlotte (Emma Greenwell) is a bartender, who recruits a drunken ex-Marine, Wayne (Brendan McCarthy), to help her find out the truth behind her sister’s disappearance. They stumble upon this place called the Church of One Accord – led by Brother Billy (Joe Egender). But there’s more to this church and more to Billy’s background. Of course there is.
Egender steals the show as the villainous and charismatic Billy, who opens up about his times where he might have run with the devil or why Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain” is a song that reminds him of his youth. We actually have more of an interest in this character than we do the two protagonists.
Charlotte and Wayne try to act like father and daughter to get into the church, and not a single member notices that the two don’t look that far apart in age. Sure, Wayne’s a little beat up, and Charlotte is young and beautiful, but it shouldn’t be that hard to figure out. And instead of just letting the story play out, the viewer is mostly listening to what Charlotte has to say in the voiceover narration – which happens about every 10 minutes and goes on for much longer than necessary.
“Holy Ghost People” might have been an intriguing thriller, if it didn’t jump from one plot point to another, and then realize it forgot to explain what happened in the last scene, so they have to try to get it all to make sense. That could explain the reason why Charlotte talks to the audience for lengthy periods of time. Heck, while they were at it, they should have had every other person insert some kind of narration to explain what’s going on.
The film has a hard time deciding on whether it wants to scare people out of their seats or make them feel uncomfortable. It doesn’t really work in either section. “Holy Ghost People” was inspired by a 1960s documentary of the same name, and director Mitchell Altieri inserts some of its footage as flashback sequences. For the most part, his mind is in the right spot. But the execution is rather limp, and the finale is one big head scratcher.