It was only a matter of time before the filmmaking team known as "The Butcher Brothers" would drop the slightly silly moniker and start crediting themselves as normal guys, and it only seems fitting that Mitch Altieri and Phil Flores would choose to do it with a film like Holy Ghost People. The duo has shown some skill and (better yet) improvement with each successive movie -- The Hamiltons, The Violent Kind, The Thompsons (and yes I left out April Fools Day to be kind) -- but their latest is easily their most complete, cohesive, and compelling thriller yet.
The simple gritty film works as both a dramatic piece and a thriller at the same time, and tonally it seems to borrow a little from the early indie films of David Gordon Green, which is meant as a compliment to all involved. At its best moments Holy Ghost People provides a relatively honest glimpse at a particularly strange sub-section of religion: the snake-charmers!
The setting is an isolated compound called Sugar Mountain, and it's there that young Charlotte (Emma Greenwell) hopes to find some answers as to where her sister is. The troubled girl went missing a while back and although Charlotte only has a few hundred dollars to her name, she offers it to an aimless veteran to escort her deep into the Appalachian mountains. (And no, this is not the sort of genre film that leads to vampires or stalkers. The villains here are all too human.)
Turns out that Charlotte hasn't been completely honest with Wayne (Brendan McCarthy), but the young woman and her hired hand find their way to Sugar Mountain and quickly get a taste of some seriously old-time religion. The congregation is governed by the glibly conniving Brother Billy (Joe Egender), and what the preacher lacks in age he more than makes up for in devout fanaticism. Charlotte assumes a fake name and tries to convince the flock that she's a willing newcomer; Wayne poses as her doubtful but slightly open-minded father -- and while it won't take a genius to predict what happened to Charlotte's long-lost sister, Holy Ghost People manages to touch on some compelling points before committing to its familiar but satisfying finale.
The cast is the strongest asset of the piece, although Altieri (directing solo this time) seems intent on keeping his thriller rooted firmly in a gritty, rustic reality. As for the cast, relative newcomers Greenwell and McCarthy are quite excellent, particularly in their scenes together. Mr. Egender steals numerous scenes with a quietly ominous presence that lets the viewer know they're dealing with a "true believer." Kudos also to support players like Don Harvey and Cameron Richardson for some fine work in smaller but important roles.
As important as the performances are in this sort of thriller, the screenplay (by Altieri and Flores) is smart enough to balance the kidnapping story with a frank and realistic perspective on the "Holy Ghost" snake-charming congregation. In a particularly clever scene Brother Bllly acknowledges how crazy his belief system must look from the outside, so while we know that these religious "kooks" are up to no good, the movie is mature enough to play this angle very straight. This is a considerably more mature piece than the filmmakers' previous efforts, and their evolution is evident throughout much of Holy Ghost People.