There is a general film viewing rule that I have learned to trust. The more writers that are credited, the likelier it is that the movie is going to have problems. So when the “written by” screen featured four people on the film Holy Ghost People a moment of dread filled my living room. With writing credits going to Kevin Artigue, Joe Egender, Mitchell Altieri, and Phil Flores Holy Ghost People opens with a long bit of voiceover that explains the general plot and our heroine’s motivations. Fast forward to the end credits and you discover even more writing credits. The voiceover dialogue is credited to Mary Hamilton and Kevin Artigue. So, in all, we have five writers and a gigantic propensity towards voiceover exposition. This can’t end well can it?
Surprisingly, despite all of these typical red flags, Holy Ghost People ends up being a mostly effective tale of remorse and religious zealotry. The voiceover is brought to us by Charlotte(Emma Greenwell) a girl in search of her drug addicted sister who has disappeared into the mountains. These mountains are populated by those backwards, bible-thumping hillbillies you expect to find in movies. Charlotte is accompanied by the enigmatic, alcoholic Wayne(Brendan McCarthy. Together they try to infiltrate a snake-handling religious community in hopes of finding Charlotte’s sister. The plot pretty much stays that simple, there is never any major subplots introduced. This simple narrative works in the favor of Holy Ghost People. When a film depends this heavily on voiceover, and the resulting narrow point of view of the narrative, it is usually a mistake to try to do too much. With a few exceptions, this is Charlotte’s story and Holy Ghost People is better for it.
The really interesting part of the film, though, is when our narrator’s reliability begins to come into question. Maybe she is the bad person, perhaps the snake handlers aren’t so bad after all. It is no mistake that the team of screenwriters has named our protagonist Charlotte, which is dangerously close to the word charlatan, which means “a person falsely claiming to have a special knowledge or skill; a fraud.” And despite all of Charlotte’s seemingly good intentions she is just that, a fraud. So who is the real bad guy in Holy Ghost People, the Christian extremists or the girl who continually manipulates everyone, including the audience, that she encounters? As the end credits roll that question is noticeably unclear.
Let me be clear, the church community are not good people, they are backwards, manipulative, and cruel. But on the other hand Charlotte is much the same. The only truly “noble” character in this is Wayne. I put noble in quotation marks because he is not innocent and he is not a victim. The only quality he has that everyone else in the movie seems to be lacking is honesty. He has nothing to hide and has no interest in manipulating anyone. Wayne is basically the audience. He is along for the ride and finds himself in the middle of these two manipulative sides, forced to choose the lesser of two evils.
The impressive thing is that Holy Ghost People manages to accomplish all of this with its multitude of different writers and the assumedly different interpretations of character and story that resulted from that number. While the film does lean a little too heavily on exposition through voiceover monologue, it still manages to pace itself nicely and create some interesting narrative dichotomies. These contrasts and the resolution that they lead to make this film an interesting and worthwhile watch.