Through the brief interval between grading papers and judging a contest with 1000 entries, I find myself flinchy and belligerent, unable to relax, despite the mild weather, DVDs of the first season of “Maverick” and just a taste of excellent scotch every time midnight rolls around. My newest irritation involves a movie that should never have been made because it renews old prejudices, distorts an already beleaguered and willfully misunderstood group of marginalized people and substitutes cheap B-movie conventions for much more intricate and interesting actual information. It also hijacks the title of an underappreciated documentary from half a century ago. Given all this fidgetation and flusterment, what could I do but share?
In the five-dollar bin of my local Wal-Mart, heaped up with all the Wayne westerns and Sandler travesties, the zombies and X-Men and adorable lost pet odysseys, I saw a startling DVD entitled “Holy Ghost People,” its cover displaying a raised hand gripping a rifle, the crucifix-tattooed forearm wrapped by what might be a rattlesnake. Pit-viper head and hooked fangs protruded from the reptile’s open jaw, however unrealistic, testifying to the creature’s lethal nature without arousing any real alarm.
I had to do a double-take because I’ve long been familiar with Peter Adair’s documentary “The Holy Ghost People,” shot in Scrabble Creek, WV and released almost fifty years ago. That film, now in the public domain, is a valuable resource in the on-going efforts to understand the Signs Following believers who speak in tongues, drink toxic liquids, heal by the laying on of hands, cast out demons and handle serpents. These feats the members of small congregations concentrated in the southern Appalachians believe they can achieve when the spirit is on them, which is a matter of faith, though there is no scriptural guarantee they will heal anyone instantly or that the deadly snakes, usually native pit vipers, won’t bite them. The worshipers take their lead from a passage in The Gospel of Mark and have long been reviled, persecuted and even celebrated as fascinatingly mad.
Weston La Barre explored the history and psychology of these believers in his They Shall Take Up Serpents, which treats them as a crisis cult like the Plains Indians’ ghost dance. The handlers have been studied and analyzed sympathetically by Dennis Covington in Salvation on Sand Mountain, by Tom Burton’s Serpent-Handling Believers, by Robert Schenkkan in a stage play. Photographed by Shelby Lee Adams, they’ve been brought to fiction by many, including Lee Smith in Saving Grace. You can even find them in a tent with Pastor Billy in the first season of “Justified” and in many dozens of poems by witnesses (like Charles Wright) and fantasists alike. Some of the churches have recently constructed websites to combat misinformation, and the National Geographic Channel in 2013 followed the lives of Pastors Coots and Hamblin in their reality series “Snake Salvation,” declaring a break when Jamie Coots died from a rattlesnake bite.
In our current century the practice, still illegal or marginal anywhere but eastern Kentucky, continues but is not on the rise. Tired of being maligned, the Signs Following people have come out of the shadows to offer interviews in order to help us understand their fervor and strange courage, and although I find their services and favored Biblical texts unsettlingly selective, I still find it impossible to dismiss Christians whose sincerity is not superficial and who are not seduced by flashy media presentations, mega-churches and cutesy piety. I know they’re tired of being ridiculed as idiots and hicks, and I sympathize, which does not mean I’d like to join or even visit any of the churches again, but they are not jokes or idiots and follow a long tributary of unorthodoxy that often replenishes the mainstream of American religion.
This new movie, which claims to be “partly inspired by” the Adair documentary, looks to me like an attempt to take some steps backwards, to accent the spectacle and novelty while returning the dirty glamour to the stereotyped “hillbillies” as they torture themselves and one another on behalf of purity and the old ways (the practice is, in fact, just over a century old). Or maybe it’s just an attempt to make a quick profit from passing counterfeit bills.
The company which made this 2013 film, which has little of the documentary about it, is Macabre, and one promo blurb, quoted from a Heather Wixson of Dread Central (no subscription suggested), touted “A mesmerizing, intoxicating southern gothic thriller” in letters as red as the title and the caption along the bottom edge, appropriated from the beloved hymn: “There is power in the blood.”
This film is, however, a cold-blooded production, placing the snake-handling cult in a compound akin to Waco where thirsty seekers are dominated by a vicious Brother Billy who abuses and intimidates his captive audience with rhetoric and volume, as well as firearms and a whip. It’s directed by Michael Altieri and aims to be a hostage thriller, a torture horror tale and a serious lost girl quest tale in which a self-destructive vet morphs to an action hero. What it omits is any semblance of theology, though a Bible is used as both prop and weapon. The most interesting aspects of this production (which features decent music, some respectable acting and plenty of gore, including snakebite, for all comers) are the parasitic adoption of a title nearly identical to the documentary (which it excerpts from to add a few moments of credibility) and the deletion of a crucial scene, which can be viewed on the DVD Extras.
In the deleted scene, we watch one of blessed Billy’s henchmen/apostles at the Church of One Accord read the passage from Mark that enumerates the five signs such Holiness believers follow. This is real information and crucial to any view of the movie in which interest in the real sub-culture even competes with the shock and aw-shucks awe. It’s the most revealing and provocative moment the camera caught, as the lake baptisms, marriage, prayers and other services are thin and unconvincing. But they left it on the cutting room floor, serpentine, I suppose.
The script was written by Altieri and a committee, and the whole carnival is rated R for language and some drug use, but the flagellation, gunfights, titillation and smirking evidently weren’t of much interest to the rating board. Likely they just saw all that as mainstream, or necessary for a film whose DVD case text begins with “BURIED DEEP IN THE APPALACHIAN MOUNTAINS, mysterious preacher man . . . snake-handling misfits. . . Billy’s dangerous game . . . face her own dark past. . . .”
OK, I’ve made my point, and then some, whether it amounts to righteous indignation or just secular irritation. The result is kitsch worse than any proposed Beverly Hillbillies (or “Hollywood Hillbillies”) reality show. And I’m not so naïve as to believe that a fictional story must be true or that “entertainment” is required to be authentic. But here was a director/writer/entrepreneur whose knowledge of the original film could have inspired him to explore and reveal something important about passion and action, belief and bedevilment. Too bad either the artistic staff or the financial backers weren’t going for that.
Now on to the contest, where I expect to find more gravity, levity and maturity at every turn.