Director Peter Bohush’s debut feature Altered Spirits traveled the convention circuit before finally coming available on DVD and most digital streaming services and features six actors most notably known for their vocal talents in the massive online battle arena game Legend of Legends. In it, four friends travel to a remote location seeking spiritual enlightenment which will obviously translate to a fight for their lives. Improperly billed as a sci-fi adventure, Altered Spirits is more akin to a psychological thriller as each of the leads endure hellish trials against a seemingly invincible foe. As interesting as this is, most audiences won’t make it to that portion of the film due to the wildly incoherent tone, the inconsistent script supervision, and the disruptive editing that pervades all of Altered Spirits. Ultimately, the finished product it is far more B-movie camp than sci-fi adventure or ghoulish terror.
Seeking a transcendental experience, Scott (Stephen Weese), Valerie (Cristina Vee), Trey (Gregory Crafts), and Daniel (Jason Wishnov) travel to a remote sweat lodge in an isolated desert. Instead of achieving tranquility, they find themselves in a battle for their lives as the spirits of long-dead gold thieves seek to amputate their souls so that the spirits may use their bodies as vessels to escape an ethereal prison. With only a short window of time available to get free from the grip of the spirits, these four friends must preservere against their personal demons and find a way back home before they’re stuck in a spiritual wasteland forever.
Though the concept of evil spirits haunting a sacred area is nothing new, the impressive conceit is the breaking down of each vessel by forcing it to face its greatest fear. We’re not talking giant snakes and spiders, but real pathos like survivor’s guilt, participating in an abusive relationship, or even escaping a murderous past. This portion of Altered Spirits is the most interesting and, frankly, most powerful segment of the film. Here, not only are the main characters made more real, but the terror becomes tangible, rather than merely ephemeral. Balancing out the heaviness of these spiritual journeys through the psyche is the story of true believer/false shaman Godric (Richard Epcar) which is full of goofball silliness as he tries to save the souls of his customers, coming across as a low-rent Bruce Campbell the entire way.
Unfortunately, as much fun as Epcar’s Godric is, this character is a symbol of the tonal inconsistency rampant throughout Altered Spirits. It becomes rapidly clear that Godric’s a showmanwith a rundown shack for a sweat lodge and a hockey stick as his holy staff. Truly, the whole set-up is sacrilegious, and it’s blown past with only a minor question brought up which is quickly brushed off. Though it may be argued that this character is intended to instill some lighthearted fun into the narrative, it severely distracts from the overall tone as more and more time is spent with Godric. Complicating matters further, the start of the film instills the sci-fi adventure feel – akin to 1982’s The Beastmaster – as three individuals we come to know as Montague (Spike Spencer), Loria (Axelle Cummings), and Indio (Peter Jang) wax poetic about their 500 year exile to a parallel dimension. Walking along a sandy wasteland, they discuss breaking free from their prison, before a hard transition sends the audience straight into modernity. In of itself, the set-up is fine, until the realization that these trapped individuals are actually spirits haunting the land, at which point the genre changes from sci-fi adventure to ghoulish haunting in the vein of 1987’s Evil Dead 2, minus the gore and upping the camp. A tonal shift is fine except when it happens twice more before the credits roll, making Altered Spirits harder to grasp for audiences. Is it trying to scare us, entertain us, challenge us – what?
Additionally, the further into the film you go, the character motivations become harder to believe. The evil spirits are clear – they want to be corporeal again and they want the riches they left behind – but our heroes are far more opaque. We don’t know who they are, what they want, or why they’ve decided to go beyond the fact that two of them have already been and enjoyed it. Seeing as their desire to go to the sweat lodge in the first place is the catalyst for the story, this makes the narrative exceptionally flimsy. It’s not until the characters are tormented by their demons that the audience gets any sense of who they are, but this internal viewpoint only serves to enlighten the motivations of Craft’s Trey and no others. That’s not to say that Scott and Valerie’s personal torments aren’t impactful but they reveal nothing at all about who they are now.
Despite featuring a cast consisting of talented voice actors and containing a narrative with an interesting premise, Altered Spirits fails to live up to its potential. Whether it’s that the stilted mannerisms and stiff delivery of most of the cast felt like students trying to deliver Shakespeare, or that costume and blocking continuity seemed like an afterthought due to the repetitive apparent inconsistencies, the final product is less polished than audiences may expect. The psychological deep-dive into the protagonists is a highlight of the film, which makes it a true shame that the rest of the film doesn’t obtain the same level of intrigue or interest. Had the rest of the film coalesced around this segment, Altered Spirits may have been truly terrifying; unfortunately, it lands squarely in Midnight Movie domain. With luck, it may find a glorious reception there.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.
*Writer’s Note: One of the featured actors, Gregory Crafts, is a childhood friend of the author. A screener was provided at the writer’s request but nothing was exchanged other than a promise of an unbiased review.