Up to 1977, the films the Ormond family made with Estus Pirkle had been focused almost exclusively on what Hell will be like. Having grown up in a similar church, I wasn’t surprised their focus is predominately on the stick and not the carrot. But we finally get to see Pirkle’s vision of Heaven in The Believer’s Heaven and what he shows should convince any sane viewer to opt for eternal damnation.
I would have been dumbstruck at his ideal of heaven had I not already been familiar with such a mindset. Pirkle’s heaven is all mansions, gold-paved streets and an abundance of jewels. Something I did find odd, however, was his detailed itemization of which types of jewels will be in Heaven, the reveal of each being accompanied by a strum of a harp. It was like some sort of 1970’s game show version of the afterlife. I kept waiting for an announcer to say, “Not let’s show the saved what they’ve won!”
Pirkle tells us, “In my father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you.” I found this an odd statement because, if he was lying, he would tell us the same thing, right? And as for the mansions on display here, the movie takes on a tour of what I guess is the model heavenly mansion and it is…just some house. Nothing special. As for the images of Heaven, as limited by a meager budget, I think it would be more accurate to say, “In my father’s house, there are many matte paintings.”
Even when trying to look on the cheery side of the afterlife, Pirkle and the Ormonds can’t help but find a way to work in some horrific elements. After all, from their point of view, salvation wouldn’t be worth it if you couldn’t revel in the eternal torment of the non-believers.
And so, much of this feature is focused on the rapture, where God finally calls time on humankind and teleports the chosen straight into Heaven. There’s an old adage stating, “Everybody wants to go to Heaven, but nobody wants to die”, so I bet a great many Christians are hoping they can take advantage of this loophole.
You can imagine how tastefully this event is portrayed here. People simply disappear courtesy of a jump cut and a sound effect best suited for a Hanna Barbera cartoon.
To dramatize the plight of those left behind, the Ormonds employ footage of traumatized people fresh from various real-life tragedies. If that move wasn’t despicable enough, they also exploit some physically handicapped people, having them sing songs about how they will be made whole again in Heaven. I can imagine the thinking behind this: “You mean you’re going to tell these people their lives spent with a disability is all they have? That they’ll never get better?!”
The pearly gates they look forward to entering are presented here as what looks like the entryway to one of those fancy Christmas displays some department stores used to do in the 1950’s. In addition to the mansion and jewels you receive (and, I imagine, a swag bag), your age will be regressed. I used to wonder what age people are supposed to revert to in heaven. Does anybody get a choice? What if they were happiest at 40 or 50 years old? For that matter, if we don’t have physical form, then why would have any appearance at all? These are the kind of questions I used to torment Sunday School teachers with.
Curiously contrasting to this is Pirkle’s nostalgia for his dirt-poor, rural upbringing. If he thought that was so great, then I’m even more at a loss for why he thinks an afterlife of riches would be superior.
If I can bestow one begrudging compliment on this film, it is that it continues the progression of the filmmaking getting just a tad better with each successive movie. There’s time-lapse footage of clouds, for example. There’s also more location shooting than the previous features, though I’m uncertain as to the locations.
Even the special effects are better than before, but still sad compared to almost any commercial film. And I say that despite an image of New Jerusalem descending from the clouds looking like a warehouse from an industrial park superimposed over some of those time-lapse clouds. Another strange aspect of this scene is Pirkle, in voiceover, being strangely obsessed with the exact dimensions this city will be.
You may not believe it, but I actually went into The Believer’s Heaven with some amount of hope, if only because I thought the focus was going to be entirely on the positive attributes of the afterlife these bozos believe in. Instead, there’s still a great deal of gloating over the suffering of the damned. Also, the exploitation of the handicapped and those who were in real-life trauma is unforgivable. I am bemused the minds behind this movie wouldn’t think those are sins. And yet, I wish them eternal happiness in their trashy, game-show Heaven, with its shag-carpeted mansions, abundance of jewels and streets of gold.
Dir: Ron Ormond
Starring a great many people you should look at carefully and ask yourself, “Does this person look or sound like somebody I should emulate in my life choices?”
Watched as part of Powerhouse/Indicator’s blu-ray box set From Hollywood to Heaven: The Lost and Saved Films of the Ormond Family