Movie: The Burning Hell (1974)

I mentioned my Baptist upbringing in my piece on If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?  One of the few times in my life I have tried to cultivate an interest in comic books was at a time when those religious restrictions upon me were at their most extreme.  Secular music was out, so I can tell you from experience what a cul-de-sac Christian rock can be (for the record, the band Prodigal is largely decent, if you’re into slickly-produced AOR rock from the 1980’s). 

But secular comics were out of the picture as well, so I was stuck with Jack Chick’s horrible riff on The Mod Squad, titled The Crusaders.  You may not know the name Jack Chick, but you will recognize his work from the one of those goofy cartoon pamphlets of his that has to have crossed your path at some point.  A consistent message through his work is you are going to Hell if you don’t believe exactly as he does.  Are you Cathloic?  You’re going to Hell.  Do you believe in evolution?  The same.  Do you listen to rock music?  Are you gay?  Yada yada yada.

I imagine Estus Pirkle was a fan of Chick’s work.  The same mentality runs throughout the films he made with Ron Ormond.  One would think a religion would want to appeal to people on the basis of how it could make their lives better.  Pirkle, Chick and the Baptists I grew up with all focus almost exclusively on the eternal punishment one will face if they don’t convert.  The incentive is all stick and no carrot. 

The opening of the picture is genuinely confusing.  A choir is singing to the audience, but there are isolated fires burning around them.  Wait a minute, is this Christian choir in Hell?  In that case, they might as well save their voices.  I think it’s a bit late to seek God’s mercy.

Then there’s an abrupt cut to Pirkle, preaching from the pulpit.  Once again, we have a movie that is little more than a sermon interspersed with other sequences.  There are also numerous, pointless shots of the congregation, so at least we know he wasn’t preaching to the choir from the opening scene.  And, once again, looking at these people, I’m thinking there’s a lot of poor life decisions made there. I can’t understand why anybody would want to spend eternity which folks like this.

Pirkle informs us, “This is first time we’ll see people literally be put into Hell.”  Wow—I didn’t think I was about to see a snuff film.  Also, I don’t think he has a good grasp on what the word “literally” means.  I was reminded of the time somebody informed me I was misusing the word and it literally blew my mind. I had a cigarette afterwards.

When we get to see this preacher’s concept of Hell, it is exactly as I would expect to it be.  Imagine that famous Louvin Brothers album cover for Satan Is Real and you’re in the ballpark.  It is a few small fires and a lot of community theatre actors made up as demons via some surprisingly imaginative makeup.  Not that they are scary by anybody’s measure.  The main demon looks remarkably like Uncle Fester from The Addams Family, which greatly surprised me, as that character always seemed pretty affable to me.

Other denizens of Hell will include famous murderous throughout history, so I guess there will be some interesting conversation, at least.  Pirkle also says there will terrifying creatures that will be there for five months at a time, I guess like a Vegas residency.  I want to know his source for that particular bit of info. 

He also goes on for some length about the “tormenting worms”, and I was hoping we would see something Lovecraftian.  Alas, it’s just maggots crawling around on people.  On the plus side, we are informed Hell will be a place of eternal lust, and I’m thinking there could be worse ways to spend eternity than having boundless orgasms.

We also get some community theater level historical reenactments, but at least some of these get us outside a studio or a church.  As Pirkle says on the soundtrack, “I’m here at Mt. Sinai”, I doubted he was at place of legend nor at the same-named medical center. 

We’ll see some guy playing Moses, but it’s just some white guy in a Santa beard.  We’ll see more white people as Israelites he leads in the desert.  One of those people plays an autoharp, an instrument I didn’t think existed back then.  It is also branded, which seems really advanced for that time.  Additional failures at attempting historical accuracy are the crowns some characters wear, which look like they may have actually come from a Burger King. That and, as I keep pointing out, everybody in the Biblical lands is portrayed as Caucasian.  I can tell you from the church of my youth, these bozos honestly believe everybody in that part of the world was light-skinned at that time.

There is a storyline running parallel to all this silliness and it concerns the two least believable hippies.  Apparently, the full extent of what the filmmakers think counterculture youth of the time were like comes down to riding motorcycles and saying “Y’dig?” at the end of every sentence.  One of these guys is played by Tim Ormond, son of director Ron.  He was simply a bad actor in earlier films made by his dad, but he has become insufferably smug now that he’s an adult. 

Alas, it is his fellow biker, and not Tim, who will be decapitated.  I would have thought Tim would have gone to the police after this happens.  Instead, he walks into a church in mid-service.  I thought those were some interesting priorities.  But Pirkle does the right thing and informs the lad his dead friend is now burning in the fires of Hell.  Ahhh…there’s the Baptist compassion I know so well.

I have yet to finish the religious films half of the Ormond box set, but The Burning Hell is the one that so far has been the best representative of the religious experience of my youth.  These are people who are curiously more obsessed with the tortures of Hell than the glory of salvation.  Funny how none of these people would wonder what the point of eternal punishment would be.  It isn’t like one could learn their lesson and become a better person.  Imagine that: self-improvement in Hell.

Dir: Ron Ormond

Starring Estus Pirkle, Tim Ormond

Watched on Powerhouse/Indicator’s blu-ray box set From Hollywood to Heaven: The Lost and Saved Films of the Ormond Family