Wednesday 5 April 2023

If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? (1971)

Director: Ron Ormond
Writer: Ron Ormond, from the book by Estus W. Pirkle
Stars: Estus W. Pirkle, Judy Creech, Cecil Scaife, Gene McFall and Wes Saunders

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

I’ve long held to the idea that the most interesting people in Hollywood aren’t the stars of big budget blockbusters; they’re the folk behind exploitation films. And I don’t just mean the stars, but the producers, directors, writers, the folk who were flexible enough and aware enough to jump from one thing to another as times changed. One of the people I’ve long wanted to read more about is a gentleman named Ron Ormond, who was all over this weirdly titled movie like a rash. It was a production of his company, simply named the Ormond Organization. He directed it. He wrote it, from the “book” by Estus W. Pirkle, which was really a pamphlet that ran 46 pages long. He edited it with his son, Tim, and the two of them also operated the cameras. Both of them also appear in brief, uncredited roles within the movie. About the only job that Ormond didn’t do was production supervisor, because that was his wife, June. It’s a very strange movie, but I feel like I should build up to it by explaining how Ormond got to this point.

Born Vittorio di Naro in Baldwin, LA in 1910, he soon found his way into vaudeville as Vic Narro, taking his eventual name from his friend, Ormond McGill, who was a magician and hypnotist. He met June in Oregon while working as a magician and MC on shows in which she was a singer and dancer. The Ormonds managed the Three Stooges, produced roller derby on television and travelled in the exotic east, Ormond penning a string of books with McGill with exploitation titles like Religious Mysteries of the Orient, The Master Method of Hypnosis and The Magical Pendulum of the Orient. And they got into the movie business, Ormond directing a fantastic string of B movies. He started out with Lash LaRue westerns like King of the Bullwhip and The Frontier Phantom but lent his hand to anything that looked likely to make a buck, especially in the deepsouth. Forty Acre Feud had an all-star country music cast led by Minnie Pearl. White Lightnin’ Road is a stock car drama. The Monster and the Stripper (aka The Exotic Ones) is, well, it’s exactly what you think it is.

And then he found Jesus. As Tim Ormond tells the story, the family set off in their Beachcraft Bonanza plane to fly to the première of Girl from Tobacco Row, a hicksploitation musical with Tex Ritter and Earl ‘Snake’ Richards, but their engine quit on them and they crashed into a field. Ormond had been a pilot in the air force so he was able to control the crash, so allowing all of them to survive, but both Ron and June fractured their backs in the landing. June especially felt that they had been spared by the hand of God, with the statement, “I could see an angel sitting on the wing.” Later, on a trip back from the Bahamas in a replacement plane, Ormond’s skill saved them once more, as another engine failure prompted a forced landing. Now, I don’t know if the Ormonds had been at all religious before this, but these incidents certainly made them open to an opportunity that came their way through a mutual friend, to work with a fundamentalist preacher by the name of Estus W. Pirkle. And that relationship kicked off with this insane movie.

Effectively, this is an hour long sermon by Pirkle, his signature warning on the dangers of an imminent Communist invasion of the United States, enabled by the liberal attitudes of modern American youth. However, Pirkle earnestly preaching fire and brimstone to an audience of women with big hair and men in bland suits, all dour faced, is only half of this film. The other half is more like a Herschell Gordon Lewis gore movie, which is more than a little jarring. In fact, it starts out rather like an episode of The Wild Wild West, with men on horses riding through America with distinctively un-American hammer and sickle emblems on their armbands. Where’s the train? Who’s Artie going to be this week? But then it gets vicious, with a cast of hundreds furnished from at least four Baptist churches being machine gunned or tortured or visited with outrageous indignities. But Estus W. Pirkle is here to explain to us that it doesn’t have to be like that. We can save America from the Red Menace, if only we choose Jesus as our personal saviour.

And, to his way of thinking, we’re at a fork in the road and there are only two ways forward: Jesus Christ or Fidel Castro. We even get to see this choice acted out with help from a lecherous Commissar played by Ormond regular, Cecil Scaife. He sits in front of a nervous schoolroom of children and requires them to pray as hard as they can to Jesus to bring them candy. Needless to say, Jesus doesn’t do jack but Fidel Castro does. In comes an assistant with a big paper bag so that our Commissar can throw candy out at the kids like he’s a daytime TV host with a T-shirt gun. When Pirkle asks us a very specific question two minutes into the movie, this is what he has in mind. “What do you think about the future of our country?” he asks, preparing for a Jesus vs. Fidel fork. Given that I’m writing this with Donald Trump in the White House, racial protests in major cities and COVID-19 an ongoing threat, Pirkle’s particular vision of the future of our country, whichever fork we chose, turns out to be complete nonsense.

Now, sermons, like anything else, are products of their time, and Ormond shot Pirkle for this film in 1970. Nixon was President, the war in Vietnam wasn’t going to plan and the National Guard was shooting students dead at Kent State. Americans hadn’t forgotten about the Cuban Missile Crisis less than a decade earlier, the Communist witch-hunts or even “duck and cover” paranoia from days of imminent nuclear attack. So I’ll give Pirkle some leeway for timing, but he was the pastor at Locust Grove Baptist Church in New Albany, MS for 36 years and yet I don’t believe we see a single person of colour in this entire movie! A third of Mississippi is black, a percentage that outstrips every other state of the union, but the only colour Pirkle sees in America’s future is red? Clearly the four Baptist churches who provided the “actors” for this movie, none of whom had clearly acted in anything other than a nativity play, weren’t those Baptist churches. We’re apparently supposed to buy into dancing being a bigger threat than segregation.

And hey, we’re getting deep all of a sudden! This film tends to do that. It is a sermon, after all, filmed mostly for broadcast within a church environment, to scare the living heck out of anyone thinking about straying from the fold. And that’s where Ormond comes in, because every time we get too serious, he pulls something outrageous from his exploitation background. For instance, Pirkle can pluck dubious statistics out of his ass, like how the Communists took over China in a week but it’ll only take them fifteen minutes to take over the United States, but Ormond brings it to vivid life. “We interrupt this program,” chimes in a newcaster. The President is dead, the Secretary of State and the Speaker of the House too and a whole bunch of governors. People are being machine gunned in the streets like cattle. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Communist takeover of the United States.” My favourite is the teacher who tells his class that pre-marital sex is necessary. “And now we’ll go on to discuss the seven erotic zones of passion in every woman.”

In case you were wondering about the film’s title, the modern education system is one of the “footmen” that Pirkle’s talking about. These footmen are running loose against our sons and daughters, Pirkle warns us. You know, he sees strange people all the time. In church, he even saw a girl singing who had a mini-skirt twelve inches above her knees. And that’s because she’s constantly plagued by these footmen. Television is another one. Saturday morning cartoons! They motivate children towards “sex, crime and murder” and suddenly crime’s up a thousand percent! And hey, how can good men read the Bible when the TV’s on! Pirkle calls out drive-in theatres because they’re “nothing more than a spawning house for sex”! Dancing too, “the front door to adultery”! Good grief, one death every day in New York is because of drugs! He even calls out other preachers, as some of them are now marrying people who have been married before! And, as the title suggests, if the footmen don’t get us, watch out for the horsemen!

Oddly, there aren’t a lot of horsemen in this film because the volunteers from those four Baptist churches were clearly happier to play blood-spattered corpses. In fact, most of the horsemen are Cecil Scaife accompanied by his impressive sideburns. It’s Scaife’s Commissar who comes for the children, because these Communists can’t indoctrinate you as well if you’re over thirty. It’s Scaife’s Commissar who staggers drunkenly into a house and throws out the former owner just so he can rape his wife. It’s a “documented incident”, says Pirkle, though he doesn’t point out that the freakiest aspect of this scene is that the rape victim is Scaife’s daughter. It’s Scaife’s Commissar who shoots a pastor dead in front of his congregation, then hauls off a young boy so his men can pierce his ears with a pointed bamboo stick. Oddly, it isn’t Scaife who tells this deaf kid with Shatner-esque pauses, “We puncture your ears... so you cannot hear... the word of God.” Like, dude, he can’t hear you! How long do you think it takes to learn how to read lips?

Now, I’m not remotely going to suggest that Communist dictators and their secret police forces have never committed atrocities, as they’re widespread and documented, but Pirkle’s imagination seems to be surprisingly limited. Communists might force you to tell them everything that you’ve said and done since the age of five. Communists might make you stand seven inches away from a wall and stay there all night. Communists might make you sit down on a bench with no cushion or back for seventeen hours listening to a mantra of a lecture: “Communism is good. Communism is good. Communism is good. Christianity is stupid. Christianity is stupid. Christianity is stupid. Give up. Give up. Give up.” Hilariously, agitpop music group Negativland memorably sampled that for a song called Christianity is Stupid, reversing its meaning in the process. The only real imaginative scene here is the one with a man tied up and held by his struggling kids above pitchforks, while a cackling Commissar (not Scaife for a change) has them dip him down.

That’s a gruesome scene indeed, one worthy of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Two Thousand Maniacs!, but it’s not the most gruesome. I’m still reeling from this one, because it actually gives a kid something notable to do before he comes to his inevitably grisly demise. In almost all other instances, the kids do nothing except stand there looking like lemons, maybe crying a little, and then lying down in the dirt to be splattered with blood and, for some reason, mud. None of the adults are ever covered in mud but many of the kids get that treatment too. This one leaves a church late enough that he misses being machine gunned along with the entire congregation, but he runs into Cecil Scaife’s Commissar, whose accent is even more outrageous than normal. I’m not sure if he aimed to be Cuban or Russian, gangster or redneck, Elvis Presley or Mickey Mouse, but he veers wildly between them all. Scaife tells him to stamp on a portrait of White Jesus that he’s carrying with him or he’ll cut his head off! Now, what would you do?

Well, this stubborn brat of a kid looks up at the sky and says, “Jesus, one day you died for me and I’m willing to die for you.” Scaife is, at least, true to his word. He lops that little kid’s head right off and sends it bouncing across the dirt! Once again, a little snippet of background information helps make this incredible scene just a little more incredible. Apparently the kid was played by Estus W. Pirkle’s very own son! No wonder he was stubborn. Now I remember going to church as a child, albeit not once to a fundementalist Baptist church in New Albany, MS, and finding myself a little more engaged when our curate did such strange things as deliver his sermon while he was dressed as Darth Vader. However, I don’t remember him decapitating parishioners and bouncing their heads down the aisle as a stark warning of what England would be like if the Communists took over because hey, we danced and went to the drive-in and tuned in to Saturday morning cartoons. They should have announced. I’d have shown up for that service!

There’s so much in this film to focus on that I’m actually leaving a heck of a lot out. There’s the moment that Pirkle points out that the Communists will make kids work in the fields for twelve to sixteen hours a day. What’s odd about this moment is that he adds that, of course, kids should work like adults, but twelve to sixteen hours a day is just slavery. How long isn’t slavery, Estus? There’s the point where Pirkle explains that Communists are worse than Hitler, because Hitler would just kill you but Communists torture you first. There’s the odd realisation that at no point in this movie does Pirkle use the word “commie”, which was prevalent in the U.S. in the fifties, a decade or two earlier than this. Every instance is the full “Communist”, almost like he has some sort of respect for the enemy in this anti-Communist propaganda screed. And, of course, there’s poor Judy, played by the only person in the entire feature who looks like she could have been an actor, Judy Creech. By the way, she wasn’t. She just faked it better than the rest.

Judy shows up to church partway through, not to listen to Pirkle but just to give the right impression, given that she’s following all the footmen the reverend warns against. She drinks, dances, presumably sleeps with her boyfriend who drops her off but won’t be seen inside the church. “I’m a lover not a Christian,” he grins at her. She probably watches Saturday morning cartoons too, but this sermon by Pirkle really gets to her. Everything he warns against triggers a memory of her doing that exact thing. And, by the time that Scaife’s Commissar slices off Pirkle’s son’s head, she’s so traumatised that she screams out “No!” in church and sets up the end of the movie, with Pirkle saving her immortal soul. He has her pray with him at the altar and confess her sins in front of everyone, because that’s the only thing her guilt-trippin’ mama would ever have wanted. In the logic of this movie, Judy’s mum, who clearly never saw a cheeseburger she didn’t like, is only dead because Judy likes to dance. The slut. “You’ll be the death of me!”

Ron Ormond continued to work with Estus W. Pirkle. They followed this film up with The Burning Hell, an adaptation of how Pirkle interprets Biblical teachings on Hell. Then they knocked out The Believer’s Heaven, the equivalent for up instead of down, before a parting of the ways saw Ormond continue his quasi-horror religious propaganda movies with other preachers. It seems to me that Pirkle didn’t talk a lot about Heaven, being fire and brimstone and all. In fact, if you want to get hold of a copy of any of his movies, you can find them at This one runs just shy of an hour but it’s $29.95 per DVD, plus $6 shipping and handling. It’s still 1971 at the Burning Hell online store, apparently. I’m shocked these aren’t VHS. What’s more, you can’t just pop in your credit card number; you have to fill out a PDF to mail to the Estus Pirkle Evangelistic Association in Myrtle, MS with your money order or cashier’s check. I guess that, even though Pirkle has been dead since 2005, he’s still resisting any change in how we do anything.

That’s Godsploitation! by Tim Ormond at Mondo Stumpo

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