The Grim Reaper
Throughout the 1970s, exploitation director Ron Ormond had been busy mostly producing, adapting, directing, editing, and shooting films for Baptist Minister Estus Pirkle. They comprise a trilogy including the religious agitprop Communist scare film ‘Footmen’ in 1971, a bloody kitsch vision of life after death in satan’s realm with the 1974 film ‘The Burning Hell’, and 1977’s ‘The Believer’s Heaven’: a picture of life after death for christians in the afterlife with Jesus. In the midst of this project, Ormond secured enough funds to create a Godsploitation film all his own in 1976’s ‘The Grim Reaper’: a story of the spectre haunting those who have not found their way to god, lurking in the metaphysical shade between worlds to snatch up the souls of the unbelievers as soon as they die to spirit them away to hell.
Not only did Ron Ormond produce, direct, edit, and shoot this picture, he also wrote the scenario and had his close family help him to make the film as well. His wife June Carr (credited as June Ormond on this film, as well as in the films associated with Estus Pirkle) co-produced the film, worked as set designer, and acted as the Witch of Endor who raises the spirit of Samuel from the dead for King Saul in one of the film’s didactic scenes that purports to show that witchcraft is real, is based on invoking the power of satan, and is immoral. the Ormond’s son Tim also worked on the film in multiple capacities. He was a co-producer on the picture, co-editor and co-cinematographer with his father, worked as lighting gaffer and direction, and acted as the character Tim Pierce, whose family in the picture are our primary protagonists.
The film recounts the story of the Pierce family. Tim Pierce, the devout young son who listens to his mother Ruby’s wishes and is a uniting force within the family through the strength of his convictions. His brother Frankie is secular and enjoys racing fast cars out on the dirt track. His death in a gruesome care crash and lack of repentance upon death will be a major source of contention for the family as the local pastor won’t eulogize him during the funeral service as he’s sure the young man went straight to hell. Vern Pierce (played to great effect by Cecil Scaife: the Commie Aggressor in ‘Footmen’ and the Spiritualist Hippy in ‘Burning Hell’), the father, is something of an apostate who would rather watch football on TV than go to church. It is his example that his son Frankie followed and which led him to a secular lifestyle. Vern originally tries to reason with his pastor that his son is probably in purgatory, but is told by the pastor and by his living son Tim that purgatory is a doctrine made up by catholics that cannot be found in the biblical text itself. And of course, it can’t be found therein. So Vern blames himself for the probable eternal damnation of his son Frankie.
Vern and Ruby both fall into the trap of spiritualists who would normally just prey on the emotional vulnerability of parents who had just lost a child. Instead, we find that in Ormond’s theology, satan is very real and very powerful and that the seance Vern attends, where things go haywire was truly populated by demons and evil spirits. He even sees the spectre of death, The Grim Reaper himself, at the seance staring into his eyes from across the table.
Later, the family will drag Vern to a church service where clips from pastors Jack van Impe, E.J. Daniels, Bob Gray, and Jerry Falwell (that biggest of anti-free speech s.o.b.s) will come out of the woodwork to present him with a vision of the hell that he can expect to experience after life if he doesn’t repent. They hound him with the message that his son is probably in hell, that there is no reprieve for him any longer, that spiritualism exists as a conduit to evil forces, and that the Grim Reaper is ready for him if he doesn’t repent and accept Jesus Christ as his savior. So, with pressure mounting from within and without his home, and a guilt complex constructed from a demonstrably false religion bearing down on him, he finally relents, and against his better nature, and his good sense (though the football calls this faculty into question), converts in the films last moments.
Again, in this film, like in ‘The Burning Hell’ before it, Ormond’s vision of hell is full of bloodshed, of dirt and decay. The denizens of that dark place lit only by burning fires scream eternally and are constantly tortured physically and often psychologically by the demons therein (for example, when the demons in Vern’s visions tease him with the hope of meeting his damned son Frankie only to upset his expectations at the last moment). However, unlike in the films written and content controlled by Estus Pirkle, Ormond is able to add in his own personal theological convictions like the belief in demons, in satan, in the power of spiritualism (and thereby apotropaic magics), in ghosts (the damned and tormented spirit of Frankie visits his mother at night calling out for help), and in a literal Grim Reaper who comes to whisk away the damned upon death and bring them to hell. His use of exploitation techniques like excessive gore and a dramatic line (instead of the straightforward preaching that Pirkle would have preferred) show his interest in narrative film and his commercial sensibilities. Finally, as in the past works mentioned in this article, Ormond was very comfortable expressing a sentiment that it is okay to prey on people in times of emotional dis-ease and anxiety and to use their fears or guilt to convert them to christianity: a tactic that may work to fill a void in some people’s lives, but likewise may fail to address the root causes of a person’s anxieties and leave them just as messed up as before. The consequences of this should be obvious.
While I can’t morally or ideologically gel with the films of Ron Ormond, I do get some visceral joy in watching exploitation techniques used uniquely within a genre not usually amenable to them. And Godsploitation films from Ormond can certainly be enjoyable viewing material for secularists, but may be pretty harmful to certain kinds of suggestible people under particular circumstances.
[Next up: The Exiles]