The Grim Reaper (1976)

Ron Ormond’s journey — from Southern deep-fried drive-in fare to religious grindhouse filmmaker — is the kind of thing that obsesses me. Usually working with Rev. Estus Pirkle, his films reach a level of ecstatic mania that I could only dream of discovering in a snake church revival, yet can do it in the comfort of my basement.

There’s a line we can follow from Ormond’s Mesa of Lost Women to these films, because at its heart, exploitation is exploitation. It’s getting you to not just want to watch something but need to watch it. Just look at the poster for this, which uses the same language and cues as a horror film, which is what this really is.

Verne (Cecil Scaife, who was in nearly all of Ormond’s religious movies, plus Girl from Tobacco Road; as well as producing and starring in The Hollywood Beach Murders) and Ruby Pierce (Viola Warden, who was also in The Burning Hell) have a son named Frankie (Eddie King, who was in The Burning Hell after a career in small Hollywood roles; he also worked with Ron’s son Tim to start the first video firm that was allowed to videotape legal depositions for showing at trials in Tennessee courtrooms) who is a wild man, racing cars and says, “Religion? Not fos this dude.”

When Frankie dies in a car crash, he goes straight to hell and the Pierce’s pastor refuses to preach at his funeral. So while Ruby clings to God, her husband goes into the occult to try and save his son from the left hand path, working with Dr. Kumran to speak directly to the dead. Yet this is putting him on the same way to the flames of the abyss, so his other son Tim (Tim Ormond, who I love in everything he appears in) tries to save his father.

Finally, the family gets to hear the words of Jerry Falwell and heed the altar call. But it’s too late for Frankie, who we see as a ghost and watch burn in hell, surrounded by masks that Ben Cooper would shun.

Best of all, the film uses church parishioners to recreate Acts 16:16-40 and 1 Samuel 28 with wigs and basic makeup instead of the special effects that were possible in 1976. Then, we see Moses in the desert before going back to hell again, which is populated by witches and even Dracula. Let me be as clear as possible: this movie is the kind of thing that I devour like a cool lemonade on a balmy day.

At one point, this comic book poster was up on church walls and people gathered to watch this movie in basements and rec halls. We’ll never have a time like that again, when movies like this were sermons, unless you come to my house, where beer will be our communion.

You can watch this on YouTube.

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