31 Days of Horror: Film 3: The Burning Hell (1974)

It’s time for the 31 Days of Horror: 2014 Edition. For those of you who weren’t around for last year’s journey, the plan is to watch at least 31 horror movies I’ve never seen before and review them all. So sit back, strap in, and enjoy my journey down the rabbit hole.

The Burning Hell is the follow up to If Footmen Tire You What Will Horses Do?, the second film in this year’s 31 Days of Horror. Like Footmen, The Burning Hell stars Baptist preacher Estus W. Pirkle as himself and was directed by Ron Ormond. They do little to shake up the formula from the first film, but The Burning Hell doesn’t come off as interesting or loopy.

Once again, Pirkle spends most of the film preaching to the camera and a congregation of stern-looking folks. This time around, Pirkle is focused on frightening the viewer and his congregation about the horrors that await sinners in Hell. And when Pirkle refers to Hell, he means the actual fire and brimstone place where lost souls suffer for eternity. There is no room for subtle ideas that Hell might be a state of mental torture. No, Hell is a place of literal lakes of fire and physical pain.

In the most interesting twist to Pirkle’s sermon, he assures us that Hell is not only the destination for typical sinners (you know, the people who do anything other than go to church regularly), but also for the more liberal Christians that started to spring up in the second half of the 20th century. This is accomplished through staged sequences where Pirkle debates two young men (Chuck Howard and Tim Green) who believe in Christianity based more in Jesus’ teachings of loving their fellow man. Pirkle informs the men the only way to salvation is through fear of the vengeful Old Testament God. At one point, Pirkle even acknowledges that he is using scare tactics in an effort to convert more liberal-minded Christians.

Such antagonism transforms Pirkle from the entertaining, conspiracy theory-spouting kook of Footmen into an arrogant bully. That subtle difference is all it takes to make The Burning Hell a less fun and more ugly film.

Where the film excels is in Ormond’s staging of the sequences set in Hell. Populated by dozens of sweaty-faced extras covered in soot and burn scars, with flames constantly surrounding them, it indeed looks like the type of place that fundamentalists have warned us about for generations.

Even better, Ormond doesn’t skimp on the gruesome imagery. Maggots squirm and feed on the cringing faces of several unlucky extras, John the Baptist’s assassin spends eternity in Hell recreating his crime in bloody detail, and a non-saved young man is killed in a motorcycle accident as the camera lovingly lingers—in a moment that recalls the scare tactics used in highway safety films shown to high school students—over the bloody trail that leads to his severed head.

Ormond also provides one of the more original designs for the Devil by placing a young man in a costume and makeup that transforms him into something resembling a cross between a court jester and a mime. As a character design, it doesn’t make much sense, but it strikes a note of true anarchy and unease that the film desperately needs.

Despite the nicely staged sequences set in Hell, the Pirkle on display this time around is angrier and more disgusted by those who fail to agree with him. His attitude caused the film to leave a sour aftertaste in my mouth.

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5 thoughts on “31 Days of Horror: Film 3: The Burning Hell (1974)

  1. Well praise the Lord for him, he was a faithful preacher of the Lord’s word.
    And my friend if a man of God be assured wherein he stands by the very word of God, then how can his assurance be arrogance?

    Postmodernism is a devilishly-weakening pox on the mind, there is absolute truth, and my friend, you’d best make sure it’s Estus W. Pirkle which offends you, and not the word of God.

    • Mr. Pirkle had his beliefs and the right to preach them. Just as I have the right to disagree with him and consider his attitude in this film to be arrogant. Thank you for your comment and sharing your opinion.

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