31 Days of Horror: Film 8: The Grim Reaper (1976)

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.

So, I lied. It’s time for another Christian scare film. I just couldn’t stay away.

The Grim Reaper, the third of Ron Ormond’s Christian scare films after If Footmen Tire You What Will Horses Do? and The Burning Hell, is the weakest of the three. A more linear tale about a family’s shaken faith, it’s frustratingly light on literal presentations of hellfire and is missing the wild card of Estus W. Pirkle’s crotchety enthusiasm.

Frankie (Eddie King) takes after his father Vern (Cecil Scaife) in that he enjoys skipping church to stay home watching football and drinking beer. Despite the pleas of his mother Ruby (Viola Walden) and brother Tim (Tim Ormond), Frankie sees no reason to have anything to do with religion and, for that matter, neither does Vern. When Frankie becomes a race car driver and is killed in an accident (which is oddly lacking in gratuitous gore for a Ron Ormond film), Ruby begins having visions of him in Hell, which Tim—being a loving, sensitive son—confirms is where he probably resides since he wasn’t saved.

Wracked by guilt, Vern turns to talking with psychics in the hope of contacting Frankie. This so offends Tim that he makes it his goal to convince Vern to be saved before it’s too late. He does this by taking him to visit different preachers (including Jerry Falwell) and getting him to attend a service with the rest of the family.

Pirkle’s self-satisfied attitude and fiery rhetoric was starting to get a little tiresome by the end of The Burning Hell, but his absence is definitely felt in The Grim Reaper. Not only are the various replacement preachers a dull lot, but without him, Ormond resorts to a slightly more generous view of Christianity that is less fear-based. While this would be a good thing in reality, in a Christian scare film, it’s a recipe for boredom.

Also missing with Pirkle’s absence is a sense of thematic continuity with which Biblical stories are dramatized. This time around, Ormond seems to choose stories at random. While it’s fun to see his low-rent attempts at crafting period pieces, they fail to make the kinds of histrionic points that Pirkle was usually trying to get across.

Like the first two films, what does work is the imagery of a Hell with literal flames, demons, and a lake of fire. The demon designs are occasionally unique, and there’s something charming about the homemade feel of the makeup used to achieve the effects.

Even with the nifty scenes set in Hell, much of The Grim Reaper is a slog. Too much of it is made up of the dull domestic drama and sermons by preachers lacking in the charisma department. There is some humor to be found in the film’s insistence that not only is spiritualism a dangerous practice, but also belief in the Catholic idea of purgatory is just flat-out wrong. But beyond that, there isn’t even that much unintentional humor on display. Forgive the pun, but The Grim Reaper is simply grim and is missing the sense of batshit insanity that made the first two films worth watching.

You can contact me at obsessivemovienerd@gmail.com and read all the extraneous crap that goes through my head by following me on Twitter.

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