In his sermon entitled ‘America Take Heed

In his sermon entitled ‘America Take Heed To God's Roar’ the Mississippi baptist minister Estus W. Pirkle excoriated the citizens of his country for their abject and persistent godlessness. He takes aim at rock ’n’ roll music and the fact that, instead of watching five hours of TV a night, we should really be spending that time with our noses buried in the word of God.

He blames natural disasters such as earthquakes and flash snowfalls on a populous unwilling to accept that these are not natural blights, but punishments sent tumbling down from on high. The tone of his admonishments is not mournful or sober. It is ferocious and damning. His red-mist delivery is primed to evoke fear in the hearts of the listener. He is a firebrand – a performer who knows that the only way his words will accrue gravity is if he bellows them directly into the collective consciousness.

With his wavy crop of silver hair, petit mouth and studious horn-rimmed glasses, Pirkle certainly doesn’t look belligerent or tapped in the head. He lived between 1930 and 2005, and his fervent MO as a man of the clothe was to make America great again by returning it back to some romantic, possibly non-existent idyll in which the words of the Bible were accepted as a hard code for living. Fear reigned supreme, and his florid evocations of a world gone wrong often translated as particularly grotesque scenes from a cut-price horror show.

Enter Ron Ormond, a director of cheapo B pictures who, having suffered a near-death experience (a big one – he and his wife survived a plane crash), decided to embrace Christianity. The Burning Hell is the second of three collaborations with Estus Pirkle – it follows 1971’s If Footmen Tire You What Will Horses Do?, about the bloody horrors that may come of a communist incursion into the US, and 1974’s The Believer’s Heaven, about the infinite glory that awaits believers in the afterlife.

The Burning Hell is based on the notion that, even though we may have seen images of Hell, and have some broad idea of its iconography through art, literature and cinema, the reality is far different. And make no mistake – it is a reality, not some fanciful construction to keep the human race on the very straight path of moral righteousness. “Neither words or pictures can describe all of its terrors,” advises Pirkle. Another sequence of his sermon does well to encapsulate the essence of the film, transcribed below:

Hell is forever.

10,000 years from now, every sinner will still be in Hell.

100,000 years from now, every sinner will still be in Hell.

1,000,000 years from now, every sinner will still be in Hell.

100,000,000 years from now, every sinner will still be in Hell.

1,000,000,000 years from now, the inhabitants of Hell will still be sinning, cursing, crying, swearing, and in a pain that no mortal man has to experience now.

In short, Hell isn’t a painful death after death. It is death protracted over eternity. So with that in mind, you’d better do the right by the Lord. The film medium opens on a shot of a nervous-looking choir singing a hymn at the base of what is claimed to be Mount Sinai. Flaming torches flicker in the foreground. From the very off, Pirkle is transmitting the message that engaging in active worship is not enough. A life of purity can’t just be achieved through the activities of a Sunday morning once a week – they must be all-consuming and all-encompassing. Pirkle is seen glancing out over an expanse of rocks, his arms held aloft as if he is psychically channelling an ancient era. He says that it’s in a place like this where the first human beings were sent to Hell. On the soundtrack, trilling violins play ominously as timpani beat an ominous death march. In order to understand Hell, we must go to Hell. And that’s exactly where Pirkle accompanies us.

For 58 minutes, Ormond visualizes Pirkle’s wrathful incantations

For 58 minutes, Ormond visualises Pirkle’s wrathful incantations. Bible stories spring to life as amateur theatrical spectacles, each filmed in claustrophobic set-ups which require the minimum of additional set dressing. The actors don fake facial hair and elasticated beards and, on more than one occasion, it looks as if the precarious sets are on the verge of crumbling to pieces. It’s very easy to mock the crumby, dinner theatre production values, especially considering they are being used in the service of a lesson its makers claim to be vital for the continuation of humanity. Yet realism doesn’t appear central to the filmmakers concerns, particularly as they are attempting to relay the idea that Hell exists far beyond the realm of human perception.

Pirkle’s behavioural demands become ever more stringent as the film rolls on. There’s an irony to the fact that his no retreat / no surrender vision of a fundamentalist Christian conservative nation mirrors the type of ideologically-automated society championed by communist Russia. It’s hard to tell whether Pirkle is ramping up his teachings for the sake of entertainment, or he genuinely believes the puritan horsefeathers he’s spouting.

An early scene sees two men young men enter Pirkle’s house for a conversation. They look like sixties beatniks, and say they’ve come to talk about “Jeeeeeeeesus.” When citing a modern off-shoot of traditional christianity which says that God would never damn his subjects to eternal hellfire, Pirkle grabs his Bible from the shelf, says he’s read it in its original Greek, and that God talks of a literal burning hell. The men shrug him off in dialogue that’s peppered with awkwardly placed hipster slang. Pirkle bids them an angry farewell as he has a sermon to preach. One of the men then totals his chopper while speeding down a dirt road. He is decapitated in the process.

Whichever way you slice it, the film’s subject matter looks absurd through modern eyes. Even full-bore wingnut fundamentalists would find it hard to square Pirkle’s fire and brimstone teachings with the realities of the modern world. Yet that’s not to say that the film’s spirit does not remain highly relevant. This is a film about bombast and manipulation. It’s about praying on a finely mixed combination of ignorance and fear. It’s about flipping accepted norms as a way to exert control over other people. The Burning Hell is now. The Burning Hell is forever.

David Jenkins is editor of Little White Lies magazine and freelance writer. He has worked in film for much of his adult life, and counts Time Out London, Sight & Sound and The Guardian among his bylines. He has edited the book What I Love About Movies, released by Faber and Faber, and the Little White Lies Guide to Making Your Own Movie with Laurence King Publishing.

Art by Jason Ngai