These two rarely-seen films

These two rarely-seen films directed by onetime exploitation director Ron Ormond, in collaboration with legendary Mississippi Baptist minister Estus W. Pirkle, which were never intended to be shown theatrically, or to have any real visibility outside of evangelical circles, proved to be the most difficult preservation jobs the Restorationists have yet faced. Shot and edited on 16mm color reversal film, from which a duplicate printing negative was then made, they were each so popular on the “revival” circuit that prints would wear out or be damaged quickly. This meant that star and producer Pirkle would have to order more prints, which would put wear and tear on that duplicate negative, to the point where the lab would have to go back to the original film and create a new negative, multiple times in succession.

Unfortunately, the film stock used for these duplicate negatives proved to be less than stable over time, and as early as the mid-1980s was showing serious amounts of color fading – and this fading would then be carried over right into the new prints that were being made from that point onwards. As The Restorationists would discover, all of the existing duplicate negatives held by the Pirkle estate were either too damaged to be used, or suffered from varying degrees of color fade (or, usually, both). In the case of Footmen, all that survives is one single, mint condition duplicate negative and print, and about twenty mint copies of the beginning three minutes of the film (because sloppy projectionists, it was assumed, were most likely to destroy the heads of most prints, so they had the lab make up extra copies of just the beginning!). The original opening credits of the film had long ago been lost, as a 1981 lawsuit resulted in deemphasizing the Ormonds’ individual efforts in the production – indeed, Ron Ormond’s directing credit had been entirely removed. Using the best privately-held print we could find, we restored all the original credits as seen in 1971.

Colorist Andrew Drapkin at work digitally correcting the deteriorated negatives of The Burning Hell

It took weeks of experimentation

It took weeks of experimentation for Illuminate’s colorist Andrew Drapkin to come up with a formula which he and image supervisor Ross Lipman could use to attempt to re-balance the color in each film – The Burning Hell, in particular – and tease some detail and proper contrast out of severely faded areas. You can see in the before-and-after illustrations shown here how contrast-heavy black areas had taken on a greenish, almost radioactive glow as a result of the deterioration; some fine detail in both films is unfortunately lost forever, as no amount of digital reconstitution can bring back information which has vanished from the film emulsion entirely. But Ross used his extensive historical knowledge of period film stocks to match the color palette as closely as possible to what the 16mm reversal original would have looked like.

And, what of the original film material, after all? The reader may wonder, indeed, why the films were not restored from those masters, and the reason is a tragedy of biblical proportions: they were destroyed in the massive Nashville-area floods of 2010, along with all known negatives of the pre-evangelical films of Ron and June Ormond. The extent of the loss has never been fully understood, but the storage facility in which all 35mm and 16mm original negatives belonging to the Ormond family was submerged in the floods and all its contents were destroyed, according to son (and co-star of The Burning Hell), Tim Ormond. It is believed that the original 16mm reversals of all three of the Estus Pirkle collaborative films were among the dead.

Interestingly, however, we did locate the original 16mm magnetic audio mix for The Burning Hell, which proved a huge boon to the preservation. The Red Channels studio in El Cerrito, California mastered a new soundtrack for the film which is of phenomenally better fidelity than any 16mm print had ever been, as well as a brand-new stereo remix of “The Hell Song” (the film’s opening theme), available for listening on Likewise, the audio track for If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? was derived mainly from the original soundtrack LP master, also of far superior sound quality to what had been on any 16mm print. As a result, with image and track finally brought back to the best possible standards from the brink of disaster, the new reconstructions of both films truly qualify as miracles.

Peter Conheim is a film curator and preservationist based in El Cerrito, California. He is also the co-founder of the performing group Wet Gate, which uses only “found footage” and 16mm film projectors to create a live cinema collage, sampling the sound from the film tracks in real time, as well as Mono Pause, a long-running “Situationist rock” group (and its Southeast Asian music spin-off, Neung Phak) and a member of “culture jamming” legends Negativland. His Cinema Preservation Alliance non-profit organization is dedicated to the long-term survival of endangered motion pictures of all stripes.