People, Estus Pirkle is not screwing around. When this diminutive Baptist preacher from New Albany, Mississippi looks into the camera and describes an America whose small towns’ streets are littered with the corpses of murdered children, he is not presenting us with a “what if” scenario. He is telling us in no uncertain terms what will happen — within twenty-four months, no less — if America doesn’t get serious about Jesus. And if those words alone aren’t chilling enough, he has in his service a seasoned veteran of 1960s Southern exploitation cinema who will utilize all the tricks of his trade to bring them to vivid, bloody life for your terror and edification. Never mind that drive-in theaters are counted among the litany of evils that Pirkle says are driving our country to ruin; the man is obviously not stupid. As long as it’s God’s work that’s being done, it’s safe to assume that he doesn’t mind if it’s the Devil doing it.
Since it first flickered on the walls of rural Southern churches back in 1971, If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? has gone on to become one of the more notorious classics of off-the-beaten-path cult cinema. It also represents a rare instance of such a film actually living up to the breathless hype that trash aficionados have built up around it. No matter how weird and disturbing your various trollings around the online forums have lead you to believe Footmen is, you can pretty much rest assured that it will more or less live up to your expectations. However, given that the film has existed so far outside the normal cinematic channels, it’s doubtful if it would have ever received such notice had its director not already had an established track record in the secular world of Z-grade moviemaking.
Footmen director Ron Ormond is probably today best remembered for a toxic little 1953 gem by the name of Mesa of Lost Women, a film that combines boredom, incoherence and a wildly inappropriate musical score to create something almost supernatural in its ability to inspire trance-like fascination on the part of its viewer. At the time of making that film, Ormond was already a veteran exploitation professional, a no-nonsense showman with a workman-like ethic who, working closely with his wife Ruth, had made a number of micro budget programmers for low-rent production houses like Howco and Lippert. As I remember it, my initial viewing of Mesa, occurring when I was still in high school, was for me almost as much of a religious experience as first seeing Footmen must have been for its original intended audience. At the time I felt that I was truly seeing the worst film ever made, an epiphany that provoked exactly the same kind of tongue-lolling ecstasy with which I had greeted my initial viewing of The Creeping Terror a few months previous. Needless to say, that was a long time ago, and I now sadly shake my head at that pathetic innocent who was naïve enough to believe that such films represented the worst that cinema had in store for him.
Ron Ormond would eventually leave his days as a hired gun behind, and, in 1965, he, his wife Ruth and their son Tim left California and moved their filmmaking operation to Nashville, where, under the Ormond Organization banner, they began churning out product for the still-thriving Southern drive-in circuit. Availing themselves of the numerous country performers who were hungry to promote their music by appearing in their films — as well as the services of assorted friends from the local music industry — the family produced a series of corn-pone-flavored expoitationers with titles like White Lightnin’ Road, The Girl From Tobacco Row and Forty Acre Feud, and also dabbled in straightforward sleaze-horror with 1968’s The Monster and The Stripper. Things changed for Ormond in 1967 after a small plane he was piloting crashed during takeoff. The entire Ormond family was onboard the craft, but somehow managed to survive — a seeming miracle that prompted a spiritual awakening in Ormond. Thus was the filmmaker set on the path that would lead, in 1970, to him making the decision to devote his cinematic talents to the service of the Lord. It was not long after that that Ormond would be introduced to Estus W. Pirkle.
If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? was the title of one of Pirkle’s signature sermons, one that the preacher had also seen fit to release in book form. Given that — and the fact that Pirkle’s uncompromisingly scathing text was rife with lurid imagery ideally suited to Ormond’s visual talents — it was an obvious choice to be the subject of the first collaboration between the two. Ormond’s approach to committing it to film was to film Pirkle’s sermon and then insert into it vignettes that he had filmed illustrating some of the more sensational episodes described therein. He was aided in this by performances from the usual cast of Ormond regulars, as well as by a large number of Pirkle’s parishioners, who had secured their turn at stardom by contributing to the film’s production costs.
As I alluded to before, the content of Footmen is indeed shocking — especially if you are coming to it with expectations grounded in feature-oriented genre cinema. However, when viewed within the context of the instructional films of its era, I think it becomes somewhat less so. To me, it is most reminiscent of the type of bloody scare-a-thons they used to spring on us in drivers ed when I was in high school — scarifying one-reel automotive grand-guignols that included notorious titles like Red Asphalt and Signal 30. Only in Footmen‘s case, rather than being terrorized into practicing safe driving habits by the prospect of having the top of your head graphically shaved off in a horrific car wreck, you’re being spooked into accepting Jesus as your savor by the prospect of being mowed down or chopped to pieces by a horde of grinning communists.
Pirkle’s sermon draws its title from apassage in the book of Jeremiah. In it, he recites a list of those “footmen” who are preying upon America’s youth, weakening the nation’s backbone and leaving it unprepared for the tribulations ahead. This list essentially comprises a litany of hard-line Baptism’s usual suspects: Dancing (“the front door to adultery”), public education (a teacher with a groovy mustache is shown telling his students that the day’s lesson will concern “the seven erotic zones of passion in women”), drive-in theaters, drinking (a pair of licentious youths are shown primly pouring their cans of beer into plastic cups before drinking), second marriages, television (especially cartoons) “joy riding”, etc. And those tribulations that such things are leaving us too softened and consumed by hedonism to deal with — the “horses’ of the title and, more specifically, of the apocalypse — are in this case represented by the invading forces of international communism, here represented by a sextet of mounted Red Army soldiers lead by the generously sideburned Cecil Scaife, a Nashville-based Columbia Records executive and Ormond family friend who is here billed as “The Commissar”.
Despite their apparent pre-industrial circumstances, the commies, Pirkle tells us, have a plan that will see them in control of the United States within fifteen short minutes. Toillustrate this, Ormond presents us with a sequence in which a stunned television news anchor — filmed against a newsroom backdrop that looks to be a garage door with a page from an atlas pinned to it — informs his audience that the president, the secretary of state, the speaker of the house, and many of the larger states’ governors have all been murdered. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he solemnly intones. “This is the communist takeover of the United States. This is the end of democracy.” This particular takeover tactic seemed to me to imply that foreign communist leaders occupy an actual spot somewhere way down in the presidential line of succession, but I may be misinterpreting. In any case, it is at this point that the real terror begins.
Scaife and his men descend, Red Dawn-like, upon the small, God-fearing Southern town in which all of Footmen‘s action takes place and quickly make it clear that they really enjoy mowing down innocent civilians — especially women and children — with their submachine guns. Parents have their children rent screaming from their arms and are summarily slaughtered, after which the tykes are thrown into the back of the reds’ Ford pickup truck and taken to a camp for re-education. There a mustached apparatchik — played by Wes Saunders, and referred to as “Comrade Teacher” in the credits — uses his baffling accent to mesmerize the children with devious communist logic. Commanded to pray to “Jeeesus” for candy, the kids come up empty handed. “Your Jeeesus didn’t bring us any candy!” scoffs the teacher in haughty, mock incomprehension. In short order, a prayer addressed to Fidel Castro brings candy by the bucket load, and a classroom full of newly-minted young Bolsheviks is primed and ready to hit the streets. I must say, though, that while Pirkle’s point about the communists’ amoral cunning is well taken, he never did address to my satisfaction why Jesus wouldn’t give those kids any candy.
Once the communists have taken control, Pirkle tells the camera, the viewer will see “hundreds of dead bodies in the streets” of his or her town. And as the corpses pile up, Ormond’s camera returns again and again to pan slowly up and down the immobile, red syrup-splattered bodies of Pirkle’s parishioners, exhibiting a kind of anti-narrative, pornographic focus on the aftermath of violence that, but for the context, would be indistinguishable from the work of Ormond’s contemporary Herschel Gordon Lewis. Soon, Pirkle goes on, we will see “a communist soldier with a sub-machinegun in every pulpit stand in America”. But, as it turns out, getting shot will be the least of our worries. A later scene shows a group of children forced by the Commissar and his men to hoist their father up by a rope and repeatedly drop him into a nest of pitchforks. Elsewhere, in the movie’s most audacious gross-out moment, a young boy who has been caught receiving the word of God is shown vomiting copiously after having a bamboo shaft driven in one ear and out the other. Adding to the disconcerting nature of this particular scene is the fact that the post-dubbed retching sounds that accompany it are obviously being made by an adult man.
Pirkle caps off his accounting of the reds’ torture practices with a tale of a huddled group of staunch Christian souls who were forced by their communist captors to sit in the freezing cold on back-less chairs for “seventeen hours” (Pirkle, true to the conceit that the episodes recounted by him all actually occurred in one communist country of the other, throws out a lot of very specific-sounding, but uniformly un-sourced, figures over the course of the film) while an affectless, amplified voice recited the following phrases in mantra-like repetition:
“Communism is good.
Communism is good.
Christianity is stupid.
Christianity is stupid.
Now, if that bit of dialogue sounds familiar to you, well, first off, you are obviously some kind of smirky, art-damaged, big city boho who is well beyond the help that Footmen is seeking to offer you, and, secondly, that is because it is by far the most well-known passage from Footmen, thanks to it being sampled for a track by the Bay Area based sound collage group Negativland.
Which brings me to a point that I feel needs to be made. I think that any review of If Footmen Tire You, What will Horses Do? written by a smug urban hipster type such as myself should necessarily be viewed with suspicion, because it offers such an individual far too many easy opportunities to ironically mock timeworn countercultural punching bags like “small town American values” and uncomplicated expressions of Christian belief. And to be sure, there are enough stern-faced, boxy-haired church ladies and Johnny Unitas buzz-cuts on display in the film to insure that the temptation for such mockery is very hard to resist — impossible, in fact, ifmy previous paragraphs are any indication. Still, it would be a grave act of dishonesty if I failed to confess to you that, on some level, Pirkle’s scare tactics actually get to me. And this despite the fact that I was raised in a staunchly secular household, never attending a church service once throughout the entirety of my formative years. One might think that such an upbringing would lead to me having a somewhat more detached and rational approach to spirituality, but in many ways it has had quite the opposite effect. Instead it has made me view spiritual practices that are mundane parts of many Americans’ lives as being possessed of an almost Lovecraftian otherworldliness, to the extent that those people might as well be taking part in some kind of crazy voodoo ritual for all the terror and mystery that their actions hold. It is only in recent years, out of family obligation, that I have had to attend actual church services, and on those occasions I have remained poised on the edge of my seat throughout, waiting for the inevitable moment when the believers will turn upon me, pointing and hissing like Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
It is for this reason perhaps that, despite the larger portion of my consciousness being devoted to exactly the sort of skepticism towards hard-line Christianity’s claims that you might expect, there is also that tiny part of me that on occasion wonders, “What if they’re right?” And then thinks, “That would suck balls.” So I am not completely immune to the rhetorical flourishes of Estus Pirkle and Ron Ormond. This was made especially clear to me when I viewed one of the pairs’ later films, The Burning Hell, in which a bunch of smirky know-it-alls are shocked to find upon dying that — oh shit! — there really was a fiery eternal Hell filled with endless, unspeakable torment after all. Sure, I LMAO as I watched stiff non-actors standing amidst what looked like a field of burning tires, tearing their hair and lamenting about “why, oh, why didn’t I listen”. But, again, I would be totally lying if I didn’t admit that there was a little piece of me that paused to soberly reflect upon the possibility, thinking, “Boy, that would really blow”. That piece of me then went on to imagine myself in the same circumstances, rending my garments as the flames licked at my heels, screaming “Why didn’t I listen? My baaaaad!”
Anyway, once Pirkle has set the scene for us, Ormond introduces a parallel narrative of sorts with the story of Judy (JudyCreech). An obvious wayward soul, Judy is dropped off by her boyfriend — a guy with a wispy loser ‘stache — in the parking lot of the church where Pirkle is giving his sermon. Romeo bristles at the notion of going inside, protesting that he’s “a lover, not a Christian”, and Judy conspiratorially assures him that she is only doing so in order to “keep up appearances”. She then steps out of the car, buttoning her dress as she goes, and steps into the church. Once Judy is seated inside, we see her crisis of faith playing out on her face as Pirkle speaks, mostly by way of various degrees of lower lip biting. Over the course of the film, we will return again and again to Judy as she intermittently listens to the preacher’s words and flashes back to her poor elderly mother’s attempts to get her to read the scripture. I would say that Judy’s ultimate “come to Jesus” moment is something of an inevitability, but given the film she’s inhabiting, she is in all honesty just as likely to be mowed down by automatic weapons fire or disemboweled. So it’s safe to say that there is some small element of suspense surrounding the matter.
The straw that finally breaks Judy’s spiritual back comes in the form of an episode that Pirkle relates during the film’s closing moments — an event that, according to Pirkle, “actually happened in another country”. A kid carrying a portrait of Jesus confronts Scaif’s Commissar about the murder of his parents, an atrocity that the villain, in response, cheerfully acknowledges. He tells the kid that he is better off, because he now belongs to the state, and then throws the kid’s picture of Jesus on the ground and orders him to step on it. This kid, I have to admit, is kind of a badass — the kind who could conceivably give Christianity a good name among attitude-heavy twelve-year-olds across America — and in refusing he fixes Scaif with a pretty stirring look of righteous, steely-eyed defiance. In response, the Commissar produces a big knife and threatens to cut his head off if he doesn’t comply. The kid then turns those steely eyes of his heavenward and pledges to give his life for Jesus as Jesus did for him, after which we see his bloody severed head rolling across the lawn. This proves to be too much for Judy — as I imagine, true to the film’s intentions, it did for many of Footmen‘s devout viewers — and she jumps to her feet screaming, after which Pirkle leads her to the altar, where she tearfully accepts Jesus.
For those of you who intend to seek out If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? for your personal viewing pleasure, I have one word of warning — that is, of course, if you don’t consider all of the words I’ve expended on the subject so far words of warning. While the film indeed delivers all of the outrageous low-rent gore, hilariously amateurish acting, and general offbeat strangeness that whatever accounts of it you have read promise, what those accounts may have failed to prepare you for is Estus Pirkle himself. Put simply, the man’s style of oratory is far more insistent than it is dynamic. Perhaps he simply felt that injecting any level of flamboyance into his rhetoric would be ungodly. But, whatever the reason, the result is that a little bit of his hectoring monotone goes a long way, and over the course of Footmen‘s fifty minute running time, you may find yourself struggling against lapsing into a defensive coma.
In fact, the only break in Pirkle’s robotic harangue occurs, quite effectively, during the film’s fading final seconds. Films such as Footmen, as mentioned before, would typically be shown in small churches, and would be followed by an altar call, during which those audience members who had yet to do so, shaken by what they had seen, would step forward and, just as Judy had done at the film’s conclusion, accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior. As a prelude to that moment, Pirkle looks into the camera as the closing music swells and, in a tone that is suddenly both gentle and beseeching, softly repeats the words “Won’t you come?” The effect is startlingly disarming, and, after having been hostage to the relentless, auctioneer-like stream of oratory issuing from Pirkle’s expressionless head for the previous near-hour, almost provocative of a Stockholm Syndrome-like reaction. Which is to say that, even as I sat there, sniggering imperiously at all of the unbelievable claptrap I had just witnessed, there was a tiny little part of me that found itself inching imperceptibly toward the screen.
Release Year: 1971 | Country: United States | Starring: Estus W. Pirkle, Judy Creech, Cecil Scaife, Gene McFall, Wes Saunders, La Quinta Scaife, Jim Rose, Billy Kent, Jimmy Little, Carl Haselton, Joe Scaife, Nathan Blackwell, Max Cannon, Bell Kent, Bondy Kent, Greg Pirkle, Tim Ormond, Ron Ormond | Writers: Ron Ormond, Estus W. Pirkle | Director: Ron Ormond | Cinematographers: Ron Ormond, Tim Ormond | Producers: Estus W. Pirkle, Monnie Stanfield