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Born Vittorio Di Naro (aka Vic Narro), Ron Ormond (1910 – 1981) is one of the few unsung heroes of the drive-in exploitation era. While his films were contemporary to directors such as Russ Meyer and Herschell Gordon Lewis, they haven't achieved the same cult following. According to Michael Weldon, author of the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, Ormond's films can be considered on par with these directors'; they just need to reach a wider audience.
While his career spanned from B-Movie Western potboilers to disjointed jungle movies promoting gorilla-to-human relations and hybrid spider/human apparitions, Ormond's most intriguing contributions come from his later years in what can only be called "Christploitation." A showman at heart, Ormond produced and directed near forty films from 1948 to 1979; he was also known as an author, a magician, and a vaudeville performer. For the stage, he adopted the surname of his close friend and fellow magician, Ormond McGill. In 1935, he met his wife, June Carr (1912 – 2006), who was a well known vaudeville dancer and singer. Together, they would create a highly effective team producing and promoting roadshow movies in drive-ins throughout the Southern U.S.
After their marriage, Ron and June toured extensively throughout the South eventually settling in Southern California. In 1945, Ormond broke into the film business as a technical director on The Shanghai Cobra (aka Charlie Chan in the Shanghai Cobra). According to David D. Duncan and Jim Ridley, writing for the Nashville Scene in April 1996, "A chance meeting with Lash LaRue led to a promotional road tour. That tour, in turn, led Ron to cross paths with Joy Houck Sr. and Francis White, who together owned Howco, a flourishing film company that counted the Consolidated Theatre chain among its holdings in the South." Ron offered the pair a script he had written for Lash LaRue, Dead Man's Gold (1948). Ormond promptly launched his film career with Howco's approval of the project.
Ormond quickly latched on and began writing and eventually producing a multitude B-grade Westerns. He managed to make a name for himself early on as someone who could get a project done. In the spirit of his contemporary, Ed Wood, Jr., Ormond was known for squeezing a dollar and putting out profitable films at very low budgets.
The Ormonds had a son in 1950. As a testament to Ormond's Hollywood connections, his good friend Bela Lugosi was chosen as Tim Ormond's godfather. Between the years 1948 and 1952, Ormond cranked out a multitude of hour-long B-Movie Westerns for Howco. King of the Bullwhip (1950) would be Ormond's directorial debut. He would go on to write, produce, and direct eight more Westerns ending with The Frontier Phantom (1952).
By this time, television had taken over the market for B-Movie Westerns. An executive from Howco asked Ormond to piece together a Z-grade film from unused footage of a different, failed production (working title Tarantula). Ormond agreed to the project in an effort to find other film genres to exploit, but as Duncan and Ridley report, "June Carr Ormond and son Tim recall that he hated the film." The article also claims, "Ormond wasn't shy about asking his friends to get involved in his films." For his new project he recruited old friend Jackie Coogan (The Addams Family's Uncle Fester) who played the role of a "mad scientist." From the available footage, Ormond managed to piece together a loose plot where women are secretly being transformed into spiders. Today, Mesa of Lost Women (1953) is considered to be one of Ormond's most notorious productions. "To this day, Mesa of Lost Women is best remembered for its infamously inept flamenco-guitar-and-harmonica soundtrack," Duncan and Ridley said. They added that the background music also appears in Ed Wood, Jr.'s Jail Bait 1954 the following year.
After Mesa of Lost Women, Ormond co-directed, with Allen Nixon, Untamed Mistress (1956). By all accounts, Ormond took pride in the projects he controlled himself. This film was combined with a short titled Black Panther (1956) and featured actual jungle footage and told the story of a girl raised by gorillas. Ormond, always the showman, did not skimp on promotion and, according to Duncan and Ridley, "all but promised drive-in patrons that they would see a gorilla mating with a shapely brunette." The authors quote Ormond's press book for the film, "Who would be her mate…MAN OR BEAST?" In the Nashville Scene article, June is quoted as saying, "Untamed Mistress was the first road-show picture we ever handled, and we made $90,000 in three months in Texas. So we were off and running."
The success of this film cauterized Ormond's sense of using scintillating ad campaigns to promote his films. Ormond followed Untamed Mistress with a self-proclaimed "Freudian study in sexual repression." He recruited his old protagonist Lash LaRue to play the glowering hypnotist in Please Don’t Touch Me (1959). Duncan and Ridley again refer Ormond's advertisements for the film, "Due to the unusual subject of this motion picture, words cannot describe the contents." Ormond was well on his way to becoming a much lauded sleazemeister.
By the time Ormond finished Please Don't Touch Me, he had lost his fervor for the Hollywood set. Duncan and Ridley wrote, "He had to wait another five years before he could mount his next independent feature." While Ormond had proven that he could deliver standard sleaze, his next films would take on southern-fried flavor. Moonshine, race cars, guns, and girls were popular themes with Southern audiences, and these would provide the backdrop for his last remaining exploitation films. White Lightnin' Road (1965) debuted to another positive reception. This white-trash epic featured the normal themes associated with the south.
In 1965, Ormond discovered an inexpensive film-editing facility at Trafco (the filmmaking arm of the United Methodist Church), in Nashville, Tennessee. He had grown weary of Hollywood and decided to move The Ormond Organization to the Music City.
According to Nashville Scene, "the Ormonds wasted no time getting their first Nashville project in front of the camera." At the time, the stars of the Grand Ole Opry were just realizing the potential for television and film to expand their music careers. June Ormond told Duncan and Ridley, "All of the people here when we first came to Nashville were very congenial and nice. They all wanted to get into the movies."
The Ormonds developed a project titled Forty Acre Feud (1967), which was devised as a musical centering on feuding country kinfolk. Interestingly, a number of major Opry stars wanted to perform in the film. The Ormonds struck deals with each for only $250 per song. At the time, Duncan and Ridley report, "the cast read like a Who's Who of Opry stars." Performances for the film include Minnie Pearl, George Jones, Johnny Paycheck, Loretta Lynn, Ray Price, Skeeter Davis, Roy Drusky, and Bill Anderson, among several others. In addition to musical performances, famous Opry disc jockey Smilin' Eddie Hill made a cameo and comic relief was provided by Ferlin Husky and Del Reeves.
Bill Anderson told Nashville Scene in 1996, "We knew we weren't making Gone with the Wind." Anderson goes on to claim that the Ormonds' Forty Acre Feud was one of the first times that country artists were seen as well as heard. "Film was one of the only ways for the fans to put a face with a name and sound." The film ultimately paid off big at rural drive-ins and created an audience for low-budget country-music movies.
To date, Nashville considers the Ormonds to be its "first family of film." As White Lightnin' Road and Forty Acre Feud appeared in drive-ins throughout the South, it was clear that Ormond was in his prime as an exploitation auteur.
Ormond immediately began work on his next project, and it was to be the "end all" of southern-fried exploitation films. Girl From Tobacco Row would combine everything from all the themes from his previous two films into one high-ballin' adventure. Once again, Ormond opted for local talent employing local WSM deejay, Ralph Emery and country star Tex Ritter in his latest film. According to Nashville Scene, Tex Ritter, who played a preacher in the film, took his role so seriously that would phone his own pastor in between takes to garner technical advice.
In all, Girl from Tobacco Row surveys every classically exploitable theme in a southern context. However, foreshadowing future events, Duncan and Ridley write, "The movie also contains traces of a spiritual fixation that haunted Ron Ormond all his life." Combining mixtures of backwoods melodrama and spiritual elevation serves to give the viewer a glimpse of the latter films of Ormond's career.
Ormond, in addition to his many other talents, was a former Air Force colonel and an experienced pilot. In 1968, Ron, June, and son Tim entered the family's small commuter plane to attend Girl From Tobacco Row's Louisville premiere. Shortly after take off the aircraft's single engine overheated and sent the family crashing down near Donelson, Tennessee. Tim recounted the event saying, "It was weird. I looked over, and my mom and dad were just lying there with debris all around." Although Tim was uninjured, both Ron and June sustained extensive injuries that kept them hospitalized for six weeks, according to Duncan and Ridley.
For Ron Ormond, the accident served as an epiphany. He defined the events of his crash as a sign from God. Nevertheless, the Ormonds would rally around one final exploitation film. By the end of the 1960s, many of Ormond's contemporaries had upped the ante for what qualified as exploitation cinema. Many of the films from this period were substantially gorier and more pornographic (Lewis' Blood Feast and Meyer's Vixen). According to Nashville Scene, the Ormonds didn't like the films of Lewis or Russ Meyer. In an effort to match the likes of these directors, they decided to combine both elements into one film—The Monster and the Stripper (1968).
Michael Weldon asserts that The Monster and the Stripper (aka The Exotic Ones) stands out as one of the all-time classic exploitation movies. And, as Duncan and Ridley point out, it is definitely the raciest film ever shot at a production facility owned by the Methodist church. The Ormonds incorporated the help of a group of exotic dancers led by Georgette Dante. Even June Ormond got into the action by reviving her fan dance from her vaudeville past. "When it came to casting the monster, Ron had to look no further than his next-door neighbor, the towering rockabilly singer Sleepy LaBeef," said Duncan and Ridley. The authors add that LaBeef also took part in the movie's most notorious scene involving tearing the arm off a victim and then beating him to death with the limb. In another notable scene, LaBeef bites the head off a chicken and smears himself with its blood. Tim Ormond said in Psychotronic Video #26, "LaBeef didn’t kill the chicken himself; that task was left to Titania, who swiftly wrung the bird's neck off camera and tossed it back to the monster. Editing did the rest."
The movie opened strong, but failed to secure independent distribution. The lack of financing forced the Ormonds to question their future as exploitation filmmakers. After The Monster and the Stripper had proven to be a failure, Ron Ormond contemplated a major change to his strategies of filmmaking. In 1970, Ormond experience a near crash and was forced to land his plane prematurely. Between surviving one crash and experiencing a close encounter with a second, it became clear to Ormond that God was sending him a message. He decided to turn his camera away from filth and focus on praising the Lord instead.
Ormond soon joined forces with Monty Stanfield and was introduced to the Southern Baptist fire-and-brimstone preacher Estus Pirkle. Pirkle led a congregation in New Albany, Mississippi, and was interested in using film to reach a wider audience. He helped Ormond raise funds by accepting donations on his travels to various churches. He encouraged people to invest in the project by offering small bit parts and roles as extras in the upcoming film. Originally, Pirkle assumed that Ormond would simply film one of his sermons, but Ormond ultimately delivered perhaps one of the most shocking instances of religious fear mongering ever committed to film.
Duncan and Ridley claim that If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? (1971) is, in fact, "the most confounding piece of homegrown budget-consciousness surrealism ever filmed." It can be described as nothing other than a film designed to scare the Hell out of you. With very little plot or continuity, Pirkle delivers a dire sermon about the modern evils of America's young culture and its potential to overthrow our way of life (based on solid Christian values and Freedom). Pirkle's narration is interspersed with various scenes of torture and Communist indoctrination of families and children. The soldiers are comprised of a disorganized mix of Russian Commissars and Cuban Nationalists (all with very bad accents).
In all, Ormond succeeds in delivering his most violent film to date. Under pressure from their Communist captors, victims in this film are raped, tortured, brainwashed, and forced to torture members of their own family—and all this because they choose not to forsake their Lord and Savior. In spite of the film's intended context, it remains as a shining example of exploitation cinema.
According to Psychotronic Video, Footmen achieved its purpose as one colleague claimed it had won a million souls. The movie was shown mainly at church gatherings and revivals and ended with an altar call, which reportedly was an effective tool. As Duncan and Ridley point out, converted sinners became the new currency rather than grosses at the box office.
The next Pirkle/Ormond collaboration would be The Burning Hell (1974). The narrative for this piece involved two "motorcycle types," Tim (played by Tim Ormond) and Ken. After visiting Pirkle in his home, both are warned of the Hell that awaits those who are not saved by the "blood of Jesus." After Ken suffers an untimely death due to a motorcycle accident, Tim is left to confront his fears of eternal damnation. The film takes place through Pirkle's hour-long sermon on the reality of an eternal, burning Hell. While this film is tame compared to Footmen, there are notable moments such as when Tim finds Ken's decapitated head at the site of the crash (still tucked into his motorcycle helmet). Overall, this film shows "country Jesus" at its finest with a host of hillbilly Biblical characters speaking in deep southern drawls. Reportedly, Ormond made one more film with Estus Pirkle (title unknown). The duo split over disagreements on the revenues of the films and Ormond moved on to create another Jesus-inspired scare film.
Shortly after The Burning Hell, the Ormonds were introduced to the Murfreesboro, Tennessee-based Dr. John R. Rice, minister and publisher of The Sword of the Lord, a fundamentalist newspaper. Both Tim and Ron Ormond accompanied Rice on a tour of the Holy Land, the footage of which Ormond used to produce a film titled The Land Where Jesus Walked. Because Rice was pleased with the film, he introduced Ormond to Jerry Falwell and Jack Van Impe (aka The Bible Machine), which was a moniker derived from his astounding ability to cite virtually every verse in the Bible. Ormond recruited both of them for his next project.
The Grim Reaper (1976) is predominantly a cautionary tale about the dangers of attempting to communicate with the dead. In an average American family, a mother and her younger son are devout Baptists; the Father and older son are slipping away from the church. The older son is a fledgling stock-car racer and is brutally killed in a car wreck. Perhaps the rest of the story should be left to the viewer.
On par with Ormond's sensibility, The Grim Reaper fits easily into his Christploitation mold. Cecil Scaife was a famous Nashville music executive who worked in PR for Sun Records and for Columbia at this time. He had been involved as an actor in Ormond's projects since The Monster and The Stripper (he played the man who was beat to death with his own arm). He also played as the Communist tormentor of schoolchildren in Footmen. As for The Grim Reaper, Scaife said in an interview, "I'll never forget when we filmed The Grim Reaper down in Mississippi on location." He then tells how Ormond envisioned the image of Hell by filling an expansive gravel pit with discarded tires and lighting them on fire. "It was unbelievable the effect these burning tires had. It looked like the reincarnation of Hell." The entire crew was left in blackface by the close of filming, Scaife said.
Ron Ormond spent the remainder of his life producing and directing religion-inspired films. Psychotronic Video claim that he averaged one per year until his death in 1981. His final project was titled It's About the Second Coming, but he succumbed to cancer prior to filming. Three days after his interment, Ron's son Tim took the director's chair.
Overall, Ron Ormond exemplified the nature of exploitation cinema. Operating efficiently with consistently low budgets, Ormond learned how to get the desired effects with what he had on hand. While his films may never be on a Top 20 list, they definitely hold their place among the overall body of work and they have continued to stay relevant as VHS copies of his films are relatively easy to find.
The question of his conversion is interesting. It is likely that a universal religious conversion among all exploitation directors would have been cataclysmic. However, in the small instance of Ron Ormond, it actually provided us with an intriguing window into role reversal. Ron Ormond made a decision to focus his lens in a different direction than typical exploitation themes. Fortunately, for us, Ormond could not successfully subdue his keen sense for exploitation.
Article written by Texploited