From Hollywood to Heaven: The Lost and Saved Films of the Ormond Family

by Charlie Largent Jun 24, 2023

From Hollywood to Heaven: The Lost and Saved Films of the Ormond Family
Blu-ray – Region Free
Powerhouse Indicator
1959-1974 / 1.33:1, 1.37:1, 1.66:1
Starring Viki Caron, Ferlin Huskey, Sleepy LaBeef, Ron Ormond
Written by Ron Ormond
Directed by Ron Ormond

In 2003, the Chicago Review Press published Jimmy McDonough’s great biography of one of Hollywood’s least-great directors, Andy Milligan. The book’s delightfully sordid title, The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan, referred not only to one of Milligan’s most notorious films, but the director himself—a man whose passion for moviemaking was only matched by the sadism that consumed his life and work.

McDonough has spent the intervening years piecing together the crazy quilt career of Ron Ormond—seemingly the polar opposite of Milligan but equally passionate about filmmaking and just as inept. The result is a nine pound, 360 page chronicle with a marquee-ready title, The Exotic Ones: That Fabulous Film-Making Family from Music City, USA – The Ormonds. To celebrate the occasion, Powerhouse Indicator has produced a home video companion sure to interest perverts and puritans alike: From Hollywood to Heaven: The Lost and Saved Films of the Ormond Family.

Like The Dungeon Of Andy Milligan, another formidable Blu ray collection with contributions from McDonough, the Ormond set is exhaustive in its approach. But instead of charting a Milligan-like downfall, From Hollywood to Heaven is a warts and all examination of one family’s bumpy road to the promised land. McDonough asks, “What makes an Ormond movie interesting? Are they even interesting?” Any one of the films in this set could supply the answer: no. The Ormonds themselves are the story here, their movies are simply the evidence, police photos documenting the scene of the crime.

Ron Ormond, his wife June, and their son Tim, were in the exploitation business—from jungle adventures for deviants to striptease for gorehounds—until a near-death experience led to a religious conversion for the whole family. It’s fair to say the exploitation didn’t stop with that conversion.

Active in vaudeville since the ’30s, June, a singer and dancer, and Ron, a magician, had settled in California but gravitated toward the southern states where it’s said “superstitions are facts that science hasn’t proven yet”—the otherworldly, outré, and downright peculiar would fuel their work till the very end.

Tired of the vaudeville grind Ron talked his way into the movie business, teaming up with theater owners Joy Newton Houck and J. Francis White to form Howco Productions—a company that would become known for distributing drive-in fodder like Roger Corman’s Carnival Rock and Nathan Juran’s The Brain from Planet Arous. The partnership began in 1950 with a series of dirt-cheap westerns directed by Ron and starring a sad-eyed hombre named Lash LaRue. In 1953 Houck and White, unwilling to waste an inch of film, gave Ormond the task of fixing a moribund project called Tarantula. Ormond spiced it up with dancing girls, a score by Hanna-Barbara’s Hoyt Curtin, and changed the title to Mesa of Lost Women.

Encouraged by the experiment, mad Dr. Ormond stitched together bits and pieces of two unrelated films—one, an adventure short called The Black Panther, and the other, an amateur travelogue. The result was a patchwork monster called Untamed Mistress.

The title suggested a rough and tumble sexcapade but was in fact Ormond’s version of a Mondo movie. The film included actual photography of the African plains along with new segments the director shot in the wilds of Los Angeles—those scenes were the bait for the raincoat crowd; half-naked “native” girls being ravaged by actors in gorillas suits. The implied bestiality was unmistakable and the Ormonds grossed $90,000 for their troubles (June personally shopped the film from theater to theater alongside a guy in a gorilla suit—a subtle promotional touch).

The Ormonds got hooked on the late 50’s obsession with UFOs and even produced a short film about one man’s “abduction” called Edge of Tomorrow—but they read the trades and understood where the real money was—nudie-cuties and sexploitation masquerading as “educational material.” 1963’s Please Don’t Touch Me checks off each of those boxes.

A risqué soap opera about a frigid newlywed and her discontented groom, the film combines hypnotism and sexual dysfunction with bedroom scenes that resemble a photo shoot for Stag Magazine. Baby-faced Viki Caron stars as “Viki”, a traumatized redhead whose peek-a-boo nightgowns drive her husband to distraction (her form-fitting wardrobe was by Lucy of Hollywood). Lash La Rue plays Viki’s psychiatrist and Ormond McGill, the “Dean of American Hypnotists” discovers the cure for what ails her.

1964 to ’66 was a comparatively wholesome time for the Ormonds—they finally settled in Nashville where they made two back-country melodramas, White Lightnin’ Road and The Girl from Tobacco Row (featuring a righteous Tex Ritter), and Forty Acre Feud, a good-natured country music revue held together by the thinnest of plots. Starring Grand Old Opry favorites Ferlin Husky and Minnie Pearl, the show was filmed, appropriately, in a former barn converted into a recording studio.

The mix of backwoods humor and southern-fried musicianship predicted Hee Haw while giving the Ormonds a chance to rub elbows with great artists including Loretta Lynn and George Jones. This sunny era in Ormond moviemaking came to an abrupt end with their next project.

A producer once said of a particular Andy Milligan film, “This is as bad as something gets.” They hadn’t seen The Exotic Ones.

Promoted with the warning “It might snap your mind”, The Exotic Ones is supposedly set in New Orleans and opens with a quick tour of Bourbon street before zooming in on the real action: the interior of a strip club (actually a Nashville studio operated by a Methodist organization). The garish lighting of this candy-colored dive—a Barbie Dream House designed by Larry Flynt—actually sets the mood for the film, a tawdry aesthetic that screams “massage parlor chic.” The strippers themselves give it their all and one particularly athletic tassel-twirler, a contortionist named Georgette Dante, sits in on a commentary for the film.

These depressing vignettes soon make way for the plot, such as it is: fishermen are being murdered by a goonish swampland creature—not just killing the helpless sportsmen but dismantling them. Taking a cue from Herschell Gordon Lewis, the violence is breathtakingly gory and preposterously fake—the monster tears the arm off one guy and beats him to death with it. In what could have been an homage to The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, the man-beast is captured and made part of a nightclub act, only to escape and continue his reign of terror. The creature was played by Thomas Paulsley LaBeff—otherwise known as Sleepy Labeef—one of the seminal rockabilly singers in the country.

In 1967, Ron was piloting a private plane with both June and Tim on board when the craft malfunctioned and spiraled to earth. Ormond was able to land the plane in a nearby pasture, and though he and June suffered injuries, the family escaped alive—and significantly changed. From then on the trio dedicated their lives to spreading the gospel through cinema—but the results were far from uplifting.

The Ormonds were the filmmakers, but the man behind the operation was Estus Pirkle, a preacher who hated sin but seemed to hate commies even more. It’s difficult to imagine what this fella was like offstage (McDonough reports “he’d turn motel TVs towards the wall to escape their influence”) but he took to the pulpit like an angry carnival barker.

Produced between 1973 and 1977, If Footmen Tire You What Will Horses Do?, The Burning Hell, and The Believer’s Heaven, were fire and brimstone diatribes embellished by crass depictions of torture, death, and bad ’70s haircuts. Bloody as hell, but mordantly funny, they resembled the highway safety films famous for nauseating timid teenagers. Shown only in churches, Ormond’s films had that exact effect on the congregation—”People ran out of church screenings throwing up.”

The alliance between Pirkle and the Ormonds began in 1970 and ended in 1977. Their collaborations were just as political as they were “spiritual” (one paranoid plot line imitates the red-baiting Invasion, U.S.A., made in 1952) and they made Pirkle a millionaire—not from the box office but church offerings made after the screenings. The grungy atmosphere, the avaricious bloodletting, and the cruelty in these films is pervasive—and familiar. McDonough’s new book on the Ormonds and their movies is not just reminiscent of The Ghastly One, it’s the sequel to it.

Once again Powerhouse lives up to their name—they seem inspired by McDonough’s down and dirty poetry and the packaging and supplements for From Hollywood to Heaven is a trash triumph. Most of these films are lost and only exist because of Tim Ormond’s archives… archives that were ruined in a flood. Many of the transfers are from Standard Definition master tapes and spruced up as much as possible. It doesn’t matter. Some “classic” exploitation films have been blessed with superb, ultra-colorful camerawork (a few of Russ Meyers’s films are eye-popping eye candy, and not just because of Eve Meyer)—the Ormond oeuvre is grubby from the bottom up (though Viki Caron beams brightly in Please Don’t Touch Me).

The extras include McDonough’s audio commentaries on Please Don’t Touch Me and The Exotic Ones, plus audio commentaries from Greg Pirkle (son of Estus) and Tim Ormond. Several short documentaries directed by Tim Ormond grace the rest of the package including Lash LaRue: A Man and His Memories and June Carr: The Virtual Vaudevilian.

Last but far from least, in fact, the most, is a “limited edition exclusive 100-page book with an extended essay by Jimmy McDonough.”

Here’s the complete rundown of extras from Powerhouse’s site.