In recent weeks, a really short, low-budget religious film has been making the you’ve-gotta-see-this rounds among cackling irreligious hipsters and flinching people of faith. Written and produced by old-time Mississippi Baptist minister Estus Pirkle, the film is called “The Believer’s Heaven.” It was made in 1977. And it’s…fascinating. Wonderful. Super-creepy. Pretty much any adjective you can think of applies to this unwitting masterpiece of well-intentioned evangelistic fervor and/or unintentional camp, depending on your point-of-view. (Hat tip: the gang at the Boar’s Head Tavern.)
you haven’t seen it, I want you to watch it. Try to get through as much of it as possible, because there’s a real treat toward the end. Her name is Little Evelyn Talbert, and she will haunt your dreams.
(Unfortunately, embedding is disabled, so you’ll have to head over to YouTube to watch it: The Believer’s Heaven featuring Estus Pirkle. It’s a little over 3 minutes long. Be sure to come back after you’ve watched it — and keep it handy for reference purposes — because I’m providing a helpful recap/viewer’s guide to aid your enjoyment.)
OK. Have you watched it? Still with us? I’ll now offer my immediate, frame-by-frame take. Let’s see if your thoughts matched mine:
0:21 — Wow. He says “New York City” a lot there at the beginning, and he says it kinda weird. If you could punch a city in the face with vocal inflection, that’s what it would sound like.
0:37 — “Does this excite you?” A little. It sort of excites me when he dips his head and shoulders really fast to the side in order to emphasize a point, but only because I think he’s about to fall over. Or break out into the Electric Slide.
0:46 — This guy’s diction is so familiar. The way he. So. Clearly. Enunciates. His. Words. Evenwhiletalkingfast. I know! It’s Mitch Hedberg! It’s Mitch Hedberg as a fast-talking southern preacher! (Want proof? Check out this video of the late Hedberg’s Comedy Central special…probably NSFW.)
0:56 — Dramatization! Apparently, Heaven looks like dull people wearing white robes in the mid 1970s.
1:08 — Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Ooh, sorry. That extreme close-up startled me.
1:13 — Let me just say…I think it’s in bad taste to show that old horn-rimmed glasses guy when you reveal “there’s no aging in heaven.” Especially a guy who doesn’t look too thrilled to be headed there in the first place.
1:17 — When the harp zinged, and it quick-cut to the old granny with the glasses, you got a scary Ms. Bates in “Psycho” vibe, didn’t you? Shiver.
1:21 — Oh my. Ms. Bates didn’t get much better. Pastor Pirkle is gonna have to come up with some better before-and-after pics of those glorified bodies.
1:37 — Was that God with the long white beard? Because he looked a little frail. I thought he’d be bigger.
1:45 — Sad news, friends. It appears that only white folks get to go to Heaven.
1:51 — There’s no one of color in the Sweet By-and-By, but there are palm trees. Lots of them. Actually, the backdrop of Heaven looks a lot like a luau I went to a couple years ago in Maui. But without the pit-roasted pig. Because there’s no death in Heaven. No mai-tais either.
1:57 — There are, however, lots of extra Burger King crowns. Who are these guys? Disciples? Saints? Archangels? Baptist deacons?
2:03 — OK, this scene cracks me up, because suddenly everyone’s milling around with their hands flapping about as if their limbs have suddenly become independent from their bodies. Supposedly they are filled with joy and praising God. Or, perhaps, there are mosquitoes in Heaven.
2:11 — Little Evelyn Talbert. 54 years old. 32 inches tall. One fireball of a screen presence.
2:34 — Little Evelyn Talbert breaks into song. My heart leaps with joy.
2:40 — Come on, organ-player guy! Smile! It’s Little Evelyn Talbert, for crying out loud! And one of these days she’s gonna walk with her Lord!
2:44 — Same goes for you dapper lads on the front row. Evelyn’s happy. Shouldn’t you be happy, too?
2:46 — Hmm. I don’t know…when Evelyn squeezes her eyes shut, I start to worry. What if her little exuberance causes her to fall out of her chair?
2:50 — That wide-eyed blonde kid, squashed between his parents, looks visibly frightened. Perhaps he, too, is worried about Evelyn. Dial it down a bit, Ms. Talbert. The jazz hands aren’t entirely necessary.
3:09 — Now it’s time to get serious. Pastor Pirkle is no longer talking to the zombies in his audience, but to me.
3:14 — Hmm. He’s concerned that I might get killed in an earthquake. Pirkle probably should have come up with a more likely sudden-death scenario. Earthquakes are so West Coast. My childhood pastor liked to use car accidents, or getting hit by a bus, as possible ways to meet your Maker without warning.
3:20 — This could be God’s last call to me. If so, God is quite the prankster, because I totally would never have expected this.
3:24 — Roll credits.
Tune in tomorrow for a more thoughtful discussion of the video. It’ll be more serious. Not as serious as those people in Pirkle’s audience, of course. But you can bet it’ll be free of references to jazz hands.