50 Movies for 50 States Part Two – The `80s: #4 – Arkansas, Film – Pass the Ammo

#4 – Arkansas, Pass the Ammo

Pass the Ammo (1988), a Vista Organisation production, directed by David Beaird, written by Joel Cohen and Neil Cohen, with Bill Paxton, Linda Kozlowski, Annie Potts and Tim Curry, music by Carter Burwell, cinematography by Mark Irwin, editing by Bill Yahraus

The plot: Reverend Ray Porter is a wealthy televangelist/faith healer with a successful nationally-syndicated program based in Arkansas and a barely-functioning – if not completely absent — moral compass. Claire is a local woman whose inheritance was stolen by Porter. Jesse Wilkes is Claire’s boyfriend, a small-time crook with his eye on the reverend’s cash assets and no qualms about stealing from the offering plate. Jesse, Claire and Claire’s two cousins plan to avenge the theft of Claire’s money by robbing Porter’s headquarters, the Tower of Bethlehem. Predictably, the scheme is bungled, resulting in a dangerous but hilarious hostage situation – which is broadcast the viewers across the country live via television.

Fellow Critical Masses writer Jonathan Scovner asked me the other day whether I intentionally pick bad movies to review. The answer is: no, I don’t. Mostly what I try and write about is films that haven’t been written about thousands of times before. Some of these movies haven’t been covered ad nausea because — with their flimsy plots, one-dimensional characters and sad attempts at humor — there’s just not a lot to say about them. (I’m looking at you SpaceCamp, The Golden Seal and – to a certain extent – Used Cars.)

Luckily, this isn’t the case for Pass The Ammo, a forgotten gem which has never gotten a DVD release but can now be seen by all thanks to the wonder of the Internet.

Pass The Ammo, at its best moments, is a surprisingly sharp satire of the televangelist movement with the good fortune to be released at the perfect time (which is why it’s curious that it wasn’t a bigger hit.)

In the late 1980s, televangelism was facing serious public scrutiny after popular real-life televangelist Jim Bakker was charged with accounting fraud. In addition, Bakker was accused of paying off a Jessica Hahn, a secretary at his church, to keep quiet allegations that he and another minister had raped her.

Also, in 1988, another successful and well-known television preacher, Jimmy Swaggart was implicated in a sex scandal involving a prostitute. Swaggart’s indiscretions were made public as retaliation for outing another minister’s habit of paying for sex.

Porter, as played by the versatile Tim Curry, doesn’t take a liking to prostitutes as much as the “angels” that make up his choir (“The crack of dawn ain’t safe around that man,” one news reporter quips.) That’s just one of the many revelations that comes out when Jesse, Bill Paxton’s character, takes over Porter’s television program. Aside from the philandering, we learn that Porter is a con man and a very good one at that. The lavish lifestyle he lives with his wife Darla (played by Annie Potts of Designing Women) – multiple homes, expensive clothes – is a picture perfect example of 80s excess. Darla’s attempt to rationalize their lifestyle is a great moment, as she tells her television audience that the reason she spends so much time on her appearance is that she just wants to make herself up “tall and shiny” so God up there in heaven looks down and says, “There she is.”

“Here I am Lord! And I want to be yours!” Darla proclaims, before removing her outfit and revealing an even skimpier outfit.

“Oh, sweet little Jesus baby,” one of the show’s producers blurts out in response to Darla’s striptease, causing me to laugh out loud.

Potts is perfectly cast as Porter’s oblivious wife and not many people play a better redneck than Bill Paxton (who plays Jesse). Linda Zozlowski is also great as Jesse’s girlfriend Claire, as is the rest of the cast. As for Curry’s portrayal of Porter, it’s the campiest I’ve seen from the actor since dressing up as Dr. Frankenfurter so many years before – even if there are far too many moments when Curry’s natural British accent peeks through Porter’s exaggerated Southern drawl. It doesn’t hurt that Pass The Ammo‘s music numbers, written by Oscar-nominated composer David Newman, are as over-the-top as anything in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. There’s a Cecil DeVille-influenced Samson and Delilah number with Potts (obviously drawing from her stage experience) as Delilah, writhing around on the floor while Samson (played by character actor Brian Thompson), chained to two pillars and clad only in a loincloth, attempts to resist her sexual advances. Then there’s the toe-tapping country-and-western number, “Lay Your Money Down For Jesus”, a incredibly faithful parody of a Southern Gospel tune written and performed by real-life twins John and Paul Cody. Of course, what 1980s comedy would be complete with a title tune; in this case, Newman’s “Pass The Ammo”, another Nashville-tinged country song, plays over the end credits and is way better than Used Cars eponymous theme.

Pair this movie up as a double-feature with 1972’s Marjoe, an Academy-Award winning documentary about Southern Pentecostal preacher and con man, Marjoe Gortner and, by the end, you might even be convinced you can change water to wine.

Oh, sweet little Jesus baby indeed!

From the soundtrack — “Lay Your Money Down for Jesus” (MP3)

50 Movies for 50 States Contest Scoreboard

@iceybloop – 2

@ZeekZombieMan – 1

@DraconicVerses – 2

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