In The Overlook, A.V. Club film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky examines the misfits, underappreciated gems, and underseen classics of film history.
It was a buddy who collected film prints of 1970s hardcore porn—a real specialist, a historian—that introduced me to A Thief In The Night, the greatest evangelical end-times scare flick ever made. Or maybe it was my friend who owned the video store. We all lived in the same building then (next to the video store, as a matter of fact), and these sorts of discoveries tended to spread and dissipate quickly, like the smoke, cooking, and pet smells that seeped into the dingy stairwell from our apartment doors. I think we all knew the howling live-action Jack Chick tract If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?, the first of several movies made by the exploitation director Ron Ormond for Estus Pirkle, an unhinged preacher from William Faulkner’s hometown of New Albany, Mississippi. But A Thief In The Night inspired a different type of fascination.
This is a movie that was made for about $60,000 in Des Moines, Iowa, and nearby Carlisle in the early ’70s, and it has almost everything you would ever want in a piece of regional filmmaking from that era: actors who don’t look like they belong in movies; local streets and parks filmed with no attempt to disguise their lack of scenic potential; a patience-testing opening credits sequence with a creepy theme song (Larry Norman’s “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” performed by a band called The Fishmarket Combo); rack focus shots, jib shots, and other basic film school tricks; that sense that it could only have come from a specific time and place. As it happens, it also created a sub-genre: the dispensationalist kook conspiracy thriller, typified by the likes of The Omega Code and Left Behind.
A Thief In The Night is the kind of movie that is hard to imagine having ever existed in a pristine copy. Every version I’ve seen (including a well-traveled 16mm print, at a screening put together by the aforementioned porn collector) has had scratches, and the video release has this faint off-brown patina that brings to mind a ’70s sitcom taped off standard-def TV. For decades, it had been very successfully distributed to church basements and evangelical groups, even producing three sequels: A Distant Thunder (1978), Image Of The Beast (1981), and The Prodigal Planet (1983), each duller than the last. Together, they lay out a narrative of tribulation—the end time where the righteous are taken away in a so-called “rapture,” while the rest are left behind to endure a period of calamity—based on Hal Lindsey’s 1970s evangelical bestseller The Late, Great Planet Earth. It too was made into a film in 1979, narrated by Orson Welles, who needed money.
The concept of rapture and tribulation is American in origin and exclusive to evangelicals. It’s part of a system of belief called dispensationalism, which dismisses a lot of traditional Christian teachings and practices and which I’m not going to get into here. Lindsey’s book (actually ghost-written) combined dispensationalism with the era’s fascination with Nostradamian prophecies. It pointed to clues of the coming end times in recent world events. As someone raised Russian Orthodox, I’ve long been fascinated by what seems to be the aesthetic contradiction of this type of evangelical doomsaying. On the one hand, there’s the belief that one is living in the ultimate and most dramatic moment in the history of the planet. On the other, there’s this compulsion toward bland and banal forms: churches that look like corrugated outbuildings, TV shows with scrolling phone numbers, trashy potboilers about the ordinary folks weathering tribulation.
The thing about these globetrotting rapture narratives is that they’re lurid—all those disappearing people, secret codes, and struggles against a sinister global government—but also oppressively unimaginative. (It may seem impossible to not think of the end of the world in poetic terms, but never underestimate the premillennialists.) A Thief In The Night, however, has two things to set it apart from the rest. First, there is not one scene in the film that doesn’t give the impression that it was made partly for fun. What should be the most tedious stretch of the movie—a baffling subplot in which one of the characters requires emergency treatment for a snakebite—instead plays out as a rollicking series of match cuts, smash zooms, and offbeat angles. Second, it has that rare cocktail of crudely creative techniques (one scene is a montage of still photographs, another makes every possible use of a very small camera crane, etc.), ersatz production values, and datedness that can create a memorable or suggestive result without trying.
It’s one thing for a movie to preach of a tribulation period where those not immediately whisked away with the true faithful will succumb to a commie-fascist nanny state. It’s another for this satanic authority (the United Nations Imperium Of Total Emergency, or UNITE) to be mostly represented by a single conversion van that climactically chases a young woman through the empty alleyways and parking lots of downtown Des Moines in broad daylight—a conflation of stranger danger and divine abandonment, tinged with sexual anxiety. The predatory custom van, shown lurking in seedy shadows around a suburb, is one of my favorite things about A Thief In The Night. It’s emblematic of the movie’s attempts to create genre thrills (writer-producer Russell S. Doughten Jr. had a brief career in B-movies) while getting as much screen time as possible out of its meager resources, and in the process producing something very different from suspense or production value.
The ’70s middle-American ordinariness of A Thief In The Night is, ironically, part of what prevents it from coming across as completely literal. It’s not a long film, running less than 70 minutes, but it takes more a full 40 minutes before the rapture actually happens, the disappearance of the true Christians signaled through shots of an idling lawnmower, a kitchen mixer over-running with foamy batter, and—my personal favorite—a “The End Is Near” sign left unfinished. Before, it follows the example of countless weird, locally produced American cheapies from the preceding two decades by wasting time with scenes at carnivals, scenes on speedboats, and shots of helicopters and small prop planes taking off and landing. Faces of young local actors glisten with thin layers of sweat as they nod through circular conversations about God and dating. The awkwardness is completely endearing.
And then out comes a paranoid vision of a godless new world order, filmed in public libraries and tiny county jail. The signs are hand-lettered and the Mark Of The Beast is tattooed into the foreheads of the unsuspecting with what is very clearly a barber’s electric clipper. Throughout the film, director Donald W. Thompson links scenes through visual matches. It gets to the point where the movie almost seems to be poking fun at itself. One typical early sequence goes like this: a pig-tailed young woman declares, “I feel like if I had wings I could fly,” only to have her friend respond, “But you don’t need wings now, Jenny,” with cryptic enthusiasm; an immediate cut to a close-up of a helicopter rotor spinning, which zooms out as the helicopter takes off, until it becomes smaller and smaller against the sky; dissolve to a shot of a cricket, positioned center-frame like the helicopter, against an out-of-focus background that could be a sky, but which turns out to be kitchen window as a rolled-up magazine comes swatting down.
Thompson was pathologically obsessed with maintaining eye lines, a visual signature that is almost poignant in its lack of artistic ambition; in one scene where three young women discuss their boyfriends while sitting around a picnic table, an awkwardly placed box of Ritz crackers appears in every shot to ensure that the audience knows exactly which direction each character is looking. In fact, Thompson is so fixated on this one mark of professionalism that he disregards how the resulting frames might be read. Oriented around the backs of characters’ heads—or, in one memorable moment, through the crook of a nurse’s arm—these compositions are sometimes ominous or sultry, even when the characters are talking about religion. A Thief In The Night is meant to be taken at face value, and yet it creates every condition to suggest subconscious origins. It even has an “It was all a dream… or was it?” framing device, beginning and ending with a shot of a nightstand. The final title card, by the way, is an all-time great: “The End… Is Near!”
Next guest: The great French director Jean Renoir made one early attempt at a pure crime movie: Night At The Crossroads, an atmospheric adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel that may qualify as the earliest example of film noir.