With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.
Writing about the A Thief In The Night series as an outsider to Christianity, generally and specifically without prior knowledge of very particular theological ideas about the Rapture, is a crash course in histories that seem to come from a previously hidden dimension. That’s a viewer bias problem, not the films’ own: It’s estimated over 300 million people have seen the first installment, so for many this is home turf. But evangelical Rapture-based theology is complex, often willfully arcane in its terminology, and outright strange. The same goes for this tetralogy. The four films in the series, which came out between 1972 and 1983, follow a basic through-line anyone familiar with the concept of the Rapture can follow: 144,000 Christian souls disappear, having gone up to Heaven. Calamities promptly set in, fostering the rise of a one-world government led by the Antichrist (in this case, the unprepossessingly named “Brother Christopher”). Calling itself U.N.I.T.E., the new authority orders all to have a bar code tattooed on their forehead or hands; this is the mark of the beast, which believers must avoid. Throughout all four films, the narrative swings between persecution and proselytization. None of the installments are good, but they’re certainly fascinatingly clear expressions of a worldview and its doctrinal underpinnings.
At a succinct 68 minutes, 1972’s A Thief in the Night (which our own Ignatiy Vishnevetsky recently wrote about) is closer in feel to the paranoid likes of Invaders From Mars or a particularly torpid episode of The Twilight Zone than modern Christian fare like God’s Not Dead. The main subject, Patty (Patty Dunning), goes to church but hasn’t been reborn in Christ. She hangs out with two girls: one is born again in time to go up to heaven, while the other’s sneering at the whole idea leaves her predictably stranded. Prior to the Rapture, there’s running-time padding of both the secular kind (the girls and their beaus go Jet Ski-ing and laugh in the sunshine while upbeat music plays) and of a more determinedly religious bent. Many, many verses are cited with a thumping lack of urgency; questions about particulars are answered with nothing but. The queries are the same and are repeated many times throughout all four films: Why aren’t good works and regular church attendance enough? Why would God want to punish so many people? What happens if you don’t accept Jesus in time? The film’s most effectively nightmarish images come during the Rapture itself—a stick of butter dropped on a driveway by a raptured girl, a cake beater still twirling with no one to operate it—and the Body Snatchers-esque finale, in which Patty is chased down the daylight streets of Des Moines by a van, shot in sinisterly canted angles from above. The film is designed to scare the daylights out of potential converts, and many of the film’s viewers (including Marilyn Manson!) have testified that it had the desired effect.
The film was the brainchild of the very devout Russell Doughten Jr., who’d gone to Hollywood to learn production techniques he could use to make effective Christian films, working as a producer on The Blob, among others. After a few more years of low-budget toiling, Doughten concluded Hollywood was the wrong place for his efforts and set up shop in Des Moines. His creative partner on all four films, director Donald W. Thompson, had only been born-again for six months when he wrote the screenplay for the first film.
Doughten is in all four films as Reverend Matthew Turner, a preacher who didn’t take either being born again or the Rapture seriously, and pays by being left behind. It’s a part that mirrors Doughten’s own self-described spiritual journey to accepting the concept of the Rapture (one which is, to put it mildly, not accepted by all Christians). “When I was a young Christian, I was frightened of the prophecies in Scripture,” he recalled. “I could only look at them as figurative … but after I’d been a Christian three or four years, I began to get drawn into these things, and I began to look into the prophetic writings and decided that if the Lord is really sincere about these things, then what’s coming is absolutely staggering.” Part of Doughten’s studies included looking at the extremely detailed timeline charts of the Rapture created by 19th-century theologian Clarence Larkin (here’s a representative one). In the films, Reverend Turner—having previously preached against the literal gospel in favor of a defanged Christianity, and hence ending up left behind—regularly breaks out the chart to provide mind-numbingly detailed expositions of the seven trumpets, the seven drums, and the various other periods that constitute a whole world of closed study unto themselves. This chart is the films’ biggest fetish object, most strikingly presented in part three, Image Of The Beast (1981), as a massive floor-to-ceiling dropdown chart.
A Thief In The Night ends with the big reveal that it was all a dream, but still a prophetic dream: Patty wakes up to find that her husband has indeed been raptured. 1978’s A Distant Thunder is something like a parallel universe variation on the first film, with Patty trying to avoid the mistakes made during her dream. In the first film, she’s betrayed by faithless friends to U.N.I.T.E., who meet her at a railroad bridge from which she ultimately falls into the water; she repeatedly questions these (false?) friends and avoids the bridge in the second film. The effect is a little dizzying, as if Richard Kelly had broken into the writers’ room and added some speculative quantum physics to the mix, with Patty trying to navigate a sort of parallel universe redo. The climax is an honest to goodness car chase, sort of: The cars never collide or do anything particularly dangerous and speed is at a minimum. However, a house is destroyed when a car crashes into it, and it’s strangely touching to see how cheap its construction is: the slats and framing snap off at clean angles. This is a structure built only to be destroyed.
The film ends with Patty on the guillotine, U.N.I.T.E.’s execution device of choice (the generally reactionary tone draws a straight line back to 18th-century tut-tut-ing over the French Revolution). After Image Of The Beast’s opening credits, her neck’s still on the line, but we’ve clearly leaped forward a few years, with the traditional orchestral-based score of films past traded in for creepy John Carpenter synths (if you’re searching for obscure sampling options, this is worth a look). As she’s about to be executed, the skies darken and Patty loses her convictions, begging for the mark. What follows is very Final Destination, a series of excruciating shots back and forth between terrified Patty and the blade slowly becoming looser and looser. Patty gets chopped; God is not amused by her last-second backsliding. Our replacement hero is David Michaels (William Wellman Jr.), a computer programmer who escapes U.N.I.T.E., joining an underground group of rebels.
As opening credits shots of infinite monitors and keyboards indicate, the back half of the Thief series shifts its paranoia from globalism broadly to computers specifically. The computer, a character definitively announces, “is the new Golden Calf,” and Brother Christopher—whose regular broadcasts have him sitting enthroned in a room with pink walls in super-televangelical style—announces unambiguously that they’ll use this “satanic” device to wage war against God. (It’s also at this point in the series that U.N.I.T.E.’s agenda seems seriously misguided: They’re going to “fight God,” who they acknowledge is a being that exists, with computers and missiles?) When David attends a “church” service, he finds a U.N.I.T.E. pastor explaining to his flock how the corporations they’ve collectively invested in can allow them to profit from the defeat of Israel (!), which is probably going to be invaded by Russia because it’s the Cold War. This is a decidedly more ’80s installment, though it still makes time to hang out with Father Turner. Movies of this kind are supposed to provide some kind of purely enjoyable sequence, a moment away from dogma just to ease the pall. This film’s idea of a big thrill is watching a child play with his chickens for extended periods of time.
1983’s The Prodigal Planet is many ways the most consistently wild installment. It’s also, regrettably, by far the longest. All the other films clocked in at under 100 minutes, while this one sprawls out to 128. It begins with a bang: Russian-accented missile operators, speaking in English for our convenience, detonate the big one. The movie is not afraid to liberally deploy mushroom clouds to press home the point, in a way that’s gratuitous and laughable but no less shocking for that. With the U.S. now suffering from fallout, a change of scenery is indicated for David, who slowly makes his way down to New Mexico with a new gang of left-behind companions. Improbably, the Russians’ first target was the Midwest: “Omaha was the first place they hit,” it’s announced, a cue for those safe in the heartland to share in an inexplicable sense that really they’re the ones at the front lines of whatever threat stares down America. Scientist Linda (Lynda Beatie) feels terribly guilty about her role in the disaster: She studied radiology at Stanford (beware the godless Ivy League elites!), which allows her to provide oddly specific exposition about radiation to explain why the characters are or aren’t safe at any given time, or why there are intact cars on the street next to skeletons.
In this film, David receives a document that needs to be decoded via Christian numerology; within it is the key to programming a piece of music that, if broadcast to U.N.I.T.E.’s computers, will destroy them. (If you’ve seen Aloha, the premise is oddly kind of like the climax of that.) His cross-country trip to New Mexico is fueled in part by decoding a part of the paper that translates into “a rock shaped like a church.” They find it at Red Rock National Park, their journey obstructed by both pursuit from U.N.I.T.E. forces and now-deformed mutants wearing Benedictine cowls for the purpose, they say, of staying cool (“like the Arabs”). David is a man literally driven by a vision, and the film starts to feel like a determined attempt to make the very worst possible version of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
If The Prodigal Planet weren’t so interminably long, it might be recommendable as a cult object. Terri Lynn Hall, whose only other credit was another Doughten project, plays Linda’s bratty teen daughter Connie and has a few moments of inexplicable eccentricity that liven things up: Trying on clothes in a post-apocalyptic department store, she busts into robot dance moves for no reason. David picks up a mutant who means no harm, and that ticks her off too. (“Big deal. I find a boy and he’s got a face like a burned marshmallow.”) There are actual stunts—a car gets hit by a train!—and, bizarrely, a disco version of the William Tell Overture that’s brought back over and over.
All the movies have some good unintentional laughs, though not enough to justify sitting through them. There are some other things to treasure, like the performance of Thom Rachford, who plays the main villain (“Jerry”) in all four films. He sports a mustache that’s ever changeable but still more porn star than ministerial; in the first film, his pick-up technique inexplicably involves doing a Jimmy Stewart impersonation. Such inexplicable quirks and bits of personality that have nothing to do with the dreary agenda at hand are endearing. Ultimately, though, the films are probably most edifying as expressions of a very dour mentality that combines dogmatism with a persecution complex completely unrelated to actual world events. Rapture movies aren’t as hot now as they used to be—the recent Nicolas Cage-starring remake of Left Behind was a bomb—but films like God’s Not Dead and Persecuted still push the message that white, God-fearing Americans are in a state of constant peril, rapture or no. It’s a very short line from there to the unjustified paranoia-stoking of Dinesh D’Souza and Breitbart. And from there it’s an even shorter leap to the current White House.
1. Image Of The Beast (1981)
2. The Prodigal Planet (1983)
3. A Thief In The Night (1972)
4. A Distant Thunder (1978)