A version of this essay originally appeared in Electric Sheep‘s anthology, The End (2011), and in Czech and German in Umelec (2012).
For the longest time, I could only recall two movies ever giving me nightmares. That shot in Carry on Screaming! (1966) when Oddbod shuffles over the glass-tiled ceiling of the underground conveniences of Dan Dann the lavatory man (hey, I was four). And Apaches, the notorious Public Information film about the dangers of playing on farms. Specifically, the p.o.v. of the kid drowning in a slurry pit. I was nine. And this shot does not actually exist.
But last summer I discovered that for 30 years I have repressed the memory of a film that absolutely terrified me. You see, I managed to get my hands on a copy of Donald W Thompson’s Christian apocalyptic A Thief in the Night (1972).
And it all came flooding back.
The church hall. The haranguing evangelist. The emotional manipulation.
The break from this horrorshow for a film that I thought might offer some respite.
I was wrong…
The Bible says that Jesus will return ‘as a thief in the night’. This does not mean that he will be in top hat, tails and domino mask, but that his reappearance will happen when least expected. Nevertheless, for a century and a half, ‘dispensationalist’ Protestants have, with a remarkable blend of dogmatism and imagination, produced interpretations of biblical prophecy that ‘prove’ The End Is Nigh. Fictionalised versions go back at least as far as RH Benson’s 1907 novel The Lord of the World, in which a beleaguered pope organises secret resistance to an American antichrist, but this predominantly Protestant genre is much more likely to identify the antichrist with Europe and the Vatican.
In the 1970s, Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, a pop-explication of biblical prophecy, sold 28 million copies, prompting similar volumes and fictional treatments to proliferate, such as Stanley A Ellisen’s ‘non-fiction’ Biography of a Great Planet and Carol Balizet’s novel The Seven Last Years. Hollywood knows a bandwagon when it sees one. While The Omen was busy grossing $60 million, a couple of low-budget, Christian filmmakers were quietly toiling away in Iowa to scare the crap out of me.
Thompson’s apocalyptic quartet – A Thief in the Night is followed by A Sound of Thunder (1978), Image of the Beast (1980) and The Prodigal Planet (1983) – starts with the Rapture, when True Believers are whisked up into heaven. Anyone who has not been Born Again is Left Behind. The films chart the ensuing seven years of Tribulation as the antichrist rises to global power, and end as the battle of Armageddon kicks off. They were produced by Russell S Doughten, Jr, who started out making The Blob (1958) for the secular division of a Christian production company. After a fitful, marginal Hollywood career, he returned to his native Iowa, where since 1972 his companies have produced 20 or so issue-orientated, intentionally didactic, evangelical feature films. His website boasts: ‘Over 6 million have come to Christ through our motion pictures.’ My anecdotal evidence is every bit as dodgy as his statistics, but something of the under-the-radar reach of these films is surely indicated by the fact that I was subjected to one of them in the late 1970s.
By stick-in-the-mud Methodists.
A Thief in the Night begins with a dark screen and a ticking clock. Patty wakes up in an empty bed. The radio announces that 25 minutes earlier millions of people suddenly disappeared from all around the world. She staggers into the bathroom, in search of her husband Jim, but finds only his razor. The Rapture has happened.
The film goes back to before Patty and Jim started dating. As college-age kids, their summer of fun involves Des Moines’ zaniest spots: a lake, a carnival, a youth centre where an earnest young evangelist propounds biblical prophecy to the folk-rock stylings of The Fishmarket Combo. While her friend Diane encourages Patty to hang out with boys, another, Jenny, is born again. Time passes, couples form. Not particularly stylish Iowans sport 70s fashions and hairstyles and British-looking teeth. They sit around talking about Jesus and stuff.
One day, Jim is bitten by a cobra. There is no anti-venom. His only hope is a blood transfusion from a snake farmer who has survived similar attacks. While Jenny prays, cross-cutting suggests that divine intervention gets the snake farmer’s plane there in time. Months later, being reminded of this ‘miracle’ is enough to persuade Jim to be born again.
The very next morning, Patty wakes up in an empty bed…
The evil new world government (the United Nations Imperium of Total Emergency) replaces money with a credit system that requires people to be tattooed on the forehead or the hand with a pattern of zeroes and ones – 666, the Mark of the Beast, but in binary so no one will know that UNITE represents the forces of Satan. Refuseniks are ‘subject to arrest and prolonged inconvenience’.
UNITE are after Patty because of her (belated) faith in Jesus. She flees town, making it to the dam, where Diane and her husband will pick her up and rescue her. But wait! They both bear the Mark of the Beast!
Patty backs away, falls from the dam…
And wakes up in an empty bed…
The clock is ticking.
A Distant Thunder follows Patty’s experience of the Tribulation, and ends with her strapped to a UNITE guillotine for refusing the tattoo. Image of the Beast opens with a fabulously extended revision of her death. Before the executioner can do his job, the skies blacken and an earthquake sends everyone running. She is left strapped to the guillotine, face up, struggling to untie her bonds as the tremors gradually loosen the catch holding the blade in place.
The narrative focus shifts to David, who is plotting to disrupt UNITE’s computer system. He is played by William Wellmann, Jr, who has more acting credits than the entire cast of the four movies put together, and even contributes ‘additional story material’ to The Prodigal Planet, the longest and dullest of the series, an even poorer man’s Damnation Alley (1977).
Although the later films more closely approach professional norms, the first two remain the most intriguing. In them, Thompson’s grasp of cinematic possibilities is strongest. This is most evident in the claustrophobic narrative structure that entraps Patty, and in A Thief in the Night’s long-lensed shot in which she runs – seemingly forever – towards the camera to Fishmarket Combo’s refrain, ‘You’ve been left behind’. And they are also the films in which there is the greatest gulf – often hilarious – between Thompson’s cinematic smarts and what the budget will permit. There is the music ripping off the Where Eagles Dare theme (1968), used without attention to aptness or effect; the weird associative editing (on being born again, Jenny says she feels like she can fly; cut to the carnival’s helicopter, flying; cut to a fly on a kitchen window that Patty swats); the horror set-ups without pay-offs (in A Sound of Thunder, Patty finds Grandma’s house unlocked, walks up dark, Dutch-angled stairs, pushes open Grandma’s bedroom door and screams in terror – only for the reverse shot to reveal a phone that is off the hook since Grandma was Raptured mid-call).
And there is the sequence in A Thief in the Night that begins with a preacher’s anecdote about a woman who woke up thinking the Rapture had happened because her husband had gone downstairs to get a drink. The camera zooms in over the congregation onto the face of the young Sandy. She returns home, but no one is there. She calls and calls. No reply. A rapid montage of growing panic … and then her sister and mother suddenly appear. They are fine. But it looks a lot like a prank gone wrong. And it terrorises Sandy into being born again.
While such moments (now) seem funny rather than scary, one sequence in The Prodigal Planet remains truly – if unintentionally – horrific. All attempts to get the imprisoned David to betray fellow hacker Cathy have failed. UNITE personnel threaten to harm her four-year-old son, Billy, if David won’t speak up. He hears someone being taken to be executed, the whirr-thunk of the guillotine blade. Through his window bars, he sees Billy’s red balloon drifting into the sky.
But wait! Billy is OK!
He’s not been executed. He gave his balloon to that nice lady, Leslie, who told him all about Jesus, and it is she who was guillotined. David – apparently forgetting that Leslie is his sweetheart – is relieved. He doesn’t have to betray Cathy. And thanks to Leslie, Billy was born again, so now it’s perfectly alright for UNITE to decapitate him if they want to.
Since the 1970s, such fiction has become commonplace. Among others, Pat Robertson, who once campaigned to become the Republican Presidential candidate, reputedly intending to launch a nuclear war so as to prompt the Second Coming, wrote The End of the Age; and Hal Lindsey, who spent 2008 warning voters that Barack Obama might be the antichrist, gave us Blood Moon. Films include Years of the Beast (1981), Vanished (1998), The Moment After (1999), The Omega Code (1999), Gone (2002) and Six: The Mark Unleashed (2004), some of them with sequels. The greatest commercial success has been Tim LaHaye and Jerry B Jenkins’s 16-book Left Behind series (1995-2007), selling over 60 million copies. Franchised spin-offs include nearly 50 other novels, mostly for teenagers, 10 graphic novels, three video games and three movies. Typical of these works’ smug spite is the defence offered when the video game Left Behind: Eternal Forces was criticised for promoting violence against non-Christians: it was claimed that the game taught pacifism because if the player chooses to shoot rather than convert a non-believer, he must pause to pray in order to regain lost ‘spirit points’.
Still, it’s nice to see Christians treating prayer as a penalty.
And there is an option to play on the antichrist’s side.
Clearly a lot of money can be made from apocalyptic Christianity, so I want to pitch my own End Times movie. The Rapture does not take everyone who expects to be swept up, just the downtrodden of the Earth who deserve to be somewhere better. No misogynists or homopobes or white supremacists. No advocates of the silver ring thing or the Twilight franchise. None of those who think there is a liberal media, and sometimes suspect even Fox News is part of it. The Christian right, its ranks undepleted, begins to talk about the False Rapture (seriously, google Project Enoch) and precipitates the world into war.
The second act, set some time later, has a kind of Red Dawn (1984) scenario. A handful of decent people fighting the fundamentalist Army of God. Jesus returns and joins the resistance. Oh, and Jesus is a girl. Of mixed race and ambiguous sexuality. A dark-skinned Tank Girl who sounds like Holly Hunter playing white trash. Christian Bale is her intense dad and says intense dad-like things: ‘No daughter of mine is going out to battle the forces of evil dressed like that! And be home by midnight.’
Jesus is foul-mouthed and loves making lines from the Bible her own. There’s this scene in which the Army of God destroy the resistance headquarters, leaving the barely alive Bale mangled in the rubble. And she faces them down: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life, motherfuckers’ – ch-chunk of pump-action shotgun being pumped – ‘and no one gets to my dad except through me’.
The third act is still a bit hazy, but Jesus teams up with the antichrist to overthrow both God and the devil.
Though I can leave it open for a sequel…