Thursday, December 29, 2022

Thief in the Night, A (1973)

Directed by:
Donald W. Thompson

Like it or not, this Christian propaganda film is a milestone in independent cinema. Shot in Iowa for around 60,000 dollars, it went on to make millions... and it didn't even have to play in theaters or on TV to accomplish that feat! Instead, the filmmakers made most of their profit touring churches with the film, then sat back and collected their tax exempt windfall in the form of “love donations.” As soon as the video revolution came around, the film was then self-distributed on VHS and sold like hotcakes at both churches and Christian book stores. Legions, and we're talking millions and millions here, of young children were shown this film in church, their bible study classes, youth groups, Christian schools or at home. Apparently it was a standard in Pentecostal and Baptist churches and many evangelicals even owned a personal copy so they could sit back, relax, grab some popcorn and enjoy watching the end of civilization in the comfort of their own home. The film and its subsequent three (!) sequels were also later frequently run on religious cable networks in between segments of the hosts trying to con granny into signing her social security check over to them. It's hard to tell how much money they made off this thing!

The masterminds behind it all were director Donald W. Thompson and producer Russell S. Doughten Jr.. Thompson had sharpened his skills making military propaganda and industrial films. Doughten had formed his own production company and was an associate producer of the drive-in classic The Blob (1958) before ditching Hollywood to go the independent film route. The two men eventually joined forces and created their own production company: Mark IV Pictures Incorporated. The company would go on to produce over a dozen Christian-themed features.

Patty Myers (Patty Dunning) awakens in her bed to a radio news broadcast that "literally thousands, perhaps millions" of people have miraculously disappeared off the face of the Earth. Has an alien force declared war on our planet, or is it the Rapture as prophesied in the bible? Do you even need to ask? The kicker is that Patty is a Christian. She goes to church almost every week, reads the bible, tries to follow the Ten Commandments and tries to help people who are in need. So why was she among those that were left behind? Well, because she was being a wee bit flaky trying to enjoy her teenage years, then a bit preoccupied by her recent marriage, and had yet to officially dedicate her entire being to God. That means how good of a person she'd been is now a moot point and she deserves to be tormented, punished and to rot in hell for all eternity!

A flashback reveals how poor Patty got into her current predicament. She'd been hanging out with two girls from a Christian teen center / summer camp. First, there's Diane (Maryann Rachford). She wears miniskirts, flirts with boys, likes to have fun (God forbid) and is in no hurry to be saved. And then there's Jenny (Colleen Niday), an uptight, self-righteous "golly gee" type who's recently given herself wholly to the lord ("I want you to live in me! Take my life, dear God!") and now can't shut up about it. A guy from her church warns her that now, as a Christian, she has a target on her back and Satan will do everything in his power to try to dissuade her from her faith. She's put to the test during a water skiing trip when Satan, oops, I mean Diane, tries to engage her in sex talk and Jenny is forced to put her foot down ("I just don't want to hear that kind of talk!")

After Diane and Patty meet two guys - Jim (Mike Niday), who's studying to become a veterinarian and works at a zoo, and Jerry (Thom Rachford), an ambulance attendant studying to become a doctor - at a carnival, Patty attempts to tell her newly-converted friend the good news in a hilarious exchange that goes as follows: Patty: "We met a couple of really nice guys!" / Jenny: "That's not too bad. I met Christ!" / Patty: "What?" / Jenny: "I met Jesus Christ! I'm a Christian now!" / Patty: "Well that's great Jenny, I hope it works out well for ya."

As is later revealed, part of the problem is that Patty attends a church with a rather permissive reverend (Doughten) who urges his congregation to (gasp!) engage in critical thinking, while Jenny attends a doom-and-gloom church with a pastor (Clarence Balmer) who's constantly going on about the end times and Satan. As a result, Jenny's leader has prepared her for what's to come, while Patty's has not. After all, the spirit of God is the only thing standing between us and the full force of evil taking over the planet. After the believers go, God will too, leaving behind a fascist Orwellian world where evil will flourish under the eye of the Antichrist. 

This 5-decade-old movie theorizes that Jesus will "probably" be back "within the next 30 years," claims that they are no doubt currently in the end times (... 50 years ago) and that the Antichrist may have already infiltrated our government (again... 50 years ago). I'd imagine waiting around for half a century to get zapped into heaven only to just die of some boring old disease like everyone else must be very disappointing for some of these folks.

After that lengthy flashback (which takes up half of the running time), we finally make it back to post-Rapture present day. Radio and TV broadcasts tell of traffic jams, airplanes crashes and other things we're never shown and Patty's new hubby Jim, who dedicated his life to God after surviving a cobra bite, is now also gone. 

The evil United Nations are fast to create an organization called U.N.I.T.E., which stands for the United Nations Imperium of Total Emergency. The use of imperium, meaning "supreme power or absolute dominion," gives you a good idea of where this is headed. For the record, the conspiratorial, paranoid hatred of the UN (and globalization) by the evangelical community seems to stem from the belief that during the end times a one-world organization will form with the sole purpose of enslaving mankind. Many evangelicals believe that organization to be the UN, who've been a bit slow at the "enslaving us all" bit seeing how they've been around about 80 years now and have done nothing of the sort, though I suppose that's not a preposterous belief for people who've spent their whole life anxiously waiting around to get finger-snapped into the great beyond.

U.N.I.T.E. immediately set up "identification centers" where "true citizens" go to be permanently branded with a strange symbol that turns out to be a "computer readout" of a 666. Soon, "Citizen's Only" signs start popping up on store windows. One must show the mark of the beast, which functions as a "super evil credit card," or else be denied basic services. Those who don't go along with the rules of this new world are then branded traitors and hunted down by gestapo-like soldiers in vans. Refusing to get her 666 tat, Patty finds herself being arrested and thrown in jail ("You are one of those, uh, religious people, aren't you?"). After they murder her guilt-stricken former reverend, she manages to escape; occasionally bumping into seemingly-lobotomized townsfolk while being chased around Des Moines by U.N.I.T.E. agents in vans and helicopters in scenes clearly inspired by Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

As for the purpose of this film, that much is obvious: To traumatize, frighten and indoctrinate impressionable young kids right into Jesus' loving arms forever! Hilariously, this movie even blatantly outlines its intentions during a scene when a young girl learns about Rapture during a sermon and is later seen at home having a shrieking meltdown when she can't find her family, fearing God had taken them away and left her. That turns out to be the incentive little Suzy needed to finally welcome Jesus into her heart. Now that she's been fear-porned into a life of obedience and "servitude," she will no doubt spend the rest of her life forking over significant amounts of cash to people like these filmmakers, or gazillionaire celebrity pastors, who can then put the money to good use buying yachts, private jets, limousines, gold-plated toilets, ten vacation homes and jewelry for their mistresses.

Even accepting the film on its own terms, which I always try to do, this is about as heavy-handed as it gets. The acting, dialogue and editing are all terrible, the material is flatly presented and it's poorly-made in just about every regard... yet that's hardly the worst of the film's transgressions. Much worse is watching the sheer audacity of a bunch of privileged, middle class suburban Christians attempting to fetishize their supposed persecution by comparing themselves to pre-Civil Rights Era black Americans (who were victim to white "Christian" slavery, suppression, terrorism and murder for literally centuries) and Jews during the Holocaust. Gotta love when a group with a long history of persecuting others then turn around and try to play the victim.

That said, knowing this persuasive piece of propaganda somehow worked its no budget spell on countless people over the years makes it an interesting curio if nothing else. Doughten, who did not get raptured and passed away from renal failure in 2013, made the claim that hundreds of millions had seen his film, which probably isn't much an exaggeration knowing how the church circuit operates. It's also true that what he and Thompson, who left this world the old-fashioned way in 2019 and was also not raptured, accomplished was not only extremely influential when it comes to shaping Christian entertainment but also left its mark on fundamentalist culture in general. You'll either believe this, laugh at this or be depressed by this and find it difficult to enjoy knowing the real-world damage this kind of stuff causes.

On the plus side, the gloomy theme song "I Wish We'd All Been Ready," featuring uplifting lyrics about guns, war, dying children, demons and those who are "left behind" getting "trampled on the floor," is a keeper. It's by a Christian band called "The Fishmarket Combo," a sort of doomsridden, manic-depressive Partridge Family, and was written and composed by Larry Norman, who's considered one of the fathers of Christian rock music.

Thief and its sequels; 1978's A DISTANT THUNDER, 1981's IMAGE OF THE BEAST and 1983's The Prodigal Planet, are considered the primary influence behind the hit Left Behind multimedia franchise, which has, to date, spawned sixteen novels, seven spin-off novels, forty kids novellas, a series of graphic novels, video games and six films, including four indie features, a spin-off film and a big budget Hollywood reboot starring Nicolas Cage. Who knew encouraging millions to wallow in their own impending doom could be such a cash cow?

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