Friday, December 30, 2022

Image of the Beast (1981)

... aka: Thief in the Night III: Image of the Beast, A

Directed by:
Donald W. Thompson

A THIEF IN THE NIGHT (1973) and A DISTANT THUNDER (1978) both centered around Patty Myers (Patty Dunning), a young woman trying to survive and maintain her faith in a post-Rapture world where all True Christians™ have been swept away to heaven, leaving behind only a motley assortment of non-Christians and pseudo-Christians who hadn't yet gotten around to letting Jesus fully into their heart. Denied immediate entry into heaven for daring to be inquisitive, and losing her devout husband and most of her friends in the process, Patty and the rest of humankind were then thrust into an end-times scenario that included the rise of the Antichrist, 1984-style mass brainwashing campaigns, resource hoarding, evil military forces roaming the streets determined to collect souls for Satan, a flurry of natural disasters involving storms, hurricanes, drought, floods, earthquakes and more. 

In this Godless new world, being a Christian, and thus refusing to be perma-stamped with a mark of the beast "identification" symbol on either the back of your hand or your forehead, is basically a death sentence. Thunder concluded with Patty and several of her uncooperative friends being kidnapped, blindfolded and led outside, where they were faced with the option of either renouncing their faith or losing their heads.

After several are executed, including her roommate, Patty is led to the guillotine and then given the ultimatum. Her now dark-sided "friends," Jerry (Thom Rachford + his fancy mustache), Diane (Maryann Rachford) and Sandy (Sandy Stevens), all of whom have betrayed her at least once previously, try to convince her to take the mark. Initially refusing to answer one way or another, Patty is strapped down but then gets scared and has a last second change of heart: "I want the mark! I want the mark!" But God has other plans. He causes the sky to grow dark, powerful winds to blow and the ground to crack wide open, sending the executioners scurrying. As opposed to allowing Patty to sell her soul for a few more years on Earth, God sends the guillotine blade down on her himself.

With our series heroine out of the way in the first ten minutes, we're then introduced to some new folks. Leslie (Wenda Shereos), who managed to escape her execution because of all of the chaos, ducks into an abandoned building, where she finds Kathy Taylor (Susan Plumb) and David Michaels (William Wellman Jr.) already hiding out. Kathy was a Sunday school teacher and computer analyst whose Christianier-than-her husband was raptured, leaving her to care for their "thwee"-year-old son, Billy. Leslie made the mistake of thinking that helping handicapped kids, believing in God and regularly attending church meant she was a good Christian. Wrong! "When we say I, I did this and I did that, like I did, well, it only proves that we left out the only thing that really matters!," she explains.

So let that be a lesson, folks. You're really just wasting your time being a halfway decent person who helps others and contributes positive things to society in your earthly existence. Might as well just be a lying, thieving, greedy, abusive, adulterous, murderous, kitten-kicking, puppy-punching, rainbow-hating asshole. None of it really matters so long as you let Jesus into your heart at some point!

Attempting to flee, David commandeers a jeep and the three speed through the country. Leslie ends up getting shot. Incorrectly thinking she's been killed, David drags her body off into the woods and leaves it. The following day, David and Kathy stumble across scruffy Reverend Michael Turner (co-writer / executive producer Russell S. Doughten Jr.). Now living the life of a hermit in an abandoned barn, Michael's been able to sustain himself all this time using just two hens for eggs, a goat for milk and an apple tree. Pretty well, too, I might add, considering the pot belly.

Other than the fact he also financed the film and likely wanted to be put front and center, Doughy is around mostly to cover the same ground that was already covered in the first two films. This time he provides new / additional information about the seven "Trumpet plagues" and makes outlandish and patently untrue claims like China having "200 million horses" (!) in the late 70s. (I actually looked this up and there were an estimated 11.5 million horses in China in the late 70s... but who's counting!) Doughten is also given a huge illustrated end times chart that covers an entire barn wall; pointing at various "facts" as he goes like some kind of mad professor. You ever see a movie about a schizophrenic where they cover entire rooms with drawings and photos and write a bunch of letters and numbers and math equations all over the place and then draw lines everywhere to connect everything? Yeah, that.

At this point in the film, we're three years into Tribulation. There's been a "one-world" global government firmly established and a singular "world church," described as a "sin-infested humanistic body" and compared to a "great prostitute" (as opposed to a terrible one?) by Rev. Turner. Saints are being killed and then resurrected by demonic possession. Christians are being executed all over the world at an alarming rate, which has driven most underground. Small factions of rebels still exist and "144,000 Israeli missionaries" are going around trying their best to save souls. I realize some of this sounds kind of amazing, but they don't actually show anything. This is information relayed to us via radio and TV broadcasts and endless babble.

This tries to get all early 80s high tech with talk of code-breaking, computers being the "new golden calf," creating counterfeit "marks" to fool authorities, passages from a book called "Computer Prophecies" and such. David (using the identity of dead U.N.I.T.E. guard "Pat Ryan") and Kathy (going by the name "Jodie") are able to integrate themselves back into society using their fake IDs and get involved with Jerry and Diane (uh oh), who now claim to belong to a top secret organization called Believers Underground Movement Squad, or B.U.M.S. (!) for short. Despite all that's been going on, dumbbell Kathy thinks UFOs (!) are responsible for the current state of the world. She also tries to hit on David and gets rejected when he tells her she should instead worry about "a relationship with Jesus Christ." In actuality, he hasn't been able to forget Leslie who, unbeknownst to him, actually survived her gunshot wound and has been nursed back to health by an old X-tian farm couple.

This is slightly better acted than the first two due to their casting of a couple of people who actually had prior acting experience. Wellman, son of Oscar-winning writer / director William A. Wellman (1938's A Star is Born), who'd done decidedly non-Christian film work (Macumba Love, Black Caesar, IT'S ALIVE...) up until now, is OK in the lead. Ditto for his two female co-stars and a couple of others. Still, it's not enough to elevate the film. If anything, this is actually worse than the first two. Scratch that, it is actually worse.

The first ten minutes are solid, including a surprisingly suspenseful guillotine scene, but the entire mid-section is one talky, preachy, proselytizing, dull, insufferable slog. What little bit of action there is here is horribly staged, the introduced tech elements, probably here to make this feel more brainy and "scientific" (fail), go absolutely nowhere and the human interest stories all fall flat. As for the "horrifying" end of the world stuff, it consists mainly of someone squirting red food coloring into a stream and stock footage of forest fires and atomic blasts. This even manages to throw in a giant insectoid monster but disappoints yet again by only showing its leg and then a shadow of said leg.

There's lots of batshit crazy conspiratorial talk that could only come from truly deranged minds, none funnier than the film theorizing that Satan will be teaming up with the United Nations and global corporations to send Russian military forces (!?) to defeat Israel (!) and then steal all of their oil (!!) That's especially hilarious considering American evangelicals, Putin, Israel and corporate interests are pretty much all aligned these days. And I seriously doubt the UN and Russia are going to be seeing eye to eye anytime soon, let alone conspiring together on something. And, naturally, this is all really the fault of "the Jews" for blindly worshiping and helping to facilitate the rise of the Antichrist. (Seeing the corporate fat cats and wholly-corrupt politicians the evangelical community has been bowing down to recently, I wouldn't be so sure of that!) The film then proclaims that the Jewish community will only realize the error of their ways as their "groaning spirits" are descending to hell to be tortured for the rest of eternity. Lovely.

So then it comes as no surprise that the big "guest star" here is former Hollywood "beefcake" actor Ty Hardin, whose career started to flounder shortly after his four seasons on the western Bronco (a gig he reportedly got from pal John Wayne pulling some strings for him) concluded. In the mid-70s when the film and TV offers were drying up, Hardin became heavily involved with radical right wing politics both as member of the militia group The Arizona Patriots, an Aryan Nation affiliate known for stockpiling illegal weapons and distributing anti-Semitic literature, and as an extremist fundamentalist preacher who - at one time - ran his own ministry and was sometimes featured on the Christian cable network TBN (Trinity Broadcasting Network).

Hardin (who passed away in 2017) used to have his own website / blog (since taken down, though archived), where he went on various bizarre rants. He called for an armed takeover of the government by “Christian patriots,” railed against “world globalists” and espoused views that were anti- government, immigrant, Catholic, Jew (referring to them as “sub-humans”), gay (he thought same sex unions would destroy “the sanctity of marriage” despite being married eight times himself) and black (he refused to refer to Barack Obama by name but instead as “our Black President”). I guess what I'm really trying to say is he fits right into this particular world in his brief role as a missionary giving a sermon in a papier-mâché cave.

Self-distributed on VHS by Mark IV Pictures Video in 1987 and now available on DVD and on numerous streaming services, this is 20 minutes longer than either of the previous entries, and it certainly feels it. The finale of the tetralogy was The Prodigal Planet (1983), which also stars Wellman, Thom Rachford and Thom Rachford's fancy mustache.

Distant Thunder, A (1978)

... aka: Thief in the Night II: A Distant Thunder, A

Directed by:
Donald W. Thompson

First sequel to the Christian apocalypse megahit A THIEF IN THE NIGHT (1973). Let's recap. In the previous film, Patty Myers (Patty Dunning), a decent churchgoer who tried her best to live by the teachings of Christ and be a dutiful housewife, was accidentally led astray by her own well-meaning, yet too liberal and thus incorrect, reverend. As a result, Patty's loving, understanding God slammed the door in her face when it came time for the Rapture. Now with her husband and most of her closest friends whisked away to heaven, she's been left behind in an unsure world where the rise of the Antichrist is being shepherded along by the United Nations (!) The UN had put together a task force of soldiers called U.N.I.T.E., whose job it is to force people into being tattooed with a 666 "identification" symbol, thus collecting another soul for Satan in the process. Detractors face imprisonment or death. Refusing to be ID'd, Patty was chased around Iowa by U.N.I.T.E. agents and then got ratted out by her "friends" Diane and Jerry Bradford (Maryann Rachford, Thom Rachford), forcing her to leap from the top of a tall dam.

Except that all turned out to all be a nightmare... or a psychic premonition... or it kinda sorta really did happen and she's now caught in some kind of time loop (?) I wasn't so sure at first. The film ended exactly where it began, with Patty startled awake in bed, finding her husband missing and hearing on the radio all about the Rapture.

We meet up with Patty once again at church in the present day, only this time she and other Christians are being held prisoner. Patty's having a crisis of faith. After all, she wasn't a bad person and was a believer, so why is she even in this situation to begin with? Some other captives try to comfort her; looking at her with their empty, glassy-looking eyes and lecturing her about Christianity with their creepily soft, so-sure-of-themselves monotone voices, but she's not having it: "Do you expect me to love a God that let all these hideous things happen?!" We then - dammit! - go into multi-flashback mode as Patty recounts what really happened starting on the morning of the Rapture, which either means at least half of the first film wasn't real or that it would have been real and now Patty can find a Groundhog Day-style way to alter course.

With knowledge of how things could conceivably turn out if she does the same exact things and trusts the same exact people again, Patty instead decides to go visit her grandma and retrieve a "Tribulation Map" she has in her possession. Discovering granny has already been zapped away, she plops down on her bed, pouts, screams and renounces God ("I Haaaaaate YOUUUUU!") No, Patty, dear, pissing off the puppet master who already has you on his "meh, maybe" list does not constitute taking a proper course of action here. Try again.

We're then back in flashback land, which technically make these flashbacks-within-a-flashback-that-are-maybe-inside-a-premonition, so more biblical "truths" can be explained in greater detail. Stuff like the "Seven Seals" that will be opened during the 7-year Tribulation Period, which include four men (metaphorically speaking) riding on colored horses, with the white horse representing peace, the red horse representing war, the black horse representing famine and the pale horse representing death. The other three seals are 1. Every evangelist's favorite, persecution, 2. Destruction i.e. the sun turning black and dying and 3. Silence. Then we (re-)learn all about those 666 "Satanic credit card" tattoos and about how the Antichrist will be a great, beloved, charismatic leader for the first half of Tribulation but then do a 180 and become evil in the second half.

Because they factored negatively into her nightmare, Patty gives the cold shoulder to former friends Diane and Jerry and instead packs up her bellbottoms and moves into her grandmother's country home, along with her girlfriends Wenda (Sally Johnson), whose husband and newborn baby have been raptured, and baby-voiced Sandy (Sandy Stevens), who is quite possibly the worst actress in a film filled with consistently terrible acting. Despite the constant threat of U.N.I.T.E., the girls continue to attend church services, where Reverend Matthew Turner (co-writer / executive producer Russell S. Doughten Jr.) has deep regrets about being so nice and open-minded at the pulpit pre-Rapture and not doing a good enough job "threatening people with the word of God" (!)

There are clear signs the world is quickly moving through the 'horse' stage of the prophecies as outlined in Revelation. There's global unrest, extreme weather conditions, famine, shortages of gasoline, food and other basic supplies, a nuclear bomb being dropped on Uganda (Uganda?), Israeli missionaries being murdered, earthquakes, wars, the sun going dark in the middle of the day and more. While they don't actually show most of that stuff (though, surprisingly, they did construct a plywood room to tear apart during an earthquake scene), I was disappointed most by the promise of a plague of random, unprovoked animal attacks. All we get to see here is a horse side eyeing someone and a barking dog, which is promptly scared off when a missionary (Tim Doughten, Russ' son) wanders by and starts preaching.

With the corrupt and evil UN now in charge of everything, they ration out necessities only to those who've received their binary 666 tattoo. U.N.I.T.E. then institute new regulations. There will be "severe penalties" to those that refuse the mark of the beast and by "severe penalties" I mean you either do it or be executed. Seeing how our gutsy heroines have thus far refused to get it, they're now in a world of trouble, which is where the "present day" stuff comes into play. Things end on a cliffhanger as Patty and Wenda's numbers finally come up. They're led down the aisle, blindfolded and then taken outside where a giant guillotine awaits... The end!

So now these mofos actually think I'm going to sit through another one of their stupid, cheap, poorly-made films?! Well, they're right, of course. I need to know what happens to Patty since I've now spent three hours watching her flail her way through the apocalypse and do the same dumb shit over and over again. This is also what happens when I run out of Christmas movies to watch and end up stuck with Christian movies instead.

Admittedly, this shows some technical improvements over the first, including better camerawork and smoother editing. It also appears to have had a somewhat higher budget. Otherwise it's no better in the areas that really count like the script, performances and overall messaging. These folks don't possess near the talent needed to pull off the ambitious plot structure, and do a particularly inept job at establishing a coherent timeline. It wasn't until the film was almost over that I realized it had actually jumped ahead several years at some point awhile back... and I'm still not sure where exactly that happened either!

Every time Patty makes a reasonable point, say, about how fire-and-brimstone preaching can alienate people from the church, or about how God sometimes has a strange way of showing his love, she's promptly shut down with a response that always seems to begin with "God DOES love you, buuuuuttttt..." And remember, if God murders your child, it's not because he's a bad dude, it's because it's part of his master plan for you, so you've no right to be upset or angry about it! It's just one little piece of a giant puzzle you're too dumb to understand! Got that?

Other scenes are kind of laughable in their sad irony. We see a mean old 6x3'd hospital receptionist reject an infant for care because her mother is a Christian. Of course we're supposed to be outraged to see a baby denied healthcare, and we are, but it's also pretty rich considering evangelicals have been fighting tooth-and-nail against affordable health coverage and taxpayer-funded programs to provide health services to children, the poor and the needy since like, well, forever ago. And then you have the evangelicals in this film suddenly concerned about the welfare of "foreigners" during global conflicts / wars when they're typically the first ones waving their flags and cheering on 'Murica whenever we drop bombs on third world countries. Self-awareness has never been a strong suit of the evangelical community but... yeesh... these folks are downright shameless!

This was followed by IMAGE OF THE BEAST (1981) and The Prodigal Planet (1983). Like the other films in the series, it was self-distributed on VHS and is now sold on DVD through many Christian retailers so it can continue to do its part in helping to fuck up the world until we destroy it ourselves. Or get raptured. Whichever comes first. Since I'm basically the poster boy for the type of person who's gonna get left behind, maybe see ya there?

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