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.