The Late, Great Planet Mirth VIII: Image of the Beast (1980)

Welcome to The Late Great Planet Mirth, an ongoing series in which a reformed survivor of PreMillenialist Dispensationalism explores the often silly, occasionally absurd, and sometimes surprisingly compelling tropes, traits, and treasures of films about the Rapture. Get caught up in it with us!

Welcome back, dear readers! When last we left off, Patty (Patty Dunning) was watching her dear friend Wenda lie down beneath the blade of a guillotine at peace with her impending death and reunion with her savior. So after an impressive but very looooong opening credits sequence we pick up . . . in a pre-Rapture supermarket. A very pregnant computer analyst named Kathy (Susan Plumb) and her PMD husband are shopping for produce, much of which has big scary barcodes, and she picks up a book by Beverly Kay about the coming importance of computers. They get to the checkout lane, and their cashier is Patty! Hi, Patty! She asks Kathy if she really wants to buy the book, as one of the stockboys read it and said it was pretty scary. Mr. Kathy’s Husband immediately starts in with his “It is scary!” rapture eschatology, and the two women agree that they just aren’t sure. We then smashcut back to the guillotine, with Jerry (Thom Rachford) and Diane Bradford (Maryann Rachford) forcing her to watch. Sandy (Sandy Stephens)* begs her not to throw her life away as a headless mannequin is removed, and Patty is marched up the steps and given one last chance to take The Mark. Suddenly, an earthquake shakes the ground and all of those assembled flee, save for Patty, who is still strapped into the decapitating machine. She finally makes her decision, crying out that she will take The Mark, but there’s no one around to hear her. Tension builds as the mechanisms holding the blade in place move inch by inch as Patty tries to remove her bonds . . . but not in time. I wish we’d all been ready!

We then find our new protagonist Kathy, who is hiding out with son, aged three (see the next paragraph), when they are found by Leslie (Wenda Shereos, who has nothing to do with the character of Wenda in the last film, which is confusing given that many of the characters in these movies have been The Danza up to this point), one of the group brought out alongside Wenda and Patty, but who managed to escape in the confusion following the earthquake. They are then discovered by a man in a UNITE military uniform (William Wellman Jr.), who demands to see their hands. When he sees that they have no Mark, he shows that neither does he, and introduces himself as David Michaels, admitting that he stole the uniform off of an officer against whom he acted in self-defense, although he doesn’t know if the man died or not. They escape in a military jeep, but Leslie is shot; David checks her body and assumes she’s dead, so he leaves her behind. Leslie is discovered by someone else, and that’s the last we see of her for the next hour or so. Kathy, her son, and David spend the night under the Jeep, but the kid wakes first and wanders off, where he runs across Reverend Turner (Russell Doughten), Patty’s old pastor who failed to preach the right kind of PMD Christianity™ and was left behind as a result; he’s living prepper style now, with a couple of chickens, a goat, an apple tree, and a positively gigantic Rapture map that, speaking solely in terms of square footage, might be larger than my apartment. He offers the trio shelter, and they gladly accept. David tells Kathy about his idea of using a counterfeit mark to keep them fed for as long as possible, and although she’s iffy on the morality of doing so, she agrees to help him try and “decode” the computer system that manages The Mark.

A quick aside here: the presence of Kathy’s son is an odd note, and it bears inspection. Often in these critiques I talk about the points of view of Doughten and those of, for instance, Left Behind co-authors Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye as if they are interchangeable and immutable, but this isn’t really the case. A couple of weeks ago, I explained the Pre-Millenialist Dispensationalist point of view to an acquaintance by drawing a diagram of how Christianity branches into Catholicism and Protestantism, then Protestantism into its various denominations, all the way down to dispensationalism, then millennial dispensationalism, then pre- and post-millennial dispensationalism, but it continues to branch and sect from there, if you can believe it. For instance, Jenkins/LaHaye are of the belief that people can still accept Christ after the Rapture and be saved, and Doughten et al. subscribe to this same ideology, with caveats. These films are self-contradictory on certain levels, as there is the occasional statement that people can acquire salvation post-Rapture, but only if they didn’t know about the Rapture before it happened; on the other hand, it’s stated over and over again that Patty could have been saved if she just hadn’t been so stubborn, despite the fact that she did know about the impending Rapture, given her discussions with Jenny and Granny as shown in flashback in A Distant Thunder. Jenkins/LaHaye make no such caveats, as Rayford and Pastor Barnes both make it clear that they had forewarning of the impending Rapture and chose not to believe, but this has no effect on the possibility of their post-Rapture conversion. Although I don’t remember the Left Behind books ever outright using the term “age of accountability” in the text (note: this is a link to a discussion of the AoA by a pastor, not an academic source), it is conceptually present as the text explicitly indicates that not only children are children taken in the Rapture, but fetuses as well (Fred Clark discusses some of the existential horror surrounding this spontaneous supernatural abortion in this blog post). We know that Doughten et al. also put stock in the “age of accountability” concept given that Wenda’s 18-month-old was raptured in the last film, but apparently that grace does not extend to the unborn, as Kathy says that she gave birth less than a week after the Rapture. I know this is a weird aside, but given that just about the only way that Republican politics actually align with true Christian ideals is when it comes to the Pro-Life/Pro-Choice debate, and this is a pretty jarring point of disconnect between two of the big movers and shakers in PMD theology, and both generally agree (in contrast to Catholicism, for instance, which argues that not even the unborn are untouched by Original Sin), it warrants a comment if nothing else.

Also demanding discussion is the way that every single piece of media that attempts to depict the Rapture has issues with political and technological progress, in a way that instantaneously dates each book or film in a way that cannot be ignored, especially as those proselytizers creating these preaching tools consistently refer to them as “history that has not yet happened.” The Left Behind books are, like MST3K, explicitly stated to take place in the “not too distant future” (sing it with me: “Next Sunday AD!”); each Thief film opens with a wall of text that warns that the film is fictional but the events depicted will come to pass. So, when Patty escaped the forces of UNITE in the last film and she had to pull over and use a phone booth, you have to accept that this will come to pass. In the first Left Behind book, the authors spend pages and pages discussing all the steps that Buck Williams has to take in order to connect to the internet from the plane he was aboard when the Rapture happened; still later in other books, an insane level of detail is provided about the communications system that the Tribulation Force (as the “protagonists” call themselves) have installed in their bunker, including all the failsafes and redundancies their expert put in place. And, as we discussed way back in the first Mirth article, a great deal of PMD thinking drew on the ideas of Hal Lindsey, who explicitly connected the “Gog and Magog” discussed in Revelation to the U.S.S.R., which gets left out of reprints for some reason (impressively, Image manages to avoid this, as Kathy and David mention Russia a few times but never refer to them as Soviets or make mention of the Soviet Union). It should also be noted that the creation of the UPC barcode caused evangelical Christianity to lose its shit, as it was “obviously” The Mark already present in our world. This panic has largely been supplanted in the evangelical consciousness by fear of RFID transmitters,** although there are some corners of the internet in which you can see that there are some people drawing a direct connection between them (at least I think that’s what this person is claiming; I have a hard time reading this without getting a headache). When UPC creator Joe Woodland died a few years back, Wired published an article indicating that he was still dealing with the fallout from his invention into the new millennium, as there are still those among us convinced that barcodes are prelude to The Mark. Even those who accept that UPC barcodes aren’t The Mark still write that the “barcode undoubtedly is paving the road for 666: the Mark of the Beast” (granted, that post seems to be from 1999), years after the conspiracy theory that the blank spaces in UPCs are actually sixes has been debunked.

I bring this up because the fact that both Kathy and David have backgrounds in computers is plot relevant in Image, and it doesn’t make much sense. After David dolls himself up with the fake Mark, he tells Kathy that he should be able to buy food using the money that belonged to the UNITE soldier whose uniform he stole. And I quote: “I’ve got his computer account number to his microfiche from his ID.” In 1980, that might have passed for believable dialogue, but I’m pretty sure that was never how computer systems worked (although I admit I’m not sure and am open to correction). It reminds me of a scene in an episode of Eerie, Indiana, in which the protagonist picks up the landline phone in his house and hears the data that is being transmitted through their home internet connection begin verbalized. There was a time when you could get away with making the internet or computer systems do anything, because almost no one in the audience new any better. It’s especially relevant here because so much of this movie is predicated on Kathy and David trying to “decode” The Mark using “hand computers” (“You mean a calculator?” – actual dialogue) and pencil-and-paper algorithms, even though what they’re trying to decode or what their end goal is isn’t made clear at all. Whatever that goal involves, it requires that David meet with Leslie, who suddenly reappears in the movie after a long absence; unfortunately, their rendezvous is discovered by our old friend Sandy and the forces of UNITE, while Kathy’s son is concurrently captured by the Bradfords, who are secret agents for the “Believers Underground Movement Squad,” UNITE’s agency in charge of rooting out underground Christians. The Antichrist’s forces try to use the child as leverage to get more information from David, but he refuses and is let to the guillotine, and the film once again ends as our intrepid hero faces death with dignity.

I feel like I say this every time, but there are some interesting sequences here that are intercut with such passionless scenes that, despite some pretty spectacular events, the movie feels flatter than those that came before Part of that could be the decision to kill Patty. After the opening scenes and the earthquake, we spend 30 interminable minutes getting backstory on our new main characters before the exciting stuff picks back up. Patty’s death scene is dramatic and legitimately tense, and in the commentary writer Doughten and director Donald W. Thompson are excited to talk about it. Thompson mentions that he got a call from a film critic who told him that it was the bloodiest thing she had ever seen in a movie, to which he responds that there’s actually no blood in the scene, which is sort of true: we don’t see any actual gore, but the guillotine’s descending blade is still bloodied from previous executions. Doughten says that they had to kill Patty off because of the actress, but their explanation is tight-lipped and there’s a lot to unpack: Dunning was starting to do a lot of personal appearances, “which was causing a strain on her marriage,” so they asked her husband if they could have her for just a few days, and he agreed, so they shot her death scene and moved on to new characters. To be quite honest, I have no idea what to make of this story, except that it feels gross and controlling on a few levels, like Dunning was tired of his wife being away and forced her to quit, allowing her a couple of days to wrap up her character arc. Dunning doesn’t mention being married (or still married) in her interviews in the special features that appeared on the Distant Thunder DVD, but I hope that either she and her husband went to therapy or they are no longer together, because it’s pretty extreme to demand that one’s wife stop working on a project after nearly ten years and with a minimal time commitment, especially when that project that is so obviously important to her as this one was to Dunning. I may disagree as to whether or not these movies should exist or if they serve to make the world a better place, but as discussed before, they’re much more heartfelt and valid than the Rapture panic media that followed, and they are at worst pretty harmless, despite some callousness on the part of the producers (more on that in a minute). As a result, the Thief series essentially changes horses midstream, as David becomes the new main character. I have to wonder how things would have gone differently if Dunning had been able to complete this film; Kathy shares some of her characteristics (a pre-Rapture “Christian” whose husband is among those taken in the event most notably) and at times seems to be like Patty in that she believes, but we never see her actually say The Prayer™, so her character arc may have followed the same path. Of course, having Patty hanging around and continuing to be obstinately doubtful in the face of continuing overwhelming evidence might have been too much to deal with; I’m just sad that our plucky (if histrionic and unbelievably stubborn) protagonist had such a sudden death, especially since she gives up in her final moments. It’s a meaningless death.

Speaking of meaningless deaths, Doughten and Thompson also talk about how they managed to acquire some of the more impressive shots in the film. For the footage of massive crowds in which people gather to see the False Prophet, Thompson gives thanks that it just so happened that the Pope was visiting Des Moines in 1979, so he was able to send a second unit to film the crowd; instead of the desired crowd shots of 10,000 people, Doughten says they ended up actually having 600,000 (although this source puts the number of attendees closer to 350,000). So far so good; I mean, if you believe in divine intervention, an appearance by the Pope is as close to living proof of it as you’re going to get, even if you’re not Catholic. On the other hand, Doughten also praises God for providing them the opportunity to obtain footage of a devastated landscape to portray the aftereffects of a “Bowl Judgment” fire. How were they able to do so? By filming the charred plains around and in the wake of the Mount St. Helens eruption. You know, the one that caused the deaths of 57 people. Praise God! And I know that they don’t mean to sound as petty in their commentary as this came across, but I did laugh out loud at this dismissive way that they talked about poor Dunning. And I quote: “Thom and Maryann Rachford came from Hollywood. Bill Wellman came from Hollywood. Susan Plumb, she came from Hollywood. Patty Dunning is from Des Moines.” What a glowing endorsement. They’re more appreciative of the child actor(s) that portray Kathy’s son, going on and on about how easy it is to direct children (praise that I’ve never heard before, especially given W.C. Fields’s famous advice). I’m sure this comes as no surprise to you, but the kids in this movie are just the worst. There’re bad child actors, and then there are the kids in this movie, holy crap. Remember that baby doll in American Sniper that Bradley Cooper tried to make more lifelike by moving its arms with his fingers? That was more humanity in that chunk of plastic’s performance than any scene with Kathy’s child.

There are more plotting problems here than in A Distant Thunder, which make for a less enjoyable viewing experience. Of particular note is virtually everything having to do with the computers, because it makes so little sense. As noted above, the way that computer technology is used in this film treats it as akin to magic: the viewing audience can’t be expected to have the knowledge base to understand exactly what the protagonists are using computers for and thus don’t really explain it; I even doubt that they could explain it, since David and Kathy’s goals are unclear. That’s basic storytelling: defining what a character wants and examining that character by showing what lengths they will go to in order to achieve it. The larger goals, of opposing the Antichrist and converting as many people as possible before the end of the Tribulation period, are clear. But what they hope to accomplish by cracking the code of The Mark is left unanswered. I feel like I’m belaboring this point, but so much of the film hangs on this that it just drags the film down. There’s just too much confusion, and the audience can’t get no relief.

As with A Distant Thunder, there are some big set pieces that make the film more watchable than most propaganda. Other than that earthquake sequence, there’s also a pretty great car chase (the third in as many films, which I take to mean that they must be pretty fun to shoot) that ends with David driving a UNITE car through a house. It’s awesome! A handyman leaps off of a ladder as the car ramps into a front porch and just explodes out of the other side, and I really want to highlight how cool this shot is. Unfortunately, this is bracketed by two other sequences that fail in other ways. First, the hijacking of the UNITE car itself comes after a scene in the supermarket wherein both Kathy and David need to buy a pack of batteries for their “hand computers,” as they are limited to one to a customer. David gives Kathy directions about how they have to get into the line at the same time, and have to be rung up at the same time, and he has to have his batteries scanned by the cashier before Kathy’s transaction is completed, since they’re both working from the same counterfeit Mark and they’ll be arrested if they use them on separate transactions unless they both check out at the same time. It’s needlessly complicated, not to mention risky, when there are alternative options that are left unconsidered (like making more than one trip to the store, trying a different marketplace, or just coming back the next day). The sequence is admirably tense***, but an alarm sounds and our heroes give the slip to a UNITE guard who crashes into a stockboy carrying a cardboard box of loose raw meat and then keeps slipping on it for a comically long time. David is caught after the crash, but the Antichrist’s forces opt to let him go free in the hopes that he will lead them to other subversives; he slips their grasp but is almost recaptured and then gets away following a really confusing sequence wherein he grabs the landing gear of a helicopter while being pursued on foot; they fly him to a field, where he jumps off and runs away before they can shoot him. All of the assembled forces could clearly see him, and they pretty much just let him get away. That’s a first draft problem, and it becomes clear over the course of this film how rushed it was from conception to completion, in comparison to the others that preceded it. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Kathy’s final scene: Jerry and Diane discover the cabin where she’s been sequestered, and she flees into the wilderness after Diane is grabbed by some kind of tail or tentacle. Earlier, Reverend Turner warned Kathy and David about the locusts spoken of in Revelation 9:7-10, along with a comically simple drawing of what they might look like, with special attention paid to their scorpion-like tails. As she hides in a culvert, he shadow of a scorpion’s tail appears behind her, and then the scene cuts away, with Kathy never to be seen again (at least before the credits roll; she might appear in the final**** film, Prodigal Planet). It’s clumsy and messy, although it brought to mind the appearance of Dario Argento’s mantis-Dracula*****, which gave me a chuckle.

Overall, this one is of a lower quality than either Thief in the Night or A Distant Thunder, and it has a lot of problems: obfuscating plotting, bad child acting, a couple of incomprehensible action sequences, and unclear goals for the protagonists. On the other hand, Wellman and Plumb are magnetic presences on screen, and Shereos also makes the most of her screentime. In keeping with the computer theme, the score incorporates some synthesizer beats, which is also a nice touch. Further, I have to give the writers credit for the fact that these characters, despite knowing that they are living in a prophesied time where world events will follow a strict outline, never stop trying to fight their fates. That’s real heroism, and I like it. Compare this to the characters of Left Behind, who not only do nothing to fight the Antichrist, but actively assist him in his goals (as delineated in this blog post by the ever-incomparable Fred Clark). Even Helen Hannah and her group did more than just cower in bunkers, as they were actively trying to interrupt the Antichrist’s broadcasts in Tribulation. On the surface, this one should be more exciting than its predecessors, but in practice . . . not so much. The things that it does improve upon warrant giving it the same score, but that shouldn’t be taken to mean that the quality of these movies is homogeneous.

* For the most part, the long time between features isn’t terribly obvious in this series. Over the course of eight years and three movies, the recurring characters of Diane, Jerry, and Patty remain largely unchanged. I’m not sure how old Stephens was in A Distant Thunder, but I have to assume she was close to the character’s age of 14/15, because in these scenes shot two years later, she’s about six inches taller and has a completely different haircut and turned blonde in a matter of (in-universe) seconds.

** It’s worth noting here that, occasionally, the PMDs and I agree. Microchipping your pet in case they get lost or adding an RFID sticker to your remote control is all well and good, but their paranoia about putting a tracking device in your body is well-founded. Don’t do that, to yourself or your children.

*** When the cashier’s register, um, registers a possible problem and she tells Kathy she’ll have to write out a receipt, Kathy manages to give her the slip by telling her “I left my baby in the car” and promising to come right back, which dates the movie but also gives me a weird nostalgia for when my mom used to go into the store without me all the time when I was a kid in the early nineties, which was common at the time.

**** Doughten and company planned a fifth film, The Battle of Armageddon, but it has yet to come to pass, and I find it hard to believe it could at this point. Even as of this third film, the series had been in production longer than the seven year Tribulation set to follow the Rapture, and technological advancements that were already wreaking havoc with the timeline would render the film impossible or ridiculous. You’ve got two choices: either set it in the time frame of the original films, in which case the intended point of this being a film of a future yet to come is completely lost, or make it contemporary, in which case all the scenes of reel-to-reel computers, discussion of microfiche, and the use of landline phones and phone booths (not to mention the fashion) would be impossible to reconcile. Sadly, Doughten appears in the DVD special features with a plea to donate toward this goal (the DVD was released in 2004), and with his death in 2013, it looks like all intention of going forward was forsaken. The film has an entry on the Christian Movie Database, but even the donation link on that page is broken.

***** Review here!

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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