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!
Hello, dear ones. Can you believe it’s been over a year since we last checked in with Patty, the apparent protagonist of the Thief in the Night series? We were barely a month into the Trump Administration the last time I had the strength to watch one of these endearingly dated films about the Rapture, and as more and more bad news rolled in, I couldn’t find it in me to investigate further into the science fiction fantasies of the same group of people who put him in office, in spite of what their actual scriptures say about his kind (if you read Luke 16:19–31 and imagine anyone other than Trump as the rich man in this parable, then get out of your church because it’s lukewarm as shit).
We’re in a bad spot, America. Support for queer people just decreased for the first time. Immigrants are being seized by I.C.E. in the middle of their green card interviews, with the possibility of being held indefinitely, and Jeff Sessions’s rollback of Obama-era civilian-protecting statutes has troubled even notorious asshole Clarence Thomas, who wrote that creating a situation in which police can “seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use—has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses.” This, combined with Sessions’s signalling that white supremacy is A-OK with him means that American Fascism isn’t just an abstract concept anymore, it’s the real deal, and we’re not looking down the barrel—the barrel is in our mouths, and the safety isn’t just off, it’s broken. White supremacy detaining people, confiscating their property, and holding them indefinitely without the possibility of release . . . why does that sound so familiar?
How did we get to the point where a propaganda film about starving people in post-apocalyptic Des Moines being submitted to the rule of the Antichrist is actually escapist fiction, because at least the Christians in this movie can recognize the face of evil and resist it? I mean, I know why, but what the hell, America?
Back over in post-Rapture 1978 Des Moines, our old friend Patty (Patty Dunning) lies on a cot in a church that has been converted (no pun intended) into a camp for those who have not yet taken The Mark. Tomorrow, the group that is captive there will be trotted out and given the final choice: take The Mark or be executed. Despite the fact that she dreamed about the Rapture and most of the occurrences from her dream have come to pass, Patty is still in a panic because she hasn’t “received Christ as her Savior”*, and despite the protestations of her friends, she’s still not ready to do so. Patty’s a bit of an idiot, frankly. I’m pretty sure that Richard Dawkins himself would have gotten on his knees and said the magic words by now if he had witnessed the Rapture with his own eyes. Patty is joined by Wenda (Sally Johnson), who attempts to comfort her, and Kent (Kent Wagner), who tells her that she can find peace in Christ. Wenda’s younger sister Sandy (Sandy Stevens) tells the others to leave Patty be, but Kent and Wenda convince her to relate the story of how she came to be in this camp, in the hopes that it will help her calm down.
We then flash back to that fateful morning from the end of Thief in the Night, when Patty awakens from her nightmare about the Rapture to her new living nightmare of, um, the Rapture. Unbelieving at first, she flees to her pious best friend Jenny (Colleen Niday)’s house, only to find her missing, the radio still on and a stand mixer continuing to spin. From there, she makes her way to the home of her Christian grandmother (Jean Berg? Murial Hunt? As you can imagine, there aren’t a lot of photos on the film’s cast page, more than half of the cast is not connected to a character, and if you follow the links, most of these people only ever appeared in this film or one of its sequels). Granny is also Raptured and gone, so Patty returns home; since she can’t afford the mortgage, she invites Wenda and Sandy to come live with her in Granny’s house, which they accept.
A world away (and far beyond the eye of this film’s camera crew), miracles happen. Two men who preach like Elijah and Moses appear in Jerusalem, and there are mass conversions of what Granny calls, in flashback, “sealed witnesses” (144,000 of them, in fact). One of these witnesses (surprisingly hunky Tim Doughten, son of screenwriter Russell Doughten Jr.) happens to appear to the women during one of their horseback outings, and Wenda accepts receives Christ as her savior. Patty’s friend Diane and her husband Jerry (Maryann and Thom Rachford) help the women out by using Diane’s position in a food bank to smuggle food bars to their home, in spite of Patty’s continual hysteria whenever she meets them, a holdover from when she dreamed that they turned her over to the Antichrist’s forces.
Wenda also befriends an older man named Jonathan (Curtis Page? Jim Ites? Who knows!) who wanders by a barn in which the trio is just, like, hanging out one day. She witnesses** to him, but is unsuccessful. She and Sandy are captured by the Antichrist’s forces, UNITE (see the second footnote in the Thief review), but Wenda manages to call Patty and warn her to flee the house. Patty then manages to not only disarm one of the two guards sent after her, but to bluff his partner into dropping his own weapon before she steals their van and gets away. For someone who spends 95% of this movie shrieking and in the most obtuse denial ever committed to film, Patty manages to be a bit of a badass here. She calls Diane to ask for help, only to arrive where she was directed to find that they want her to take The Mark.
We’re all caught up to the frame story now, where the captives have been huddled into the church’s nave and called in groups of four to either take The Mark or be executed. Sandy and Kent are taken, and Wenda makes a final attempt to get Patty to just pray already, but she’s still on the fence***. They are called next and taken outside, where we see the method of execution: a guillotine****. Diane, Jerry, and Sandy (Gasp! She took The Mark! And it was she who betrayed their little trio to UNITE!) appear to try to convince Wenda and Patty to take The Mark and spare themselves this death, but Wenda goes to her execution with quiet dignity. As the blade descends, we are once again left with a cliffhanger, as we freeze frame on Patty’s screaming face. What will she choose? What will you choose?
A Distant Thunder is both better and worse than A Thief in the Night. That same layer of seventies earnestness and, believe it or not, inventive filmmaking that made Thief so memorable is on full display here. I’ve seen and reviewed a lot of cheap, shot-for-nothing horror movies from this era (Cathy’s Curse from 1977, Mark of the Witch from 1970, The Love Butcher from 1975, and Abby from 1974 just to name a few), and the production value in A Distant Thunder is equal to or greater than each of these. There’s an unconvincing but impressive earthquake scene in which an entire set is shaken apart while Patty runs around it panicking, a legitimately thrilling car chase, and a truly magnificent barn fire, all of which combined probably ate most of the film’s budget. As someone who loves the minutiae of filmmaking, there are also places where I can see the film’s desires butting against its cost, and director Donald W. Thompson shows some real ingenuity in shooting around these monetary limitations to give the Rapture and its follow up events a sense of scale. Notable shots include Patty driving to Jenny’s immediately after the Rapture and dealing with a couple of different road blocks caused by accidents (presumably because the cars were unmanned, or because the unmanned vehicles killed and maimed unbelievers), including one vehicle turned on its side. As Patty pulls up to Jenny’s house, we see another “roadblock” manned by uniformed officers, but we only see the sawhorse barrier and the back of the police cruiser, “showing” this other accident solely through implication. It’s a tiny thing to find so praiseworthy, but demonstrates a level of competence in filmmaking that wasn’t very common for that era even among mainstream wannabe filmmakers, and which would be largely lost by the time Cloud Ten came along and made Apocalypse.
Part of this is the result of political changes. As someone raised deep, deep in the world of Evangelical Christianity, I can tell you: the people who grow up in or join these churches are fed a doctrine of constancy of ideology that does not align with historical reality. There’s an anti-factual devotion to the precept that Evangelical Christianity in its current form—culturally isolationist, politically involved, nationalistic, dogged by confrontational rhetoric using words like “war,” “battle,” and “soldiers”—is uniform across time, ignoring the fact that while most of the “movers and shakers” of American history may have been people of faith, they kept their personal and private lives separate. It wasn’t until the Reagan era and the GOP’s genius (and evil) move to predicate their political platform on drawing out the “silent majority” of Christians while also subverting that religion’s altruistic and utopian aims that we saw the beginning of the stark divisions that are omnipresent in political discourse now. This goes above and beyond the way that Christians are misled into believing that a party that is largely anti-Christian (as it is anti-poor, anti-minority, anti-tolerance, anti-immigrant, pro-wealth, pro-usury, etc.) somehow represents their beliefs as followers of Christ, it creates a rhetorical space of presumed correctness that lacks humility and is permeated with smugness.
Like Thief before it, A Distant Thunder is a film made as a preaching tool, yes, but one that was crafted with the explicit desire to render spiritual aid; the creators want you, yes you, to be saved now, because what’s coming for you if you don’t is going to be bad fucking news, and they genuinely want you to be saved from that fate. Compare that to the rhetoric of Kirk Cameron, the Left Behind series, and the various films that Pure Flix has been pumping out: these are products characterized by smug self-satisfaction, using the opportunity to “witness” to instead rub the noses of non-believers in how wrong they are. Cameron and his ilk don’t want you to be saved: they want the schadenfreude that comes from getting taken to heaven and then watching all those atheists and intellectual elitists suffer for being mean to them (that is to say: not agreeing with them immediately, not being won over by their fallacy-riddled argument techniques, having a different opinion, and refusing to go along with the idea that sodomites should be lynched).
I could spend hours and hours telling you about the different things that were forbidden to either me or other kids I knew who had similar home situations (as was almost always the case, the homeschooled kids I went to church with had it the worst), all in the name of further building a wall to separate Christian homes from The World, that evil place outside where Satan was putting kissing homos on television and Murphy Brown was having a child—without a husband! The rhetoric of 1990s Evangelicism was about building walls, while, intentionally or not, the 1970s Rapture fervor was about constructing bridges. And an inseparable part of this is the fact that the makers of the Thief series, since they hadn’t completely walled themselves off from the larger culture, actually knew something about film and filmmaking.
Director Donald W. Thompson may not be the best example of this, given that Thief was his first film and his body of work is largely in other Christian propaganda flicks, but I have no doubt that as a first time director, he was mentored by co-writer Doughten. Doughten was an un-credited co-director on 1958’s The Blob (according to this interview with his son Tim, mentioned above, Doughten was directly responsible for the casting of Steve McQueen in the lead role) and went on to direct 1967’s The Hostage starring Harry Dean Stanton, Don Kelly, and John Carradine, as well as 1968’s Fever Heat, one of the final film roles for Nick Adams. After that, his work seems to be solely in the realm of Christian cinema, but this background in, for lack of a better word, “real” movies gave him abilities that far surpassed the filmic Rapture doomsayers of later decades. Compare him to, for instance, Apocalypse director Peter Gerretsen, who only had two previous films under his belt, both of them apparently religiously themed and whose filmmaking incompetence is almost confrontational. Revelation, Tribulation, and Judgment, despite their varying qualities, were all directed by André van Heerden, whose previous work consists solely of “documentaries” with titles like Racing to the End of Time, The Mark of the Beast, Last Days: Hype or Hope?, and Startling Proofs. Based on the fact that his post-Judgment career has seen him return to these “documentaries” (Between Heaven and Ground Zero, 2012: Prophecy or Panic?, Dragons or Dinosaurs?, and Shadow Government), he seems like someone who believes in what he’s making but who follows the directions of his producers pretty closely. That’s the only way I can explain how he manages to make films with such wild variance in the basics: he’s a workman, not a craftsman. And those writers? Brothers Peter and Paul LaLonde, who appear to have never written anything that wasn’t about the Rapture, which explains why their films have non-Christian characters use terminology that only people who subscribe to their worldview would say; they’re so deep in the scene that they have no idea their jargon isn’t shared outside of their circle.
Other than the aforementioned workarounds to make the world of the film feel more fully realized, there are other visual flourishes in the movie that are well done and occasionally even subtle. There’s a dissolve to flashback at one point that finds Patty inspecting a porcelain statue of a white horse in Diane and Jerry’s house; the next time we see a similar transition, the camera lingers on an ornate red knight on a chess board, and only then does it become apparent that the film is tracking the passage of time with iconography of the Four Apocalyptic Horsemen. It’s a deft touch that is a credit to the direction of the film. There’s also a macabre elegance to the way that the characters herded into the chapel and presented with the choice to accept The Mark or die is a kind of infernal altar call, with the same nonthreatening cadence and vocal inflection as the ones you would see at Bethany World Prayer Center or The Rock Church that I attended in my youth; Patty ruins this a little by lampshading it, but it’s still a rather nice touch. It’s also a good choice to have those who take The Mark be kind and normal; the Apocalypse series (other than Judgment) shows those who accept the Antichrist’s mark as being either possessed by evil or cowering under it. Jerry and Diane actually seem like genuinely nice people, even if they think Wenda and Patty are going a little kooky out there at Granny’s house, and when they trick Patty into showing up at a Mark distribution center, they’re not trying to trap her but create a way for her to get the psychiatric help that, from their point of view, she desperately needs. The film does its best work in these small, intimate moments, like when Wenda and Sandy are taken to an Antichrist medical facility and see a woman begging for someone to feed her baby, but being turned away because she doesn’t have The Mark and refuses to get one. I also really like how the dam that Patty ran across (and from which she was eventually pushed) in her dream in Thief plays a significant role as a focus of the film (although I laughed out loud when she stopped the car there on the way out of town and told Wenda and Sandy that she wanted to “Show [them] what happened in [her] nightmare).
As with all of these films, however, there’s still much to criticize. Patty the actress is doing a damn fine job here, but Patty the character is intolerable, which makes sense when you consider the way that Evangelical Christians conceptualize non-belief: from their point of view, the reality that their understanding of the universe is accurate and factual is just so obvious (ignoring that, if the evidence was really so evident, the very concept of faith would be completely meaningless). Thus those who “don’t believe” actually do believe, they just refuse to admit The Truth™ because then they would have to give up their sinful ways or stop being mad at God for killing their mother when they were a kid (or, more succinctly: atheists don’t exist, only anti-theists who hate God because of a personal trauma or a desire to be “wicked” do). The budget shows through at certain points too, largely because of the reuse of actors. The man playing the Evangelical pastor who was a guest speaker at Patty’s church pre-Rapture*****, and whose lecture she flashes back upon multiple times, also plays a patient at the aforementioned medical center; the younger Doughten plays a doctor in the background in the same sequence, made obvious by his gravity-defying hair and general hunkiness. The “Jewish Missionary” (which is a problem in its own right; check out these three articles from Fred Clark that tackle the weird Anti-Semitism of some PMDs*****) also shows up in the church being prepared for either decapitation or The Mark, which seems like it might be further evidence of the under-sized cast. He’s just hanging in the background, but that giant Star of David pendant is unmistakable, and it’s a plot point earlier in the film that Wenda’s contact with a missionary is the reason for her abduction since the Antichrist, here called “Brother Christopher,” is trying to stamp out evangelism. It could be the same character and he was captured, or it might just be a goof. I also couldn’t help but laugh when Patty drove to Jenny’s house and, after discovering how her friend was taken in the twinkling of an eye, she finds a framed headshot of Jenny, which segues into a flashback (within the larger flashback) to Jenny warning her about the Rapture and what would come next. She then drives to Granny’s house and discovers a framed photo of her, which likewise fades into a flashback to Granny making gingerbread men and issuing a similar warning. At that point, you find yourself wondering if the whole film will consist of Patty just discovering people’s photographs and remembering them; it’s comical, but also fails to follow the law of threes, which ends up feeling a little frustrating.
Another thing that A Distant Thunder has over the other films that I’ve covered is one of the most exciting: DVD bonus features! There’s a commentary from Doughten and Thompson, which doesn’t span the whole film, but does cover the first 33 minutes or so, and it’s pretty dull, although there are a few gems in their discussion (most notably their explanation of why they chose to make the whole film a flashback—it makes it easier to follow for those who didn’t see the first movie and don’t know who Patty is). There’s also an interview with Patty Dunning in which she’s obviously struggling with the inevitable weight gain of old age. She looks fine, but she mentions being a gymnast in her younger age and being thankful for weighing so little during a previous film that required a stunt, and she talks about how she’s endeavoring to take good care of the vessel that God gave her. It’s meandering and sadder than you would expect. There’s also a feature where you can choose to have Dunning lead you in a prayer for salvation, which is fine.
The real gold, though, is in the “Answers” menu, which contains some frequently asked Rapture questions like “When is the Rapture coming?” and “What are the signs of the Rapture?” as well as other general freshman philosophy questions like “If God is so good, why does he allow bad things to happen?” Each of these features an answer from various Biblical “scholars,” almost all of whom look absolutely ghoulish, like centuries old monsters that were dug up for the purpose of shooting these videos and refused to allow themselves to be made up with cosmetics so as not to look like a sissy (here’s a tip to the maybe three of you left alive: film requires makeup, period). My favorite of these is Manfred Kober, who stands in front of his own Tribulation map on an easel (it differs from the one in the film only slightly) with a pointer that he stabs at the image hilariously when babbling some heresy about how this verse and that verse were meant to be connected thematically to create a picture of the Tribulation. Kober has a minimal internet presence, but you can check out his RateMyProfessor page, if you’re so inclined. The shortest of these clips is in answer to the question of what happens to children in the Rapture. It comes in at less than a minute long; the experts admit that they don’t know but that there are “implications” that children are sanctified by having a parent who is a believer. The issue that they don’t raise is that said passage says the same of spouses, which pretty much gives the lie to the various married couples who are split up when one of them is Raptured, a recurring element in these narratives (Jim and Patty here as well as Wenda and her husband*******, the protagonist of Revelation and his Raptured wife and daughter, and, of course, Rayford Steele and his departed Irene in Left Behind).
All in all, A Distant Thunder works, both as a film and an evangelism tool. Its focus on individuals and their choices instead of big elaborate spectacles separates it from the silliness, callousness, and destruction porn that make up later Rapture flicks. Clocking in at 75 minutes, it seems a lot longer, not because it’s slow (although it is that at times) but because it’s chock full of ideas. After the opening exposition, they hit the ground running and don’t look back, and the film is worthwhile for it. And as a metaphor for stubborn ignorance in the face of an obvious and grotesque evil, it is perhaps the most lucid demonstration of modern Evangelical Christianity, if only accidentally.
* This is a pretty strange turn of phrase, to be honest. In the church in which I was raised, one was said to have either “accepted Christ” or not. “Received” almost seems theologically incorrect, since, within this worldview, grace has already been received, but it’s up to the individual to accept it.
** For those of you unfamiliar with Christian terminology, this means “proselytize,” although how aggressive/annoying/genuine it is varies from denomination to denomination and person to person.
*** Even though modern Evangelicals are the ones most responsible for the election of Trump and they are supposed to see themselves reflected in the character of Wenda, who dutifully accepts her fate as a martyr and never wavers in her faith, Patty is the character that they are most like. She’s so fucking stubborn in the face of overwhelming evidence, but she just can’t bring herself to make the right decision because she can’t let go of her pride and admit that she is capable of being wrong. Trump could admit in a tweet tomorrow that he kidnaps babies to drain their blood for Melania’s baths and all your ignorant Facebook friends would spend weeks talking about how “lamestream media” is blowing it all out of proportion and that Trump is God’s sword on this earth (*ahem*). The irony is so thick that you can’t cut it with a knife, but it could crush the life out of your body.
**** From what I can tell, this is the first time that we see guillotines in Rapture fiction. Revelation 20:4 does mention the beheading of believers, but I find this particular methodology fascinating, as the intention with the invention of the guillotine was to find a more humane method of execution in comparison to other killing machines (specifically to replace the breaking wheel), and was created over a millennia after John’s Revelation. It’s curious that the Antichrist would go for the more humane option over, for instance, Stark-style (or, if you’re a paranoid Islamophobe, Islam-style) beheading with a sword. But this seems to set the tone for what’s to come, since we’ll also see death by guillotine show up in the Apocalypse series, and in Left Behind.
***** He even has a Tribulation Map that he pulls out and discusses, with a timeline. Get your own, only $12.95!
****** Pre-Millenialist Dispensationalist. It’s been a while, I know.
******* Wenda finds out that her husband got saved from a letter that arrives post-Rapture and which she reads on the way to Patty’s grandmother’s house; she actually freaks the hell out at this news because after her baby was taken in the Rapture, the only thing holding her together was the hope of seeing her husband again. It’s one of the more emotionally resonant scenes, since the primary audience will know that her grief is misplaced, but Wenda herself is understandably upset. Again, this reflects a depth of understanding of human nature and its nuances that the authors of Left Behind could never even pretend to have.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond