Movie of the Month: Marjoe (1972)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Britnee, Hanna, and Brandon watch Marjoe (1972).

Boomer: Well, well, well. Here we are. The world is in utter chaos, and we are a rudderless nation in the middle of dealing with a global pandemic by reopening too early. Meanwhile, a strong and moral resistance to centuries of racial inequality and police violence is being met with more militarized police violence, garnering so much attention that even Uncle Jed is questioning his long-held Lost Cause beliefs and moms and dads across the country are being radicalized against fascism in a way unseen since WWII, calling for the abolition of “policing” as we know it. But why are we leaderless? Could it have anything to do with the fact that the greatest weakness of church-going Americans is that they can be manipulated by a man who espouses their faith but is in fact nothing but a con-man and a snake oil salesman?

Marjoe is a 1972 documentary produced and directed by Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan about the life and “ministry” of Marjoe Gortner. Marjoe is (as we are told more than once) the fourth in a line of evangelical pastors, and his parents Marge and Vernon Gortner, were real pieces of work. After spending his entire childhood from age 4 to 14 as a gimmicky “child” preacher, complete with the cadences of the Evangelical movement then and now (“And the wrath-uh of God-uh” etc.), the now-adult Marjoe is on one last tour through the revival-style meetings happening throughout 1971 America, tailed by a documentary film crew. Along the way, he reveals the way that the movers and shakers of the contemporary revival scene scam, guilt, and browbeat their congregants and simple believers in order to rake in the all-mighty dollar.

Marjoe’s life is not all that different from that of any other child celebrity: haunted by child abuse, being used as a source of immense wealth from which he does not directly benefit as an adult, the pressures of maintaining a public persona that supports a certain narrative. He cites examples of being mock-drowned by his mother (so as not to leave marks and bruises on him that might be noticed due to his presence in the public eye) among other examples, which is horrifying. Creating the narrative that God reached down from Heaven to give him a divine mission to convert the unwashed masses (“the teenagers, the narcotics, the dopeheads”), his parents put him in front of an audience before an age most would be in kindergarten. As a result, there was never a time in his life where Marjoe Gortner ever truly believed the message that he was preaching, as he was exposed to the truths of the revivalist circuit as a pit of liars and confidence artists from before he could read.

Horrifying as his childhood is, the doc doesn’t treat Marjoe as a brave exposer of the truth. There’s definitely a human being in there, and he’s humanized to an extent, but when it comes to remorse, he feels more guilty that his rhetoric has to be so laden with fire and brimstone, wishing he could use more love-oriented language than the punishment-avoidance conversion technique of the Southern Evangelical movement. In a lounging position on a waterbed from which he pontificates about the various gimmicks of different religious leaders within the movement, he never seems anything other than at ease with himself, no doubt a result of having to get over the innate fear of public speaking before losing any baby teeth. There’s no remorse when he pours bills out of a brown paper bag and recalls how much bigger the “take” was in his youth. He’s just pulling the lid off of a large scale sleight of hand grift because his particular gimmick is on its last legs. Whether he’s coaching his film crew about how to interact with the True Believers that they will encounter along the way, imitating the way that a particular matriarchal church leader hisses into the microphone in an early form of ASMR, or casually agreeing to go with one of the hosting church families to their Brazilian “farm” (possibly referring to a practice that continues to this day), he’s never not performing, either in his life as Brother Marjoe or Marjoe the narc. There’s a disconnect, always.

Marjoe won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1972, but shockingly for a film that won such an award, it was lost for decades. During its original release, the film was never released further south than Des Moines, Iowa, which is ironically where the church behind the Thief in the Night Rapture series was located, and where those films were shot (Thief likewise came out in 1972). Other than a rare (and shoddy) VHS release, the film was largely forgotten until the original negatives were rediscovered in 2002 and released as a DVD in 2005. Although it gets a little thin in parts (sometimes containing long shots of entire church musical numbers), there are some truly great images in this film that imbue it with a fair amount of comedic irony. There’s never any menace, and Marjoe’s outing of not only himself but his cohorts as morally bankrupt scammers convincing little old ladies to send them their “cookie jar money” is never treated as a threat, just an inevitability. And yet, nearly half a century later, this malicious predation on the financial security of middle and lower class people under the banner of their faith is not only still happening, it’s happened at such a scale that it managed to reach the White House. All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.

Brandon, one of the things I noticed on this watch was a similarity between the shooting style of some of the party scenes and the nonsexual parts of the parties in Funeral Parade of Roses. There’s definitely an element of Gonzo documentarianism on the part of the film crew (love the shot of an usher pocketing an offering) as they immerse themselves in this society that runs parallel to but separate from the mainstream. Where do you stand on this kind of punk aesthetic, either in documentaries in general or Marjoe specifically?

Brandon: I don’t know if “punk” is the first cultural touchstone that came to mind here, if only because the movie was so entrenched in the youth counterculture of its own time: hippies. Even Gortner’s desire to shift his sermons away from the language of Fear towards the language of Love feels very much tied to hippie-dippy sentiments, but that’s not to say that the political thrust of the film is toothless or purposeless. One of the most electrifying sequences is the hotel room debriefing early in the film when Gortner preps the documentary crew as if they were going into war behind enemy lines. As he explains they can’t smoke, have sex, or literally let their hair down while attending the tent revivals, you get a clear sense of just how different the two worlds that Gortner alternates between truly are, drawing clear cultural battle lines between The Hippies and The Evangelists as two opposing factions. That rundown also gives the film a genuine thrilling purpose as political insurgency, a reminder that loosey-goosey “Peace & Love” hippie ideologies actually had strong roots in direct, genuine political action through student-movement protests. They were more or less punks with a different wardrobe & soundtrack (and apparently smoked the same abundance of cigarettes), so it makes sense their cinema would share similar D.I.Y. sensibilities.

It’s difficult to be mindful of just how politically incendiary this movie would have been when it was released a half-century ago. Its peek behind the scenes of Southern-fried religious exploitation has become such familiar territory in the decades since that it now has a sitcom version in HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones. As Boomer mentioned, though, its anti-evangelism subject was considered so taboo at the time that it wasn’t theatrically distributed anywhere in the American South. Even just recording & broadcasting in plain, no-frills terms the financial side of evangelist preaching was met as an anti-social political act that had to be extinguished. Although Marjoe does not touch on our current, global moment of protest in opposition to systemic racist injustice (outside the aforementioned Christian voter base that keeps Trump in office, despite him being the least Christian man alive), that kind of fearless infiltration & subversion of a powerful, corrupt institution very much resonates as an admirable document of political action. That only becomes more apparent as you get a sense of how limited the means & resources of the hippies behind the picture would have been compared to the big-money evangelists they intended to expose, which the film contrasts in Marjoe’s backroom money-counting in church vs. the low-key hippie party scenes he floats through when he’s off-duty.

In terms of style, the gonzo approach reminded me most of the Maysles Brothers documentaries of the era, often referred to as “Direct Cinema.” Given that this was made just a couple years after the Maysles’ landmark door-to-door Bible shilling doc Salesman, I have to imagine Marjoe pulled some influence from their intimate, handheld cinema verité approach to documentary filmmaking. That’s to be expected. What really surprised me as the film went on, however, was how much it also reminded me of a concert film. Gortner was trained (read: tormented) from a young age to be a live entertainer, and once the film settles into its groove it really becomes fascinated with taking in his performances in full, as if this were a document of a charismatic rock n’ roll singer’s farewell tour. Allowing his lengthy, somewhat repetitive sermons play out in full was a risk, as the film might have felt like actually being in church if the audience were allowed to become bored (which is how I remember what it was like being in church, anyway). Gortner is such a peculiarly entertaining presence (especially once you realize he doesn’t believe a word he’s preaching) that the film more or less gets away with that gamble, though. Marjoe ultimately feels like a Maylses-style concert doc with gleefully subversive politics, which is to say that it’s very much of its time in countercultural context & aesthetics.

Since both this movie’s form (1970s direct-cinema documentary filmmaking) and its broader subject (financial exploitation in modern Christian evangelism) have become somewhat familiar to audiences over the decades—however powerful—it seems to me that the most unique factor at play here is Marjoe Gortner himself. It’s easy to see why someone would want to build an entire feature film around him; he’s damn peculiar, truly one-of-a-kind. Hanna, what do you see as being Marjoe’s most distinguishing, most fascinating characteristics? What’s most captivating to you about him, either as a performer or as a latent political subversive?

Hanna: I think the thing I found most captivating about Marjoe is that, despite the fact that he’s a dope-smoking radical who disavows organized religion, he commands attention in the way I imagine a prophet would, whether he’s writhing onstage or calmly discussing the corruption of the holy circuit with the shaggy-maned camera crew. Marjoe’s tender vulnerability in quiet moments is touching; he is completely honest about his relationship with his parents, his movement away from religion, his inclinations towards showmanship, and his own culpability in the exploitation of God-fearing old biddies. In his role as a preacher, he is totally enrapturing and convincing, even when the subject of salvation is a (very confused) black lab. I found myself believing in him in every frame, even when he was praising a God that I knew he didn’t believe in, which was an uncomfortable feeling as a very secular, politically left human. There is some kind of ecstatic divinity in showmanship which, like all things, can be used to gain power over people, and Marjoe was built to harness that from the beginning.

Beyond his natural charisma, Marjoe’s an absolutely effective subject because he’s a true infiltrator into the corruption of the Pentecostal circuit, having lived and breathed the gospel of Godly performance as a child. I’ve seen documentaries that are similar to Marjoe in the past, where an investigative reporter infiltrates a community either as a show of empathetic curiosity or as a straight-up exposé. In the live taping of Darren Brown’s Miracle, for instance, Brown simulates the illusory healing of a gospel revival for his crowd to prove, with a smirk, that it’s all bullshit. This approach is effective, and independent critique of any system is obviously important, but it means something totally different for an insider to step out and expose the rot of a tightly-knit and corrupt community, especially when that insider benefits from the corruption. When Marjoe went into detail about the practices that preachers pushed to get a buck, I felt like I was in a war behind enemy lines.

All of this is complicated, obviously, by the fact of Marjoe’s participation as a preacher all these years, knowing that his paid performances and claims of Godliness are immoral. He even admits to dipping back into preaching when he’s running low on cash, just because he doesn’t really know what else to do. We catch him at just the right time in his life, when his hypocrisy is at a boiling point; he enjoys the showmanship and the spectacle of the Pentecostal church, but can’t reconcile the moral implications of his capitalist evangelism. He says he wants to shed a light on the exploitation of parishioners in these churches through the documentary; Britnee, do you think he succeeds in redeeming himself? What do you think about the tension between his politics and his preaching?

Britnee: My thoughts on Marjoe as an individual constantly changed throughout the documentary. At first, I thought he was going to be this badass who would expose the cruel world that exists behind the scenes of evangelicalism, but that’s not really how it went down. He never showed true remorse for the scamming that he was partaking in during the documentary. In a way, he seemed to be proud of how smart he was for getting away with it. There were moments where I started to think that his followers were foolish, and if they were willing to throw their money at him so willingly, then that’s on them. But then I spent some time reading the crowd. The documentary does focus intently on the crowds at all of Marjoe’s events, and it’s clearly purposeful. The crowds are made up of the elderly, the disabled, and people who show how hard life has ridden them through the expressions on their faces. These are people who are desperate for hope, and Marjoe has no shame in lying to them to take what little money they have to offer. If he was truly trying to expose the crimes of the evangelical world, he would have revealed the truth to his followers at some point during the filming of the documentary. He never really redeems himself in the way that I expected him to.

Being the star of this documentary gave him the same high as being the star of his revivals, and I found this so fascinating to watch. Marjoe loves attention so much that he doesn’t really care what he needs to do to get it. He didn’t agree to do this documentary because he wanted to do something good; he did it because it was a documentary about himself. I’m currently watching The Comeback, and Marjoe definitely has his share of Valerie Cherish moments. This isn’t exactly his fault, since he’s been groomed to be a scamming showman since the age of four. Our early childhood years are so important to the way that we develop mentally, and he was robbed of any chance of being an empathetic human being by his parents. I don’t think that Marjoe is a good, genuine person, but I don’t hold that against him because he never had a chance to be one.

Lagniappe

Hanna: I found Marjoe’s rockstar aspirations to be pretty fascinating, because he does a good job of exuding that raw physical sensuality while yelping his praises to God. Don’t tell me you don’t love those hips, congregation! In another universe, Prince might have been an A+ preacher.

Brandon: I was delighted to discover that Marjoe was able to convert his hammy charisma into a modest career as a B-movie actor in the 1970s, including a starring role in the Italian Star Wars knockoff Starcrash. It’s fun to imagine an alternate reality where his acting career really took off and you could buy official Marjoe® wigs at every Halloween costume store.

Boomer: My favorite (and also most infuriating) visual is from the church near the end, in which the lady preacher is talking about how hard up her church is and is really, really milking the congregation for their tithe . . . only for the camera to zoom in on her jewel-encrusted brooch

Britnee: Other than the occasional Universalist service, I don’t really attend church. I also grew up Catholic, where the services were extremely quiet. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to attend an evangelical service, but I’m too scared to do it. Mega churches and evangelical preaching have always made me uncomfortable. I get a horrible knot in my stomach just by seeing a picture of Joel Olsteen or passing by a megachurch. Watching Marjoe sparked the curiosity in me again to know what that experience is like in person. Does the charisma of these preachers come across stronger in person than they do in the YouTube videos I’ve watched? I’ve fallen down the Kenneth Copeland YouTube rabbit hole since his wild COVID-19 video was posted, and I am just blown away by the idea of anyone giving a penny to someone like this. I guess not much has changed since Marjoe.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
August: Britnee presents Three Women (1977)
September: Hanna presents Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
October: Brandon presents Monster Brawl (2011)

-The Swampflix Crew

Episode #81 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Shack (2017) & Christian Evangelicalism

Welcome to Episode #81 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our eighty-first episode, the podcast is born again with a new & improved format. James Brandon are joined by Hanna Räsänen to discuss the Christian fantasy film The Shack (2017) and recommend two pairings to help illuminate what makes it unique as Christian Evangelical cinema: God’s Not Dead (2014) & Saved! (2004). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

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

The Late, Great Planet Mirth VII: A Distant Thunder (1978)

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

The Late, Great Planet Mirth VI: A Thief in the Night (1972)

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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!

“A man and wife asleep in bed; she hears a noise and turns her head– he’s gone. I wish we’d all been ready.”

This is basically the plot of A Thief in the Night, but first, a little history.

Christian musician Larry Norman was a pioneer, although not everyone was ready for his unique blend of then-modern folksy rock ‘n’ roll when Upon This Rock came out in 1969. Stodgy preachers like Jerry Falwell and especially Jimmy Swaggart saw the use of contemporary music stylings to evangelize as “a sinful compromise with worldliness* and immoral sensuality.” Modern music is often a point of contention for this particular subculture, as the many hours I endured being reminded that listening to “secular music” was a sin at Bethany Christian School (instead of learning about, you know, science or something) can attest– not that it mattered, given that this is the same lesson I was getting at home. One of my favorite Christian propaganda films, Rock: It’s Your Decision, is about this very topic, and I can remember the shelf of books in my fundamentalist school’s library that featured Swaggart’s Religious Rock n’ Roll – A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing alongside Phil Phillips delightfully tangled Turmoil in the Toybox, which is basically Helen Lovejoy’s “Won’t someone please think of the children!” mixed with paranoia that Care Bears and Star Wars are pathways to such evils as Communism, witchcraft, and “Eastern mysticism.”

This same shelf also contained the laughably dated The Unhappy Gays: What Everyone Should Know About Homosexuality, written by future Left Behind co-conspirator Tim LaHaye. This is ironic, given that the title of LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s most famous work is actually taken from “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” the same Larry Norman song excerpted at the top of this article is taken: “There’s no time to change your mind; The son has come and you’ve been left behind.” Even now, nearly ten years into my apostasy, I really enjoy this track: it’s creepy, contemplative, moody, and doesn’t shy away from some of the darker imagery and ideas that inform PMD eschatology and ideation, like children starving to death and demons dining on some unspecified meal (in one lyric alone it manages to take the fate of children into greater consideration than the LB series does in some 4500 pages). It’s haunting, and thus it’s no surprise that it has helped to popularize a certain vision of the post-Rapture world that has  come to be accepted by the PMDs as sacrosanct without really questioning its origin, much the same way that the Hell envisioned by fundamentalists is more Dante than Daniel.

“I Wish We’d All Been Ready” is also the opening musical number of 1972’s A Thief in the Night, playing out over the opening credits and segueing into what appears to be a youth group meeting attended by our heroine Patty (Patty Dunning), a young woman who is consistently identified in promotional materials as “caught up in living for the present with little concern for the future,” even though that’s not terribly accurate. Sure, she occasionally goes to the lake to have fun with her friends, but while there they often engage in conversation about the future, spirituality, and other heady topics that most teenagers probably spend much less time fretting about.

The lead singer of the band and apparent leader of this youth group is Duane (Duane Coller), who reminds his friends that the Rapture could be coming any minute, and that it’s important to be truly saved in order to ensure that they are not left behind to experience the Tribulation. Patty’s love interest Jim (Mike Niday) is a Certified True Believer™, but Patty and her family attend a church with a looser (read, for the sake of this film’s intended audience: a more liberal and less literal and thus not scriptural and in fact heretical) approach to spirituality; her pastor, Matthew Turner (Russell S. Doughten Jr., also a writer on the film) is less fire-and- brimstone and more peace-and- brotherhood, which the Rapture-ready believers watching the film are supposed to recognize as being sinfully misleading. Patty notes that this PMD eschatology is something she’s never heard before, but agrees to attend a service with Jim, where she hears the “truth” for the first time.

The Rapture (sort of) happens at the forty minute mark of this seventy minute movie, but it feels a lot longer due to a few overlong plot cul-de- sacs. The boys over at Red Letter Media coined the term “shoot the rodeo” in their seventh “Wheel of the Worst” video to describe any time that a film crew decides to shoot a real life event that is happening nearby in order to enhance production value (just like the kids in Super 8). This is why Clint Eastwood’s character in Play Misty for Me goes to a super boring jazz festival for a while, and (presumably) why there’s a dog frisbee competition at the beginning of Flight of the Navigator. It seems like a watersports event must have been happening in or around Des Moines at the time that Thief was being shot, because our gaggle of main characters seem to spend an awful lot of time at the lake. Jim is bitten by a snake at work at one point, requiring a discussion about the fact that there is no antidote, so the hospital is flying in a snake farmer to give a transfusion in the hopes that the antibodies he’s built up will save Jim’s life. It’s not as exciting as it sounds (although it’s not boring per se, just belabored), and several trips to the hospital later, Jim and Patty get married. Things are fairly blissful for the young Iowans; until one day Patty’s asleep in bed, she hears a noise and turns her head, Jim’s gone! I wish we’d all been ready!

The radio tells about the sudden disappearance of millions of people, and Patty knows the truth. Just as Nicolae Carpathia would set up New Babylon and its accompanied One World Government in the Left Behind series, and Franco Macalusso erected the O.N.E. in the sequels to Apocalypse, the presumable Antichrist (whom we don’t meet in this installment) has the United Nations create the Imperium of Total Emergency (U.N.I.T.E.)**, and soon it’s binary triple sixes for everybody! You get a Mark of the Beast! And you get a Mark of the Beast!

Patty’s other friends waste no time falling in line with the new world order, as even her old pastor shows up at the Mark facility and says that he wants to be a good citizen before getting his forehead tattooed. Patty flirts with the idea of getting Marked because without it, she can’t buy food or anything else that she needs (a reference to Revelation 13:17). Patty is relentlessly pursued by the forces of U.N.I.T.E., embodied by a single van full of Antichrist cronies, until she is trapped on a bridge and, in attempting to escape, falls to her apparent death in the waters below.

Psych! Patty wakes up; it was all a dream. Except double psych! It was a dream, but she has awoken moments after the Rapture has taken her husband and the rest of the real Christians. She screams us out into the end card, which states “The End . . . Is Near!”

The most striking thing about A Thief in the Night is how competent it is, especially in comparison to other films in this subgenre. It’s been too long since I watched the Left Behind films starring Kirk Cameron to make definitive statements about their quality, but I don’t recall them with any particular fondness and seem to remember them being more banal than a manila folder, while Apocalypse seemed like it was made by someone who had heard of these “moving pictures” but never seen one before. Although there are some stretches that are pretty dull, Thief was made by someone who knew what they were doing. There’s clever (if very, very dated) editing, decent production value, and even a few really great sight gags (my favorite is the post-Rapture church sign that reads “The end is nea– ,” demonstrating that some  church underling got taken in the twinkling of an eye in the middle of a dull chore).

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It’s not a great film by a long shot, but it’s definitely a worthwhile endeavor. The film it reminds me of most, actually, is Mark of the Witch. It’s not just the amateurish acting, the surprising competency of a wet-behind- the-ears cast and crew, or the dated visuals and cinematography: the people making this movie had fun, and you can tell. It’s a far cry from more dour (if also more entertaining in its own way) fare like Revelation or Judgment. It’s a film that sets out to scare its audience, but out of love, not scorn or spite. That’s the real miracle.

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*When used in this context, “worldliness” means an investment in the material (and thus sinful, carnal) world, rather than the more common, secular definition meaning “sophisticated.”

**This is early evidence of the influence of the far-right John Birch Society on PMD thinking; JBS was claiming that the United Nations was merely the first step toward building a one world government as early as 1959. It comes through even more clearly in the Left Behind books, which is no surprise given that the aforementioned LaHaye was a card-carrying John Bircher. I highly recommend checking out the Wikipedia page on the JBS while you can; if literal Nazi Richard Spencer gets any closer to the White House, it’ll likely be Ministry of Truth’d within 72 hours. For other further reading, my man Fred Clark has a couple of blog posts that serve as good introductions to what PMDs think the UN is and a discussion of the bizarre, self-deceptive cognitive dissonance required to buy that nonsense.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Don Verdean (2015)

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I can’t blame everyone else for not caring, but I personally want the best for Jared & Jerusha Hess. The married couple/filmmaking partners started their career as something of a novelty act with the titles Napoleon Dynamite & Nacho Libre, but their third film, Gentlemen Broncos, is a personal pet favorite of me. It’s a nerdy, delightfully misshapen work that found the Hesses embracing their inner strange in a seemingly authentic way and I’ve made it something of a personal mission of mine to shepherd the too-easily discarded film into cult classic territory. The Hesses recently seemed poised to top that success with a pair of talent-stacked comedies going into wide release the same year. Unfortunately, their Zack Galifianakis/Kristen Wiig bank heist comedy Masterminds suffered a blow when its distribution company financially collapsed & its release was shelved indefinitely. The other movie, Don Verdean, made not even the smallest splash at the theaters and quietly slipped onto streaming on Netflix with no apparent fanfare. It seems the Hess heyday is still somewhere ahead of us (unless it began & ended with the “Vote for Pedro” t-shirt craze, which seems just as likely).

Again, I can’t exactly blame critics & audiences for not falling head over heel for Don Verdean. For a comedy this deeply strange & off-kilter it’s also oddly subdued, as if the Hesses were aiming to make a lowbrow version of a Coen Brothers film. Don Verdean is a screwball comedy about four snake oil-selling religious hucksters trying to make a dishonest buck in the faith industry: Sam Rockwell as the titular “archeologist” (read: artifact thief); Danny McBride as the living “miracle” Tony Lazarus (whom The Good Lord decided brought back to life so that he could marry the hooker he overdosed with & start a ministry); Will Forte as a competing minister/former High Priest of the Church of Satan; and Jemaine Clement as a con artist producer of religious artifacts both real & forged (in an unfortunate bit of Middle Eastern Jew racial caricature). All four of these dark souls are condemnable in their exploitation of religion as a racket, which may be an indication of the Mormon filmmakers Hesses’ disgust with certain, cynical factions of Evangelicals within the Christian community. The film never aims to be a satire about gigantic institutional shortcomings within organized religion’s opportunistic hucksters, however. It’s more of a character study of a small, oddly specific group of barely human weirdos who sometimes allow their thirst for financial gains & notoriety outstrip their faith in God.

I don’t think going small & narrowly focused is necessarily a problem for Don Verdean, but it’s definitely not a comedic style that’s going to grab much attention. Sam Rockwell’s quiet, oddly undignified portrayal of a past-his-prime archeologist seemingly plucked from a Chuck Norris promo VHS scrounged up by Everything Is Terrible isn’t flashy or over-the-top in any particular way. His quiet convictions, both religious & self-serving, are hilarious in their absurdity, however. His company Holy Land Investigations is in the business of searching for artifacts like the scissors that cut Samson’s hair, Lot’s wife’s salty remains, and Goliath’s rock-cracked skull and bringing them to the “USA where they belong” in order to prove that The Bible is “true”. He may not go full living cartoon at any particular moment in his performance, but there’s plenty of unreal amusement is his statements like “Finding treasure in the Earth is meaningless unless it helps someone get to Heaven who wouldn’t get there otherwise” & “What makes you think you can carbon date the wrath of the Almighty?”

Don Verdean may not be a far-reaching satire of Evangelical opportunism or an over-the-top riot of wild caricature, but I do think Jared & Jerusha Hess have a lot to say about outsized hubris and the divisions that arise between faith & financial gain in the more theatrical wings of Christianity. Their point is just quietly grounded in a muted character whose soul is just as grey-brown as the earth tone colors of his Chuck Norris cosplay. The movie only falters when it loses focus on this troubled antihero & instead follows the larger-than-life characters that color his outdated, insular world. They did a much better job of sticking to a grounded, focused POV in Gentlemen Broncos, which may help explain why that film was more artistically successful (to me anyway; neither movie was received especially well), but I still enjoyed most of what goes down here. My uncontrollable urge is to again recommend that you give Gentlemen Broncos a fighting chance, but if you already have & enjoyed what you saw, Don Verdean‘s not too shabby of a follow up. I wouldn’t be surprised if Masterminds plays out much the same way (if it ever sees the light of day in the first place). Here’s to hoping.

-Brandon Ledet