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 V: Future Tense (1990), and a Jeremiad for America

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three star

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!

As the end of the world approaches, it’s time to get back into the swing of things with a look at more premillenialist dispensational fearmongering with Future Tense. I thought about moving on to the older tetralogy of Rapture flicks that I remember from rainy recesses at Christian school, starting with 1972’s Thief in the Night, but those films are harder to track down, so I went with this 1990 half-hour evangelism video instead. Tense was produced and distributed by Mars Hill Productions shortly after that ministry’s 1988 split from their parent organization, Youth for Christ/Houston, following the division’s formation in 1977. The plot, such as it is, concerns newly born again student Michael Cummings (A.J. Merrill), who joined the Christian faith after leaving his atheistic home for college. His attempts to share this good news are rebuffed by his parents, so he records a tape in order to preach at them without interruption tell them about his newfound Savior and warn them about a spooky metaphorical dream he had about the Rapture, and how they can avoid being left behind.

Of particular interest is the way that this film was created as a proselytization aid and how that actually informs the viewing experience in a positive way. The Apocalypse series shows the Rapture event happening very early, and is largely concerned with the Tribulation period that follows and how new converts will have to live in that supposed future; the Left Behind series (both the books and films) were also more invested in what follows the Rapture than being prepared for it, and when we talk about the Thief series soon we’ll see many of these same ideas. For all that Tim LaHaye, Jerry B. Jenkins, Hal Lindsey, and their ilk may like to think of themselves as selfless Jeremiahs come to warn unbelievers of a doomy future and by their warning save the lost, there’s a sense of smugness that pervades their work, a depraved (and frankly unChristian) desire not to save souls from damnation but lord their rightness over them. They don’t look forward to the Rapture because they’ll finally be with God, they look forward to being proven right in their eschatology: “We were right and you were wrong, so get ready for Wormwood and Babylon, sinners.” Future Tense, for all that it may fail to adequately connect with an audience that is not already “Rapture Ready” is genuinely and earnestly concerned with the viewer’s salvation, for better or worse. Despite its short run time (which, like Apocalypse and many films created for Christians to use as evangelism tools, includes a montage sequence during which your Christian friend showing you this video is supposed to offer to pray with you), Future Tense crams in more humanity than the entire Left Behind oeuvre, which should be properly lauded.

Also notable in this film is that Michael’s father (John Shannon) voices many of the secular—as opposed to scriptural—objections to Rapture ideology that PMDs hear in the real world, making this one of the more realistic Rapture flicks, although this does not render the short without flaw. The purveyors of this kind of Christian media exist within such an ideological echo chamber that they seem unable to actually comprehend that the viewing audience isn’t already invested in their worldview and the beliefs thereof. For instance, in one scene Michael’s father states that “For as long as [he] can remember” there have been doomsayers predicting the end of the world, and he’s right! For instance, Hilary of Poitiers, whose Commentarius in Evangelium Matthaei is the oldest complete extant Latin commentary on Matthew, predicted that the world would end in 365 CE. When we get to Thief in the Night, we’ll see a Lindsey-influenced PMD pastor state that the then-impending 1980s apocalypse must mean that the Antichrist was already politically active in that film’s production year of 1972; Martin of Tours said essentially the same thing: “There is no doubt that the Antichrist has already been born. Firmly established already in his early years, he will, after reaching maturity, achieve supreme power.” Of course, Martin was predicting a world expiration date of 400 CE, a good fifteen centuries earlier than Lindsey. All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.

The filmmakers, of course, don’t intend for Michael’s father to be seen as a voice of reason; his protestations are supposed to ring hollow in the ears of True Believers, but the producers fail to consider that the real intended audience, the unsaved, needs to be presented with some kind of rebuttal to Mr. Cummings’s rhetoric if they’re going to be swayed by this video. His smugness is undoubtedly meant to be read as the most deleterious form of prideful arrogance: the kind that damns others as well as oneself. We’re meant to pity him and his family because they will be left behind and because he refuses to listen to his son, but what aspect of his recounting of historical apocalypse hoaxes is inaccurate? What concerns does he have that don’t demand an answer, one which the evangelist should be ready to present? Ultimately, the fact that counter arguments are invoked but not discussed undermines the intended message.

Instead, what we are left with as a result is less a sermon than a text that can be read as an unintentional short-form presentation about one man’s mental illness, and how his fanaticism about his newfound faith and the accompanying dreams (or hallucinations, if you will) have a harrowing effect on his relationship with his family. He calls his parents, anxiously weeping and begging his parents to join his religious sect, warning them that, if they do not come to believe what he does, they will suffer. His younger sister is affected most strongly by these warnings, becoming paranoid about the end of the world. After all, Michael is her older brother; she respects and admires him. Couldn’t he be right? Mr. Cummings, unsure of how to deal with his son’s deteriorating sanity and worried for his daughter, forbids discussion of this Rapture nonsense in his home. And there’s Mrs. Cummings, caught in the middle, so desperate to reach out to her beloved firstborn but unable to do so because every phone call ends in admonitions and premonitions of darkness to come. When she refuses to play along, he sends them a recording of his ramblings so that they can’t interrupt his stream-of- consciousness diatribe.

That’s not the story that Mars Hill set out to make, but that’s what’s on screen.

So, what have we learned from Future Tense? We’ve learned that PMD media can be genuinely human when it focuses less on shaming those who will be left behind and more on building the flock. We’ve learned that a fundamental misunderstanding of (or an unconscious unwillingness to empathize with) the intended audience can turn an evangelistic parable into a dire warning about the perils of religious susceptibility. But most of all we’ve learned that, if your loved ones won’t listen to you, the best solution is to give them an audio cassette and an ultimatum.

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“A jeremiad is a long literary work, usually in prose, but sometimes in verse, in which the author bitterly laments the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective, and always contains a prophecy of society’s imminent downfall.” – definition via Wikipedia

A tangent here, if you will indulge me. There is no mention of the “Antichrist” in Future Tense, although that figure is often a major player in most of these films. We live in dark days, and whether or not we (as individuals or as a nation) emerge from the next four years at all is in question. I have to ask, what is the Antichrist? Many modern Christians interpret the term to mean a singular entity, even though this is . . . not really textually accurate. A more correct reading is that the term describes a system of ideas that are antithetical to the actual teachings of Jesus, such as: condemning usury and calling upon money lenders to forsake their trade and follow him; finding the image of God in the faces of the sick, the elderly, and those of a foreign land, and caring for them as one would for Christ himself; rebuking the adherents of a religious doctrine that curried political favor by supporting the oppressor and the status quo; encouraging de-escalation as the truest means of seeking peace; discouraging the accumulation of wealth at the expense of the destitute; and, most importantly, loving one’s neighbor, without caveat. I never wanted to be Hal Lindsey or Martin of Tours, but let me say this now while we are still here: the spirit of the Antichrist is very much alive in our current social and political systems, and within the religion which claims to follow Christ. If there is a physical embodiment of that spirit, his ascension is upon us. It’s enough to make a man consider conversion.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Late, Great Planet Mirth IV: Judgment (2001)

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fourstar

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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!

Fear not, Leigh Lewis fans! Despite all appearances, Helen Hannah did not, in fact, die at the end of Tribulation. I mean, she did; she really, really did. The descending blade of that guillotine in V-World was no joke, but the plot of this film required her to be alive, so here she is, back from the dead for the second time (given that she was pretty obviously about to be executed at the end of Apocalypse as well), which is especially impressive given that the Son of Man himself has only done it the once. I’m not about to go all Annie Wilkes here about how she didn’t get out of the cock-a-doodie guillotine, though, because this film is where Lewis really gets to shine.The LaLondes could kill her at the end of every film and bring her right back like Aeon Flux and I would still be on board. She’s joined here by some real talent, too, which helps carry the film.

The tagline for Judgment is as succinct as it is hilarious: “The Supreme Court versus The Supreme Being…. Let the trial begin.” Of course, the Supreme Court doesn’t factor into this film at all. Instead, the plot focuses on the attempts of O.N.E.’s World Court to charge Helen Hannah with the worst crime of all: hatred of humanity. Mitch Kendrick (Corbin Bernsen) is a lawyer who is reluctantly drafted into acting has Helen’s defense. Kendrick, who previously lost the case that saw his “Hater” (i.e. Christian) father vilified and executed, is being blackmailed by his ex, the ambitious Victoria Thorne (Jessica Steen). Thorne knows that Mitch never actually took the Mark, and that his is a black market fake; she calls him weak and denigrates him for failing to choose a side. Thorne and Judge Wells (Michael Copeman) provide Mitch with a script to follow for the televised trial, one that will ultimately lead to Helen inevitably being found guilty, but  Kendrick latches onto the idea of prosecuting not Helen, but God himself. Franco Macalusso, AKA the Antichrist, AKA Lucifer (Nick Mancuso) finds this idea fascinating, and he tells Wells and Thorne to throw out their script and let this play out.

It’s as goofy as it sounds, but in a oddly compelling way. Whereas Tribulation  featured both silly Charmed warlocks going around and Force-choking random schizophrenics for knowing too much and a scene where the same Satanist characters chillingly murder an alley full of homeless people in cold blood, Judgment is consistent in its absurdity. The court of law that’s depicted herein is completely bonkers. There’s no disclosure of evidence or witness lists pre-trial, and there’s also no jury, just a single judge who both presides and acts as arbiter. The witnesses that we do see aren’t even there to talk about the forensics of the explosion that destroyed a school bus (as seen in Revelation and mentioned here as evidence of Hater terrorism) or anything that would reasonably appear in a case about one woman’s devotion to a “dangerous” cult (or the culpability of a deity). Instead, we see a five-star general testify as an expert witness about how much less dangerous the world is now that Lucifer has taken dominion, and how many parties the Department of Defense has to plan now that war has become a thing of the past. We also get to see the all-too-brief return of now-soulless Willie Spino (Tony Nappo) as he testifies against his sister. None of the court proceedings reflect the real world at all; the legal system of this world as scripted may as well be predicated on a child’s understanding of how the law works based on seeing a few episodes of Law & Order on a fuzzy, muted television at the laundromat. Somehow, though, it has its own dizzying internal logic, and if you can just accept that and go with it, the film is a lot of fun.

There’s also a secondary plot woven throughout that is virtually irrelevant, although it contains some elements that are genuinely novel within Christian cinema. Selma (Mirium Carvell), the leader of the Hater cell who escaped from the fiery furnace in Revelation, is hiding out with several other secret Christians, including J.T. Quincy (the one and only fool-pitier himself, Mr. T) and his wife. Although this plot is pointless, Mr. T gets a black market Mark of the Beast like Kendrick and enlists a young couple named Danny and Dawn to help them break into the detention facility and rescue Helen. The unique thing about these two is that they are neither Christians nor Antichristians, but unbelievers. And not unbelievers like Stone and Kendrick, whose entire narrative arc is to become a believer, but real people in this world who aren’t sure what the truth is. It’s a real problem in our world that Christians (and people of other faiths, I’m sure, but I’m specifically talking about the PMD Christianity that I was raised in and which birthed this series of films) see those with other beliefs and philosophies not merely as misguided, but as people who surely know the truth (as the PMDs perceive it) and are in constant, intentional denial of it. It’s exactly as patronizing as it sounds, and it’s a genuine surprise that Danny and Dawn are as well rounded as those characters on either side of the Christ/Antichrist debate. Dawn isn’t sure that the stories she’s heard about Hater terrorism are false, and Danny’s starving; neither wants to take the Mark because they’ve seen how it changes people, but without it they have no way of getting food or shelter. Neither Dawn nor Danny gets preached to or is harangued about the need to accept Christ before it’s too late, they’re just accepted by the Christians and housed without the thought of proselytization.

Which isn’t to say that this film passes without a little preaching, but at least it’s presented in a dynamic way. In all three previous films in the Apocalypse series, most of the scenes where you as an audience member are supposed to consider your sins and ponder following Jesus were people sitting in a room and dialoguing at each other; here, the Christian safe house is raided (Thorne planted a tracking device on Kendrick in order to find it) and Selma ends up in the same building as the trial, so she stands and testifies on Helen’s behalf and goes on a diatribe about the evidence for a historical resurrection. It’s a nice scene, not least of all because it gives Jessica Steen the chance to do something other than portray a Powerful Female Attorney as envisioned by the repressed, more misogynistic Christian version of David E. Kelley. That’s spot on for how empowered women are usually portrayed in this genre, but I digress. Mr. T ends up breaking Helen and Selma out after all, and they escape.

There are a few other things going on here that are different from standard Christian movies. For one, our main character is a liar. He lies to his ex, he lies to the judge, he lies to society. The only time he ever seems to be telling the truth is when he and Helen are alone, and he spends most of that time yelling at her about how meaningless her faith is. Corbin Bernsen is the closest thing to a movie star that has graced this series (all deference and love to Margot Kidder, but get real). The man was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe! He was in 171 episodes of L.A. Law, and the Major League film series was very popular in its day. Obviously, he brings the things he learned in the former to this role, so much so that even though I have never seen a single episode of L.A. Law, I could still feel the conviction in his voice every time the word “Objection!” came flying out of his mouth. As a result, he brings a lot of dignity to a role that could otherwise be an exercise in ham-fisted moralizing.

Overall, that’s the best way to think about this film: a surprisingly dignified story about one woman struggling with her faith in the face of certain death, and the way that this faith helps her to move metaphorical mountains. It’s full of continuity issues and plot holes, but it still works, for the most part. Of all the films that I have seen that were created explicitly as propaganda, this is one that actually works (mostly) outside of that context.

Stray observations:

● Steen had previously appeared in Michael Bay’s Armageddon and would later appear in Left Behind: World at War, meaning that she has appeared in three separate franchises about the end of the world (four, if you count early nineties sci-fi TV series Earth 2). She also gives a strong performance here, although a lot of characters talk about her and her ambition with lines dripping with misogyny.

● Nick Mancuso gets to give his best performance yet in this series, as he appears as a character interacting with others throughout. I did laugh when Kendrick called him to the stand and he appeared from around the corner instantaneously, though. His sudden appearance, along with the way that Selma appears in the courtroom, contributes to the stage-like feel of the movie, for better or worse; I found it more amusing than distracting, however, so it was a positive for me.

● There are some continuity errors surrounding how the Mark works; previously it seemed to have a Yeerk-like effect where the bearer of the Mark essentially became a different person with no free will. This time around, bearers of the Mark act outside of (and even contrary to) the will of the Antichrist. Thorne is aware that Kendrick’s Mark is fake, but she uses this to blackmail him instead of just turning him in. When she explains this to Judge Wells, she even mentions that his entry on the Mark-bearer registry is forged; previously, the Mark automatically made you part of the telekinetic hivemind and made you turn on anyone you knew. What makes the least sense, though, is when Kendrick peels off his fake Mark in the courtroom, and Lucifer is surprised. Like, really, Satan? You were fooled by this guy’s fake Mark, a fake Mark of You?

● It’s pretty apparent that this film went through more than one draft, which isn’t always the case in productions like this. The subplot about Mr. T and his friends was obviously a vestigial leftover from an earlier version of the plot, especially given how a scene in their bunker and a scene between Kendrick and Helen is intercut awkwardly, as if trying to break up the bunker plot. The only real impact that they have is presenting Kendrick with evidence, which could have been demonstrated by Selma performing a dead drop somewhere for Kendrick to find. Given that the movie ends with Kendrick’s sacrifice and Helen escaping, it would have been more moving if the subplot was cut completely and Selma had been caught trying to get Kendrick this info. She and Helen could have made their own heroic sacrifices to end the film, instead of them getting out of their cell and the film immediately cutting to credits.

● There are no films in this series that follow Judgment. I have to admit that I’m pretty disappointed in this anticlimactic ending. Of all the films to leave Helen Hannah alive at the end of, why the finale? Part of this might be because Cloud Ten was gearing up production on the film adaptations of Left Behind around this time and were concerned about diluting the brand (such as it is), but creating a film series that is leading up to the reappearance of Jesus but doesn’t even include an inkling of resolution is a horrible choice. Oh well.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Late Great Planet Mirth III – Tribulation (2000)

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twohalfstar

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!

Hoo boy, this is a weird one. The back of the box for Tribulation, the third film in the Apocalypse series, claims that the film is roughly 101 minutes long, but the movie really clocks in at less than 90, in the low eighties if you discount the overlong opening credits. Revelation also had a similar problem, as that film started with a long pan through Thorold Stone’s house while a cover of Rapture anthem “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” The difference is that Revelation picks up from there and goes the distance (…mostly), while Tribulation is too down to earth, despite paradoxically also being absolutely bonkers. It takes a risk by crafting (for lack of a better word) a Rapture story that includes elements from sources other than Hal Lindsay’s Premillenial Dispensationalism™, but the more ostentatious features of the movie are at odds tonally with the previous films. It also feels like something you’ve seen in any DTV conspiracy thriller because, despite taking place in the world created by the first two films, Tribulation barely bothers to include the Antichrist, instead playing out like a bargain basement pod people movie interspersed with televangelical talking heads.

Tom Canboro (Gary Busey; yes, that Gary Busey) is a cop in Anytown, USA. His lovely wife Susie (Sherri Miller) is some kind of television producer. Busey says at one point that life isn’t like her show, where she finds “the most romantic angle” for a story; this, combined with the fact that she is friends pre-Rapture with Helen Hannah (returning champ Leigh Lewis), is all the information that we really get about her. Tom has remained close in adulthood with kid brother Calvin and their older sister Eileen (Lois Lane herself Margot Kidder), who’s a bit of an overbearing Bible-thumper. The Canboros also share their home with Susie’s younger brother Jason (Howie Mandel), who is interested in the philosophy of rising European Union figurehead Franco Macalusso (Nick Mancuso).

That’s right! Macalusso is just a minor politician at this point. Tribulation doesn’t start during the Tribulation at all; half of this movie’s runtime takes place pre-Rapture, spending nearly 45 minutes establishing character relationships that won’t matter in the back half. In fact, this film doesn’t feel like it has multiple acts, instead feeling like two parts of a TV two-parter. It is established that Jason is mentally unstable, although it’s apparent that he’s written by someone who has no concept of how mental illness works. Jason is frequently manic, excitedly telling the small family gathering about Macalusso’s idea that if all the people on earth were united in their ideas, man could essentially become like unto a god. Jason is also stated to have a past history of psychological hospitalization and an interest in the occult, which are explicitly linked. He uses a non-copyrighted ouija board, which somehow gives him the clue that Macalusso’s ideas are related to Genesis 11:6, which is in the middle of the story the Tower of Babel. You can look that up in whichever translation suits you, but they’re all essentially a variation on the idea that the builders of the tower could perform any feat they imagined because of their unified language and intention. Don’t let it surprise you that the film ends up having the villains treat this verse like the loophole in a contract with God, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Jason ends up wreaking havoc in the family kitchen while explaining how one group of monkeys spontaneously learned a skill that another monkey group (from which they were isolated) learned independently; this is definitive proof, he says, that Macalusso is right about the boundlessness of human potential. Jason and Eileen argue about their perspective worldviews. I wouldn’t even mention it, but it leads Busey to utter one of the greatest lines ever committed to film while he puts on his badge and gun (I gave the movie an extra star for this alone):

“I gotta go. There’s a whole lotta people in this city who don’t take much comfort in God or a clean banana.”

Elsewhere, a group of Satanists (led by a guy who intentionally looks like Anton LaVey) are standing around under a pentagram, focusing on a model of the Tower of Babel and, well, babbling about how God himself admitted in Genesis 11:6 that mankind is capable of overpowering him. Because the movie needs a scene to drive home how dangerous they are, they possess the sleeping body of a guy who teaches a night course in parapsychology,which is hilarious for a few reasons. First, the fact that the screenwriter specified that this was night school in order to capitalize on the creep factor is adorable. Secondly, after revealing this fact, one of the Laveys hilariously says “This guy’s mind is wiiiide open,” because the Laveys share the same ironically dismissive attitude about New Age concepts that Evangelicals do. The possessed man starts attacking his Christian wife, screaming that she is a “Hater” (thereby establishing that this term for Christians predates the Rapture in this world, answering a question that nobody asked). Tom responds to the domestic disturbance call and confronts the possessed man, who threatens his wife and then leaps through the window of their 14th floor apartment. Intercut (although that word implies a mastery of editing that is not on display here, which I’ll get to in a bit) with this are a couple of scenes showing Jason confronting Susie and demanding to see Eileen, calling her a “hater.” Although we only see the aftermath, Tom is called away to the hospital because Jason also jumped out of a window, but was luckily only on the first floor.

At the hospital, the Canboros learn that Jason will likely be remitted to a psychiatric facility, much to his distress. Lavey Prime astral projects into the room and uses Force Choke on Jason, as he had picked up on broadcasts that weren’t meant for him. Lavey Prime is repelled by the presence of Eileen, like a vampire with the weirdest weakness of all time. While Tom goes to check on the body of the man from the domestic disturbance in the morgue, Susie decides she’s just going to kidnap her brother from the hospital. Eileen is on board because she totally believes his ramblings about the cabal of Laveys and their murderous ways, despite the fact that a psychic Babel cult plays no role in the Hal Lindsey PMD™ beliefs that she is seen to espouse. A couple of minor Laveys brag to each other about having killed the night school instructor, and Tom overhears; he flees the hospital right behind Susie and the others, but the Laveys cause him to crash his car. If this really were a TV two-parter, this is where the ominous “To be continued…” would appear.

We flash-forward to the post-Rapture world established in Revelation, where Tom wakes from a coma in a world he doesn’t understand, presaging similar plot developments from Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead, except that those narratives don’t spend an inordinate amount of time in the pre-crisis world. The hospital room in which he awakes is shared with an amputee, who warns him not to let anyone know that he is awake, as he will then have to put on the VR glasses and choose death or Macalusso’s Mark. Tribulation doubles down on Revelation’s weird ableism (the amputee seems genuinely panicked that he will be forced to don the goggles but acquiesces to take the Mark almost immediately after realizing that doing so will restore his missing arm), and Tom barely escapes detection before taking heart when he sees that one of Macalusso’s broadcasts is interrupted by archive footage from Jack van Impe’s TV show. We learn that these hacks are being perpetrated by Helen and Susie, along with Jake (Patrick Gallagher, who was also a member of Helen’s underground in Revelation), operating out of a broadcast van and staying on the run. We also learn that Thorold Stone was captured and executed between the previous film and this one.

Tom struggles to comprehend the Tribulation in which he has awoken and seeks out Eileen. Every person he encounters turns on him after learning he is not Marked, and the Laveys almost capture him in a disturbing scene in which they murder a group of homeless people hanging out in an alley through which he escapes. Eventually, he makes his way to his and Susie’s old house, where he encounters Calvin, who has taken the Mark and does not remember Eileen; she no longer even appears in photos from their childhood. Calvin attempts to force Tom to take the Mark, but Tom bests him and flees to a sentimental place: a tree that Eileen had designated as a meeting place for them as children should they ever get lost in the woods. There, he finds Jason, who has successfully avoided taking the Mark but still refuses to accept that Eileen’s warnings are playing out exactly as she predicted. Meanwhile, Helen is captured by the Antichrist’s forces after the latest broadcast. Tom sets out to find Susie, hoping that they can reunite before the end of the world.

Tribulation is by far the most bizarre entry in the canon of Rapture flicks, using decidedly non-PMD ideas like the concept that humanity might be capable of defeating God if united in one purpose in an attempt to build a conspiracy thriller. Ultimately, however, it fails to be as engaging as Revelation, which hit the ground running relatively quickly. There’s also a step backward in regards to production value this time around, as the editing in this film is utter garbage. There are splices that are so random that at first I wondered if the DVD was skipping before remembering that I was watching a VHS; in the kitchen scene that establishes character relationships, there is a sudden jump to Jason’s upstairs room, where he is accidentally tapping into the Laveys’ transmissions, a shot that lasts ten seconds before jumping back to the kitchen below. Later, when Tom is confronting the possessed night school instructor, there are similar splices to a seemingly random scene in which Jason is screaming at Susie about his need to find and kill Eileen; we cut back to the domestic disturbance site, see the possessed man leap to his death, and then a quick cut back to the Canboro house, where Jason is lying on the ground outside, seemingly with no cause. It’s only in retrospect that the audience is led to the realization that Jason was receiving the same psychic orders as the dead man. This happens again and again throughout the plot, and it makes for a distinctly disorienting viewing experience. This could be forgiven if it seemed at all to be an intentional ploy to put the audience in the same headspace as Tom, but the only way that could work is if these scenes started after his awakening, which they don’t.

There’s another issue with the narrative, which is what we could call the Problem of Eileen. After Tribulation was released, Margot Kidder famously claimed that she had no idea that the film was meant to be a Christian propaganda piece, and Howie Mandel has made similar statements. Viewing their contributions to the film in isolation, Mandel’s statement is more difficult to believe, given that his character endures the Tribulation and ends up becoming a believer by the end. I’m more inclined to give Kidder some credit, though, for a few reasons. Firstly, her character is taken in the Rapture, meaning that she only appears in the first half of the film and may not have been given a complete script, which lends some credibility to her claims. Secondly, Eileen as presented in the film isn’t the best representation of Christianity; she comes across as obsessive and overbearing, and although these are not uncommon character traits among some believers, Kidder seems to be playing Eileen that way intentionally, as if the viewer is supposed to find her at least somewhat disagreeable. Although her drug use problems have rendered her the butt of insensitive jokes, Kidder’s not a bad actress, and I think that if she had known that Eileen was supposed to be the voice of reason (rather than a fundamentalist with kooky views that she won’t shut up about, the way Kidder plays her), she would have given a more nuanced performance. Finally, given Kidder’s own troubles with mental illness, I doubt she would have agreed to play a character who treats Jason’s instability as something that can be prayed away if she had realized that the filmmakers intended her to be right. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in Christian families in the real world who do not get the professional help they desperately need for this same reason.

There are myriad problems here above and beyond those noted in the plot synopsis. All of the Laveys dress like Charmed warlocks, which severely undercuts the menace of their presence. Their wanton murder of a dozen homeless people adds some of that villainy back in, but the tone deafness of that scene (which follows the shooting of an unarmed black Christian man named Ronnie by the police) and the film’s apparent lack of consideration for the real world implications lacks social awareness. The film would have been better served to illustrate the parallel between the Tribulation and our present and how both worlds are in need of redemption, but blind support of police and blanket privileging of Christianity in our society are both tools that support and reinforce the status quo, so no criticism of the violence and fascism of contemporary America can be made. As a result, this sequence is nearly as offensive in what it doesn’t say as Apocalypse was in its appropriation of footage of real world violence, just in reverse.

As always, this film is not without redeeming features. Busey gives a good performance here as well. Not for an actor, mind you, but for a Busey, he’s quite good. It’s too bad that what could have been a decent outing for him in the twilight of his career takes place in such a shoddily constructed movie. Lewis continues to outshine the material she is given to work with. The sequence that works best is when, post-capture, she is taken into the VR world to confront Macalusso. Lewis plays the internal war between faith and fear admirably, giving a powerhouse performance, and Mancuso’s Macalusso shines more brightly here than in Apocalypse, despite that he never actually appears, being seen only in the VR world and giving addresses on television. Still, there’s not enough here to make up for the poor scripting, inconsistent performances, and overall feeling of cheapness. This movie is only marginally better than Apocalypse in the end, even once you factor in Lewis’s performance. Skip this one.

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Final Thoughts

  •  It’s inconceivable that the Laveys have nothing better to do in this film than spend the entire second half trying to track down one wayward Busey, who isn’t much of a threat. If anything, it only further serves to highlight Tom’s irrelevance to the plot. In Apocalypse, Stone actually had a purpose in the narrative other than to find salvation, since he had the disc that was smuggled to him by the underground; here, it’s Helen who makes the ultimate sacrifice (although she will reappear in Judgment, the final film in the series) in order to get Macalusso’s confession on tape and expose his lies. Tom does nothing to contribute to this plot, as Helen is captured before he even makes contact with the resistance
  • This introduces yet another problem, which is that the ending implies that those with the Mark can somehow overcome their brainwashing, as Macalusso’s television address following the broadcast of his Engineered Public Confession finds him angrily demanding that his flock return to him. Up to this point, those who take the Mark are treated like vampires from Buffy: you are no longer yourself, instead surrendering wholly to a new being that inhabits your body and has your memories but isn’t you. This further cements the fact that this is a body snatcher film, not one about possession.
  • It’s also worth noting that Tom’s escape from the O.N.E.-controlled hospital takes so long that Lavey Prime is notified he has awoken and disappeared but still has time to get to that location before Tom even makes it outside. It’s just one more plotting problem on top of so many that have come before.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Late Great Planet Mirth II – Revelation (1999)

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threehalfstar

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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!

Revelation, sometimes stylized as Apocalypse II: Revelation, is the first of three sequels to 1998 PPI release Apocalypse, and it is a massive improvement on the previous installment. Gone are the bargain basement community theatre actors who clogged up the works in the first flick, replaced by people you may have actually heard of before; gone is the soundtrack that consists almost entirely of Contemporary Christian Music artists, replaced by music that was actually scored for the film rather than haphazardly arranged behind it. Furthermore, the production value on Revelation is exponentially higher than that of Apocalypse, as this movie succeeds in actually looking like a movie and not a poorly produced television pilot shot on VHS. Although the proselytizing elements are still present in this film, they’re toned down significantly, and Revelation feels like it was conceived as a movie with the soapbox added as an afterthought, rather than the other way around.

The film opens on Thorold Stone, a counter-terrorism specialist whose wife and young daughter were among those who vanished three months prior; he spends his evenings reminiscing and watching old home films while flashing back to all the times his wife tried to convince him to join her in church. He is awoken from his reverie by news of a schoolbus bombing (which is a bit of a continuity problem, as all children were supposedly raptured, although this could have been a bus for teenagers), and he meets his partner at the scene of the crime. They trace the detonation signal to an underground church  meeting of “haters,” Christians who oppose the apparently benevolent Antichrist Franco Macalusso (recast and now played by Nick Mancuso, who would portray him for the rest of the quadrilogy). Although their orders are to kill all the Haters on sight, Stone and his partner arrest the group instead, allowing the Hater sect leader (Marium Carvell) to plant the seeds of doubt in Stone’s mind and pass him a CD-ROM that she says will show him the truth. Macalusso sends Len Parker (David Roddis, previously seen as the new head of WNN last time) to kill Stone and his partner, fearing they may have learned too much. Stone’s partner is killed, but Stone survives while the captured Haters are imprisoned and prepared for re-education.

The disc leads Stone to Willie Spino (Tony Nappo), a wheelchair-bound computer programmer who has been working on an incredibly advanced virtual reality program for Macalusso’s upcoming “Day of Wonders.” Spino is unable to access the disc despite it being part of his design, and his attempts to access the O.N.E. network reveal his location to the Antichrist’s forces; the two escape and make their way to the Christian underground, where Nappo reunites with his stepsister, who is revealed to be Apocalypse MVP Leigh Lewis, reprising her role as Helen Hannah. While the incarcerated Haters continue to persevere throughout their torture, blind cynic Cindy (supermodel Carol Alt), a member of Helen’s underground, voices her increasing frustration at having to live in hiding. When Willie manages to crack the final line of code, he learns what the Day of Wonders actually is: in the virtual world, everyone will face the choice of accepting the Mark of the Beast or death.

As noted above, Revelation is a departure from Apocalypse in quality across the board. Whereas Apocalypse featured a lot of montages in which the members of the audience are meant to meditate upon the ideas presented, this film finds its footing quickly and stays strong through the end. There’s a great sequence that follows Thorold’s introduction to Helen in which the two have a conversation about faith, which includes Thorold begging that God show him a sign as small as knocking over a water glass; Helen tells him that God doesn’t work that way, and even if he did make himself evident by causing the glass to tumble, Thorold’s mind would find another explanation for the event. After their discussion, Thorold stands and bumps the table on which the glass is standing, causing it to fall to the floor; still later, when their safehouse is raided by the Antichrist’s forces, the group is able to make their escape because Len Parker trips on the glass. It’s not the most elegantly composed chain of events, but it reflects an understanding of irony and foreshadowing that wasn’t present in Apocalypse, and the scene demonstrates a real understanding of how many people approach the question of the existence of a higher power. It’s surprisingly subtle and well-composed, and the film deserves credit for that.

On the other hand, there are problems with the script. Although the film’s intentional diversity is admirable in its inclusion not just of people of color but also the differently abled, the end of the film is arguably ableist in its approach to physical handicaps. Willie is the most fleshed-out character in the movie, and Nappo is obviously a talented actor, but his turn from reluctant ally to outright antagonist is abrupt. Further, the fact that only Willie and the blind Cindy are so quick to accept the Antichrist’s offer (which restores his ability to walk and her ability to see), and that they are the only two main characters to do so, is problematic in its implications; both are so desperate to be “whole” that they sacrifice their souls to do so, with the influence of the Antichrist turning them into cackling villains in the final act. It’s not a great message.

The film’s major issue, however, is also its greatest strength. Whereas Apocalypse was made with the intention of being an evangelical tool, Revelation has elements of that but is largely focused on telling a compelling story first, and it mostly succeeds. The problem with this is that the series has moved past the “world-building” stage and now expects the audience to be well-versed in the premillenialist dispensationalism that forms the narrative background. We learn in the opening moments that Thorold works for the O.N.E., which is never defined or explained. Readers of Left Behind and the works of Hal Lindsey will recognize that this is the “foretold” one-world government that the Antichrist will supposedly set up on the earth, and will likely assume that the O.N.E. is the One Nation Empire or One Nation Earth, but the casual viewer without a background in this particular eschatological concept is asked to accept a lot about this world that is not clearly explicated, which hurts the film overall. It may have been the intent of the filmmakers that non-specialized viewers then ask the PMD Christian friend who loaned the film to them to explain, but that’s asking a lot of a casual audience member. Still, this is a much more thoughtful approach to the subject matter than we got last time, and it manages to be genuinely compelling for most of its runtime.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Late Great Planet Mirth I – Introduction & Apocalypse (1998)

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Before we get started, let’s get this out of the way: the opinions contained herein are strictly those of the author and do not reflect upon Swampflix or its editors. These opinions are born out of a lifetime spent being reared in a particular theological worldview and its intersection with academic and scholarly studies of religious doctrine and eschatology. The introduction below is provided solely to present the ideologies that serve to make up the mindset from which the film(s) reviewed were created. No harm is intended, and this should not be interpreted as an invitation to discuss religion, positively or negatively.

I have a real fondness for media pertaining to that particular brand of Christian eschatology that centers around The Rapture. I was raised in a church that was highly obsessed with Christ’s ever-nearer return, and being born into and reared in that environment had an intense effect on me, as we were always preparing for the Second Coming and expecting it to happen any day now. From the outside, it’s impossible to understand just how deeply the conviction that the Glorious Return will play out exactly as depicted in the Left Behind series of books runs, but suffice it to say that the true believers of this worldview are true believers, and there’s not a lot of room for discussion or alternate opinions/interpretations on/of the subject.

Speaking of Left Behind, theologian Fred Clark over at Patheos has been working on dissecting that novel series for several years now, exploring all the ways in which they can be deemed “the worst books of all time” on both the literary and theological level (not to mention the revelations-no pun intended-he has uncovered about the personality defects of authors Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye). In his ongoing exploration of the series, he gets into all of the ways that the novels are poorly written and center around horribly unlikable protagonists who are terrifyingly self-absorbed as well as the ways that the theological underpinnings of the books revolve around a questionable-at-best reading of Biblical scripture. He’s been writing that blog for a long time, and it’s absolutely brilliant and beautiful, often offering spiritual and moral guidance that is more scripturally sound and moving than anything Jenkins and LaHaye have to offer. Of course, I only know this because young Mark was a huge fan of Left Behind; it combined Biblical “prophecy” (in a very loose sense, which I’ll get to more in a moment) with political intrigue, and I was uneducated and foolish enough to find the plot compelling and intriguing. Only with the benefit of Clark’s insight and my own hindsight is it clear just how bankrupt LB is as a piece of art or theological investigation, and I highly recommend reading his analysis for anyone who is curious, although I must warn you that it’s just as staggering in it’s length as it is in its scholarship and entertainment value.

Of course, LaHaye and Jenkins didn’t create The Rapture out of whole cloth. The concept that Christ’s return will be heralded by the physical disappearance of Christians all over the world is nearly as old as the American nation, if not older, and its popularity as one of the myriad eschatologies is cyclical. One of my favorite stories of awaited Rapture is that of preacher William Miller, who led a congregation of Millerites (naturally) in his belief that the Rapture was definitively going to happen in May of 1844 (google “The Great Disappointment” for more information). Still, the fervor that overtook America in the nineties was born out of a renewed interest in Rapture theology, which first began to rise within evangelical Christianity in the 1970s following the release of several apocalyptic books by Hal Lindsey, with The Late Great Planet Earth being the most noteworthy among them (The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon also holds a special place in my heart). The 1980s brought with it the rebranding of the Republican party, which helped cement Lindsey in the public consciousness and allowed Rapture fever to hit its zenith in the 1990s and early 2000s. Lindsey was a virulent believer in what has become the most commonly believed Rapture theory of modern times, more accurately called Premillennialist Dispensationalism.

The millennium referred to in the name of this approach has nothing to do with the divisions of the gregorian calendar and instead refer to a thousand-year period of earthly peace and prosperity. This period of piece will, they say, come after a period of Tribulation (usually seven years, but there is dissention about that). Premillenialists believe that the Second Coming will come at the beginning of this period and thus it will be ruled over by none other than Jesus himself, while postmillenialists are of the belief that Christ’s return will occur at the end of the millennium. Dispensationalism is the belief that Christ’s “flock” will disappear from the face of the earth in the Rapture before this period of Tribulation, rather than after, which is opposed by those who hold to the tenets of Raptural Historicism, which states that the Rapture will occur after the Tribulation. Still with me? I hope so, because it only gets more complicated from here; for the sake of brevity, I’ll be referring to adherents of this belief as PMDs.

Now, when I was a child, my paternal grandparents were very steeped in this paradigm of scriptural interpretation. They had only a small shelf of books in their home, and all of them were devotionals, hymnals, or books of the Lindsey mold: jeremiads about the rise of insidious cultural evil like tolerance, “Eastern Mysticism,” and (of course) homosexuality, and how these were signs and signifiers of the fact that the Rapture was so close that if Jesus wasn’t already on the threshhold, he was surely coming up the steps. As a voracious reader deprived of other material, I devoured these books when I would stay with my grandparents, and I would be lying if I said that didn’t warp me and my worldview for a very long time. It also put me in a unique position of being intimately familiar with the theological “scholarship” that underlines and supports the presuppositions of Jenkins, LaHaye, and their acolytes. I’ll try to summarize and synthesize as much as I can here, but it’s a big Gordian Knot that I’m trying to map for you, and having lived on the shore doesn’t always mean you’re going to be a great cartographer.

So here’s the deal: the thing that I liked about Left Behind when I was a kid was the way that it looked at lots of disparate pieces and put them together into one big prophecy puzzle, all the verses and chapters coming together into what seemed like an intuitive map of the near future. The problem, however, is that the methodology that led to the explosion of Rapture believers in the past few decades is that, to the layman, it looks like a brilliant decryption of arcane text. In reality, however, it’s more of an exercise in practiced self-deception and selective reading, itself colored by the political environs from which it was birthed. For instance, the Left Behind branch of Rapture belief is heavily influenced by Lindsey’s prophecies, which were in turn highly affected by the international political climate of the 1980s; Lindsey and his followers identified the nations of Gog and Magog in John’s Revelation as obvious references to the U.S.S.R., and used that assumption as a metaphorical weight-bearing cornerstone in their philosophy. With the dissolution of that federation, successive additions to this unusual canon have had to deal with the fact that no-longer-relevant nations, rulers, and ideologies played a pivotal role in the development of Lindsey’s eschatology, with each pulled thread threatening to destroy the entire tapestry.

And that’s just in the application of Biblical archetypes to the contemporary modern world; there’s a slew of other issues with the basis of this ideology. Lindsey, like William Miller before him, has a bit of an obsession with numerology and drawing lines between dots that probably weren’t meant to be connected on anything other than a thematic level. As such, Lindsey’s underlying conceits often rely upon an equation that involves several erratically chosen numerical references, divided by seven, or maybe twelve, and then assigning to the solution a number of years or days or other delineation of time. Then, once you factor in the year of an event of Biblical or historical relevance; 1948 is a favorite year of significance as adherents to this methodology are obsessed with the reestablishment of the nation of Israel and the way that it seems to echo the repeated diaspora and reunification of the Israelites in the Bible. And once you factor in that one such iteration of that cycle took place during the Babylonian Exile, and Babylon is mentioned in John’s Revelation, well, baby you got a stew goin’! Just ignore the fact that John was also writing in exile and drawing upon imagery with which his contemporary audience would have been familiar (“It’s a little thing called the Book of Daniel; you’ve probably never heard of it.” –Early Christian Hipsters, probably). Does this seem like an erratic train of thought? Are you picturing Lindsey standing in front of a corkboard full of Bible pages with red string tied between different pushpins next to highlighted passages, like the conspiracy theorist in every thriller you’ve ever seen? Then you’re starting to get the idea.

And let’s not forget that all of this is based on what the figureheads of the movement would call a “literal” reading of the text, even though this is pretty much the opposite of the meaning of the word. A reference to multi-headed dragons monsters with crowns? Surely, that literally means ten nation states that will make up the one world government that the United Nations will morph into under the advisement of the Antichrist. And, of course, there’s the small matter of nonsensical ideas that have made their way out of esoteric circles into the mainstream, like the very concept of the Antichrist himself; the word is only used in 1 John and 2 John, and an actual literal reading of those texts makes it obvious that the “antichrist” is a term to be used for corrupter or false teacher, not an infernally inspired world leader (for further reading on this topic, I suggest “The Antichrist Hoax,” by Dr. Joel McDurmon). Essentially, what I’m saying is that the genealogy of this branch of Biblical “scholarship” reveals a poisonous tree with its roots in half-understood historical contexts, willful ignorance about current events that do not coincide with their prescribed worldview, and numerology, which most Christians would recognize as an outright heresy were it not so thoroughly ingrained in the makeup of this eschatology.

I’ve given you the basics and the background, so here’s the Left Behind (et al) standard apocalypse gameplan: very soon, we will all be witness to The Rapture, in which the dead in Christ shall rise and living Christians will disappear in the blink of an eye (usually dramatized by showing piles of empty clothing). Included in the Rapture are also children who have not yet reached “The Age of Accountability,” an apocryphal, largely Southern Baptist theological concept that assumes children are inherently innocent and are deserving of Heaven by default.Thus, those who believed the Gospel Truth™ are spared the Tribulation, a seven year period that begins either with the Rapture or when the Antichrist signs a peace treaty with Israel, depending upon your interpretation. The Antichrist is himself a European politician who will assume power over the world by demonstrating great leadership (and perhaps even miracles) in the wake of the disappearances; he will install a global political system with himself at the head, and citizens will be forced to take his Mark or face persecution. The first three and a half years of this period will be marked by prosperity, while the last three and a half will be full of death, famine, war, plagues, toxic meteors, etc. The end of this period will see the glorious return of Jesus, to banish the Antichrist to the pit and rule for a thousand years, after which it’s all Heaven, all the time.

So that’s the basic premise, which brings us to the reason we’re here today: to discuss PPI Films’ 1998 DTV film Apocalypse. Apocalypse is not the first film about the Rapture. Actually, it’s not even the instigator of the first series of films about the Rapture; that honor belongs to 1973’s superior A Thief in the Night, which was followed by three sequels: A Distant Thunder (1978), The Image of the Beast (1981), and The Prodigal Planet (1983). The Thief series was so popular, in fact, that LaHaye and Jenkins have even admitted that it helped inspire them to draft Left Behind. Left Behind, in turn, influenced the Apocalypse series, so overtly that the first film’s protagonist has a great deal is essentially an even more bargain-basement version of Left Behind’s Cameron “Buck” Williams. Still, all of these films are part of an esoteric canon of movies that are long overdue for an investigation, and Apocalypse was the big one of the nineties.

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Let’s get this out of the way: Apocalypse is a terrible movie. This is a film in which millions of people disappear from the face of the earth, nuclear war nearly breaks out in the Middle East and is only averted by divine intervention, Christians are herded into camps for execution and/or reeducation, and the President of the European Union announces that he is the Messiah. Yet, somehow, all of these situations feel as if the stakes are no higher than they would be if the main characters’ arcs revolved entirely around dealing with poor customer service. Never before or since has the apocalypse been presented in such a blasé and uninvolved manner. A lot of that has to do with the visual presentation of the film; it looks like it was shot using a video camera borrowed from the set of Passions and no one bothered to clean the Vaseline caked onto the lens. It creates a rhetorical space with which the audience is mostly familiar as reminiscent of daytime television, which is hardly the effect one would want when presenting the literal rise of Satan on Earth.

The film quality isn’t the only place where the film feels cheap, either. Peter LaLonde (who, along with his brother, created film distribution company PPI, which would later become CloudTen, the name under which the rest of the films in this series were released) was once the host of a Christian television program called This Week in Bible Prophecy, which sought to draw a connection between contemporary events and the End Times as outlined by PMDs. Clips from this series, as well as others hosted by noted PMDs/televangelists like John Hagee and husband/wife duo Jack and Rexella Van Impe, are present throughout the film, filling out running time that would be better served by character or world building. Instead, we watch characters as they watch television screens in silence, which is exactly as exciting as it sounds.

Above and beyond that, this movie feels like it’s about 50% montage, with half of those montages consisting of 1990s Contemporary Christian Music playing over real footage of actual riots and disasters, which is horrifying and offensive. In a perfect encapsulation of many of the bad ideas in this film, there is a scene in which an unseen video journalist is providing voiceover for footage of a protester of some kind immolating himself and lunging at police. The dialogue is just atrocious (“This man who lost his wife and daughter literally went crazy […] here he is literally setting himself on fire…”), and the scene appropriates this real-world footage for its purpose, overtly divorcing this protest from its historical context and the desired impact of the person whose image was used for this presentation. Burning churches, police brutality, freedom fighters: all are just set dressing for the film’s message, which is nauseating.

The plot follows World News Network anchors Bronson Pearl (Richard Nester) and Helen Hannah (Leigh Lewis) and their work leading up to and immediately following The Rapture. Pearl is on-site in the Middle East at the historical site Armageddon, where the Israeli Air Force is assembling against their vaguely defined enemies, and this struggle leads up to a mutually assured nuclear strike. Just as the missiles are ready to fall, they disappear from the skies, along with a particular subset of the population worldwide: Christians and children. Hannah, whose grandmother was one such vanished person and who had previously warned her of the impending return of Christ, struggles to accept that the warnings were real. After watching some John Hagee and Van Impe videos, she returns to work, only to find that EU President Franco Macalusso (Sam Bornstein) has taken credit for the miraculous event and declared himself the new Messiah, stating that he removed all the “haters” (i.e., followers of the false Messiah, Jesus) from the world in order to usher in a new era of peace. Hannah tries desperately to convince Pearl of the truth before it’s too late.

As noted above, the film is mostly padding, but there are some good ideas here. Immediately after Macalusso’s declaration, WNN is taken over by Len Parker (David Roddis), a weaselly man who is to serve as the Antichrist’s mouthpiece, and Roddis is obviously having a lot of fun devouring every bit of scenery in sight. There’s also a nice moment of foreshadowing when one of Pearl and Hannah’s co-workers leans over and instructs a technician to record Pearl’s frontlines exclamation that Macalusso is the Antichrist, saying that the recording “might come in handy;” this same person later barricades himself in the WNN booth to broadcast that same speech as an interruption of Pearl’s televised execution. It’s not a great example of narrative subterfuge, but bears mentioning as one of the few touches of subtlety in the film. The real MVP here is Lewis, however, as she manages to imbue a paper-thin character with a lot of real, earnest emotion. Even though the end of the movie makes it seem as if she, too, is about to face death, I don’t mind that the next film shows her alive and well and leading the resistance, as she’s by far the strongest actor in this first outing and I’m glad she was chosen to be the de facto main character of the series. It’s a shame that her IMDb page is so sparse, as, of all the performers on screen, she was the only one to show actual talent.

Nester easily stands out as the worst actor of the bunch; in fairness, I don’t know that the role as written gave him enough to work with to warrant calling out his particular theatrical failings. Pearl is essentially a carbon copy of the Buck Williams character from the Left Behind series, portrayed by fallen teen heartthrobs Kirk Cameron and Chad Michael Murray in their respective franchises. Unlike Williams, Pearl doesn’t get the chance to be unsuccessfully courted by the Antichrist’s new regime, which is a missed opportunity. There’s a parallel to the aforementioned scene wherein the media comes under the Antichrist’s control in the LB canon: Williams bears witness to the Antichrist performing supernatural mind control over his new cabal but is protected from this misdirection by his newfound faith. It’s a poorly written scene (as is LB in its entirety), but it does effectively build the Antichrist as a threat and gives insight into how he could gain the power that he does. In Apocalypse, Len just shows up and tells everyone he’s the new boss, and virtually all of Macalusso’s appearances are on a TV screen, which really goes to show the extent to which this film is but a shadow of something that wasn’t all that substantial to begin with.

What really sets Apocalypse apart from the later films in the series, aside from poor production value and an obnoxiously meandering narrative and the lack of “name” actors, is how obvious it is that this film was meant as a preaching tool. At the time when this film was made, I remember many pastors making their own post-Rapture videotapes, to be placed prominently in churches so they could be found by those left behind and provide guidance for them in the coming Tribulation (in the Left Behind films, if I remember correctly, the characters watch such a video prepared by Bishop T.D. Jakes). While watching someone struggle to come to terms with the fact that their entire conception of the universe is flawed could make for compelling viewing in theory, in practice these scenes are long and unengaging, as this is obviously the point in the film where the Christian audience is supposed to turn to the unsaved friend they foisted this movie upon and offer to guide them in prayer. Regardless of one’s point of view on that kind of proselytization, it’s inarguably bad film-making. Luckily for viewers, it gets better (and worse) from here.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

We Found a Dozen Nice Things to Say About Left Behind (2014)

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Watching the 2014 version of Left Behind was one of those epiphany moments where a movie is bad (not a fun bad, just bad) but why were we expecting anything different? A reboot of a humorless Christian franchise trying its little, judgmental heart out to save our doomed, sinful souls from the definitely-going-to-happen-any-day-now Biblical Rapture doesn’t exactly sound like a laugh riot. The inclusion of human enigma Nicolas Cage gave the series the promise of campy appeal, but he was in quick-paycheck mode and did little for the film’s lifeless, dour tone. Similarly, any weird potential in the idea of a worldwide, supernatural, people-erasing event is severely undercut by the film being the first in a planned series and the budgetary decision of bottling most of the action on a single airplane. Instead of the amused chuckling we naively expected, we met most of the film with irritated silence.

It’s a little unfair to beat up on a film based on our off-base expectations, though, so instead of giving Left Behind a negative review, we decided to catalog the things we actually liked about the movie. It took some careful deliberation but between the two of us we came up with an even dozen nice (or at least entertaining) things to say about Left Behind.

1. Although the movie doesn’t include any patented Nic Cage Freak-Outs™, it does feature Cage delivering the following line to his Atheist daughter: “If your mother was going to leave me for another man, it might as well have been Jesus.” A calm, collected Cage isn’t exactly the shot in the arm this movie needed, but we really liked that line.

2. Cage has exactly one more entertaining moment later in the film. As the passengers on the airplane he’s piloting are freaking out, confused about their Raptured loved ones, he utilizes his National Treasure puzzle-solving skills and gets to the bottom of what’s going on. The clues that lead him to discovering the phenomenon’s Biblical source: one missing passenger’s watch reads “John 3:16” and another’s datebook has a scheduled Bible study penciled in.

3. The Rapture itself was kind of interesting (even if by default), especially the image of disappeared children’s clothes falling to the floor while the balloons they were holding float toward the heavens.

4. We may have unfairly described the film as humorless above. It does attempt an embarrassing, mildly reprehensible line of comic relief involving an angry dwarf character. Most of the gags are misfires politically & morally, but there is one that is just genuine, wholesome fun. As the passengers are trying to figure out if the Raptured have actually disappeared or are just invisible, the dwarf tries to give one of the missing a wet willy. It’s pretty funny.

5. Speaking of morally reprehensible, the same dwarf character mentioned above is unceremoniously tossed out of the airplane once it lands by a Muslim man he’d been bickering with for most of the runtime. It’s a gag that’s transgressive in its complete disregard for decency, but it’s still entertaining in its own deplorable way.

6. Nic Cage’s daughter is just as frustrated with her mother’s newfound Christian faith as Cage is. When she discovers that her mother’s warnings of The Rapture have come true she angrily smashes the disappeared woman’s Bible through window glass. It’s a great image & one that would befit the most melodramatic Lifetime Movie blowup.

7. Speaking of Nic Cage’s daughter, she looks eerily similar to his mistress in some ways. It’s cool that he has a type.

8. Cage’s totally happy, not at all depressing family unit is only shown in one place in a single image: a hilariously awkward family portrait that makes two separate appearances in the film. The shoddy Photoshop on the picture is an embarrassment, Cage himself looking like he was airbrushed into the picture. It’s one of the film’s only interesting images because it’s so jarringly fabricated and it’s totally bizarre that they felt the need to feature it twice.

9. In yet another bizarrely fake image, there’s a CGI plane that’s crash-landing looks like it was borrowed from a PowerPoint presentation. It’s ridiculous.

10. Just in case you don’t know how to feel at any point during the movie’s consistently over-sentimental, maudlin proceedings there’s an oppressive, violin-heavy soundtrack there to remind you how to feel at every moment. It would be annoying if it weren’t so over-the-top in its persistence.

11. The same way the violins never let you forget exactly how to feel, there’s a character that contantly reminds everyone around him that he’s an “investigative journalist”, which would be a ludicrous, ill-advised thing for a real-life investigative journalist to do, but it is pretty funny in this context.

12. All joking & sarcastic derision aside, there are a couple decent shots in the film. Exactly a couple. One image of Cage’s daughter backing up a truck & one of her running across a bridge at night felt like glimpses into a drastically different, frankly much better film. Combined together, they amount to maybe 5 seconds of footage, but they do look fairly nice in comparison to the artistic void that surrounds them. As with every other item on this list, we were deeply grateful for the fleeting flashes of vitality in a movie that was severely lacking both in life and personality.

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet