For those raised within the evangelical Christian community (I’m a former Baptist myself), the more luridly sensational Sundays spent shifting about in one’s local church pew were those spent listening to lectures regarding Rapture theology. The good reverend would detail predictions from the books Daniel and Revelation, and typically cite worldwide current events perceived to be signs that these “end times” were just around the corner.
For the literal laymen among us, the Rapture (according to born again Christians) is when Jesus will return from the clouds to meet with all his true followers in the sky above, as he whisks them away to Heaven. Meanwhile, the rest of us poor saps left here on the ground will experience a seven-year “tribulation” period that will usher in the beginnings of the end of the world as we know it.
Replete with famine, war, conquest and death (the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse), not to mention an Antichrist who will persecute all who don’t receive his “mark of the beast,” talk of the end times is often utilized as a scare tactic intended to convert the youth towards Christian salvation.
Such sermons would often combine traditional fire and brimstone preaching with contemporary, conspiratorial paranoia. Fears regarding a one world government, technophobia surrounding emerging computer and credit advances, a rising threat from foreign Euro/Russian powers, and potential turmoil in Israeli were folded into talk of tribulation, hellfire, and God’s wrath upon an ungrateful earth.
At the epicenter of all this discussion, the veritable ground zero of supernal cinema, was Russell Doughten and Donald W. Thompson’s A Thief in the Night.
Long before the Left Behind series (which the authors cited as a heavy influence) — either the young adult fiction books that gained traction in the late-‘90s/early aughts or the films featuring Kirk Cameron and Nicholas Cage — and before Damon Lindelof’s The Leftovers, it was up to 1972’s gospel exploitation (gosploitation?) Thief in the Night to scare young Sunday-schoolers into repentance and eventual (and in my case, begrudging) salvation.
Thief begins where it ends, with Patty Myers (played perennially by Patty Dunning) awakening to news of a global phenomenon that’s caused thousands of people to vanish within the blink of an eye. Patty rushes into the restroom, dismayed to find her husband’s electric shaver running in the sink, he too among those taken. The radio news commentator speculates whether this supernatural pandemic is UFO abduction or the biblical Rapture prominent in Protestant theology.
Patty despairingly flashes back to her life in the short time prior to her current predicament. We see her and her friends attending a local carnival shortly after leaving a youth sermon. Among them is the innocent Jenny, who recently accepted Jesus as her personal lord and savior, and the more worldly Diane, who routinely scoffs at religion and is more eager to flirt with boys than to pray for forgiveness (Diane and her mustachioed boyfriend Jerry will become mainstay antagonists throughout the franchise — yes, there were sequels). Patty, intended to be our more relatable in-character, is caught somewhere in the middle — a good person who does good deeds yet remains lacking in a personal relationship with Christ.
Patty’s convictions continue to be challenged when her husband Jim accepts Christ into his heart. Back while they were dating, Jim’s job as a zookeeper led to him being hospitalized after a cobra bite. When Pastor Balmer comes proselytizing at their front door, the good reverend recalls how Jim was saved by a blood transfusion from a snake handler who’d built up an immunity to cobra venom.
Aside from the more obvious biblical metaphors regarding snakes, the preacher likens Jim’s ordeal to that of Jesus, who likewise gave his blood for all humanity. Consequently, when the Rapture does hit, Patty’s husband is taken alongside Jenny, a church worker in the midst of placing “The End is Nea…” on his chapel marquee, and a pre-teen by the name of Sue, who’s intended to be a cypher for the child audience.
This is where the film takes on a more insidious tone. When Sue finds a pot boiling over on the stove, and her mother is seemingly nowhere to be found, she immediately assumes the worst and becomes traumatized at the thought of being “left behind.” When her family does return, they’re quick to take advantage of young Sue’s traumatic episode and turn her toward Christ.
This, of course, is the goal of A Thief in the Night and media like it, be it Kirk Cameron’s Left Behind or Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth (Lindsey being the godfather of contemporary Rapture theology). With the Thief series in particular, director Thompson and writer/producer Doughten (himself an uncredited director on classic horror movie The Blob) deftly utilize horror cinema techniques in order to terrify would-be audience members toward conversion.
While later films in the franchise devolve into unintentional ‘80s camp (Image of the Beast features a shadowy monster with a big, rubber scorpion tail; Prodigal Planet has cloaked mutants that look straight out of The Omega Man), Thief and especially its direct sequel, A Distant Thunder, would feel right at home alongside staples of ‘70s horror like The Omen, The Wicker Man, or the hippy exploitation classic, I Drink Your Blood. The periodic news briefs recall Night/Dawn of the Dead, the endings to the first two films strongly call back to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the series as a whole is replete with guillotine beheadings, child interment, infants who are denied lifesaving medical care simply because their pious parents refuse “the mark,” and more.
Producer Doughten himself plays the deranged Reverend Turner who, having never preached the Rapture to his congregation back when it mattered, is now among those left behind (racked with guilt as he feels personally responsible). Turner resorts to half-crazed ramblings at the pulpit of his boarded up, empty church. Patty will later (graphically) find Turner shot through the head, after she’s captured by the nefarious UNITE, a fascist Orwellian military order that springs forth from the United Nations and pressures the remaining members of society to be branded with a binary readout of 666 (the “mark of the beast”), or face penalty of ostracism and eventually death.
As Thief ends with a Twilight Zone-esque dream fake-out, Reverend Turner is able to return in the subsequent films to literally chart out the apocalypse, as do the nefarious UNITE soldiers. Patty’s pretty head meets a bleak end inside a silver laundry basket (under one of the aforementioned guillotines), as do numerous other characters throughout the series whose only major crime was being the wrong sort of Christian.
One particular standout piece in Thief is a musical track by American folk and Christian rock musician Larry Norman. His song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” which features prominently in the film, both clearly condenses the message of the film and eerily functions as a horror tone poem that could effortlessly swap spots with Last House on the Left’s “Wait for the Rain” (aka “The Road Leads to Nowhere”).
The father spoke, the demons dined, the Son has come and you’ve been left behind.
Many who’ve reviewed these films make the mistake of criticizing the production due to disagreements regarding the themes, and the franchise’s somewhat dated hippie vibe. But with a reputed budget of about $60,000 (better than many exploitation films of the time), the movie had plenty to work with. Between plains, trains, and automobile chases, helicopters, boats, and burning barns (Distant Thunder even features a relatively well-staged earthquake set put together by Universal Pictures production designer Ray Storey), there’s clearly some money on screen here.
The Thief films were largely showcased in churches, the first reputed to have been seen by approximately 300 million viewers/congregants (although these numbers may be a tad fudged). In short, simply because the films’ plots are inane doesn’t mean they were poorly made. There’s even some rather nifty editing, such as the character Jim, screaming from a snake bite, cross-cut with an ambulance siren.
I myself often succumb to inner conflict on these films, torn between my love and fandom for exploitation horror, yet simultaneously resenting them thematically as a secular humanist/atheist. I can see these films released by Arrow Video or Shout Factory as ironic viewing for genre fans. That said, they ought not be used as a spineless scare tactic to traumatize children into rushed religious conversion.
Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.