Welcome to The Late Great Planet Mirth, an ongoing series in which a reformed survivor of PreMillenialist Dispensationalism explores the often silly, occasionally absurd, and sometimes surprisingly compelling tropes, traits, and treasures of films about the Rapture. Get caught up in it with us!
“A man and wife asleep in bed; she hears a noise and turns her head– he’s gone. I wish we’d all been ready.”
This is basically the plot of A Thief in the Night, but first, a little history.
Christian musician Larry Norman was a pioneer, although not everyone was ready for his unique blend of then-modern folksy rock ‘n’ roll when Upon This Rock came out in 1969. Stodgy preachers like Jerry Falwell and especially Jimmy Swaggart saw the use of contemporary music stylings to evangelize as “a sinful compromise with worldliness* and immoral sensuality.” Modern music is often a point of contention for this particular subculture, as the many hours I endured being reminded that listening to “secular music” was a sin at Bethany Christian School (instead of learning about, you know, science or something) can attest– not that it mattered, given that this is the same lesson I was getting at home. One of my favorite Christian propaganda films, Rock: It’s Your Decision, is about this very topic, and I can remember the shelf of books in my fundamentalist school’s library that featured Swaggart’s Religious Rock n’ Roll – A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing alongside Phil Phillips delightfully tangled Turmoil in the Toybox, which is basically Helen Lovejoy’s “Won’t someone please think of the children!” mixed with paranoia that Care Bears and Star Wars are pathways to such evils as Communism, witchcraft, and “Eastern mysticism.”
This same shelf also contained the laughably dated The Unhappy Gays: What Everyone Should Know About Homosexuality, written by future Left Behind co-conspirator Tim LaHaye. This is ironic, given that the title of LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s most famous work is actually taken from “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” the same Larry Norman song excerpted at the top of this article is taken: “There’s no time to change your mind; The son has come and you’ve been left behind.” Even now, nearly ten years into my apostasy, I really enjoy this track: it’s creepy, contemplative, moody, and doesn’t shy away from some of the darker imagery and ideas that inform PMD eschatology and ideation, like children starving to death and demons dining on some unspecified meal (in one lyric alone it manages to take the fate of children into greater consideration than the LB series does in some 4500 pages). It’s haunting, and thus it’s no surprise that it has helped to popularize a certain vision of the post-Rapture world that has come to be accepted by the PMDs as sacrosanct without really questioning its origin, much the same way that the Hell envisioned by fundamentalists is more Dante than Daniel.
“I Wish We’d All Been Ready” is also the opening musical number of 1972’s A Thief in the Night, playing out over the opening credits and segueing into what appears to be a youth group meeting attended by our heroine Patty (Patty Dunning), a young woman who is consistently identified in promotional materials as “caught up in living for the present with little concern for the future,” even though that’s not terribly accurate. Sure, she occasionally goes to the lake to have fun with her friends, but while there they often engage in conversation about the future, spirituality, and other heady topics that most teenagers probably spend much less time fretting about.
The lead singer of the band and apparent leader of this youth group is Duane (Duane Coller), who reminds his friends that the Rapture could be coming any minute, and that it’s important to be truly saved in order to ensure that they are not left behind to experience the Tribulation. Patty’s love interest Jim (Mike Niday) is a Certified True Believer™, but Patty and her family attend a church with a looser (read, for the sake of this film’s intended audience: a more liberal and less literal and thus not scriptural and in fact heretical) approach to spirituality; her pastor, Matthew Turner (Russell S. Doughten Jr., also a writer on the film) is less fire-and- brimstone and more peace-and- brotherhood, which the Rapture-ready believers watching the film are supposed to recognize as being sinfully misleading. Patty notes that this PMD eschatology is something she’s never heard before, but agrees to attend a service with Jim, where she hears the “truth” for the first time.
The Rapture (sort of) happens at the forty minute mark of this seventy minute movie, but it feels a lot longer due to a few overlong plot cul-de- sacs. The boys over at Red Letter Media coined the term “shoot the rodeo” in their seventh “Wheel of the Worst” video to describe any time that a film crew decides to shoot a real life event that is happening nearby in order to enhance production value (just like the kids in Super 8). This is why Clint Eastwood’s character in Play Misty for Me goes to a super boring jazz festival for a while, and (presumably) why there’s a dog frisbee competition at the beginning of Flight of the Navigator. It seems like a watersports event must have been happening in or around Des Moines at the time that Thief was being shot, because our gaggle of main characters seem to spend an awful lot of time at the lake. Jim is bitten by a snake at work at one point, requiring a discussion about the fact that there is no antidote, so the hospital is flying in a snake farmer to give a transfusion in the hopes that the antibodies he’s built up will save Jim’s life. It’s not as exciting as it sounds (although it’s not boring per se, just belabored), and several trips to the hospital later, Jim and Patty get married. Things are fairly blissful for the young Iowans; until one day Patty’s asleep in bed, she hears a noise and turns her head, Jim’s gone! I wish we’d all been ready!
The radio tells about the sudden disappearance of millions of people, and Patty knows the truth. Just as Nicolae Carpathia would set up New Babylon and its accompanied One World Government in the Left Behind series, and Franco Macalusso erected the O.N.E. in the sequels to Apocalypse, the presumable Antichrist (whom we don’t meet in this installment) has the United Nations create the Imperium of Total Emergency (U.N.I.T.E.)**, and soon it’s binary triple sixes for everybody! You get a Mark of the Beast! And you get a Mark of the Beast!
Patty’s other friends waste no time falling in line with the new world order, as even her old pastor shows up at the Mark facility and says that he wants to be a good citizen before getting his forehead tattooed. Patty flirts with the idea of getting Marked because without it, she can’t buy food or anything else that she needs (a reference to Revelation 13:17). Patty is relentlessly pursued by the forces of U.N.I.T.E., embodied by a single van full of Antichrist cronies, until she is trapped on a bridge and, in attempting to escape, falls to her apparent death in the waters below.
Psych! Patty wakes up; it was all a dream. Except double psych! It was a dream, but she has awoken moments after the Rapture has taken her husband and the rest of the real Christians. She screams us out into the end card, which states “The End . . . Is Near!”
The most striking thing about A Thief in the Night is how competent it is, especially in comparison to other films in this subgenre. It’s been too long since I watched the Left Behind films starring Kirk Cameron to make definitive statements about their quality, but I don’t recall them with any particular fondness and seem to remember them being more banal than a manila folder, while Apocalypse seemed like it was made by someone who had heard of these “moving pictures” but never seen one before. Although there are some stretches that are pretty dull, Thief was made by someone who knew what they were doing. There’s clever (if very, very dated) editing, decent production value, and even a few really great sight gags (my favorite is the post-Rapture church sign that reads “The end is nea– ,” demonstrating that some church underling got taken in the twinkling of an eye in the middle of a dull chore).
It’s not a great film by a long shot, but it’s definitely a worthwhile endeavor. The film it reminds me of most, actually, is Mark of the Witch. It’s not just the amateurish acting, the surprising competency of a wet-behind- the-ears cast and crew, or the dated visuals and cinematography: the people making this movie had fun, and you can tell. It’s a far cry from more dour (if also more entertaining in its own way) fare like Revelation or Judgment. It’s a film that sets out to scare its audience, but out of love, not scorn or spite. That’s the real miracle.
*When used in this context, “worldliness” means an investment in the material (and thus sinful, carnal) world, rather than the more common, secular definition meaning “sophisticated.”
**This is early evidence of the influence of the far-right John Birch Society on PMD thinking; JBS was claiming that the United Nations was merely the first step toward building a one world government as early as 1959. It comes through even more clearly in the Left Behind books, which is no surprise given that the aforementioned LaHaye was a card-carrying John Bircher. I highly recommend checking out the Wikipedia page on the JBS while you can; if literal Nazi Richard Spencer gets any closer to the White House, it’ll likely be Ministry of Truth’d within 72 hours. For other further reading, my man Fred Clark has a couple of blog posts that serve as good introductions to what PMDs think the UN is and a discussion of the bizarre, self-deceptive cognitive dissonance required to buy that nonsense.