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On Holy Indies and Armageddon!

As long as there have been movies, it seems, there have been evangelical films.  These days Christian moviemaking has gone mainstream somewhat, with slick, reasonably well-produced fare like THE OMEGA CODE, the LEFT BEHIND series and of course Mad Mel’s PASSION O’ THE CHRIST, but it wasn’t always that way! 

    Back in the old days Christian flicks were ineptly made no-budget affairs exhibited via the church and revival-tent circuit.  The screenings usually occurred in the Deep South, where hundreds of impressionable youngsters were allegedly scared to the pulpit by former sleazemeister Ron Ormond’s outrageous IF FOOTMEN TIRE YOU, WHAT WILL HORSES DO? (1971), an astounding cavalcade of violent exploitation in the guise of consciousness-raising religious fare, and its similarly themed follow-ups THE GRIM REAPER, THE 39 STEPS and THE BURNING HELL. 

     A confession: Holy Indies have been a longtime guilty pleasure of mine.  Most of these films are insufferable, true (not unlike a large majority of Hollywood fare), but the best contain a mixture of near-otherworldly sanctimoniousness, unintentional hilarity and homemade charm that makes for an irresistible viewing experience.  The above-mentioned IF FOOTMEN TIRE YOU... is one such example; so is Brad Grinter’s jaw-dropping BLOOD FREAK (1975), the world’s first and only anti-drug, pro-Christian gore movie.  And let’s not forget the most famous Christian movie of all time, also widely recognized as the worst movie of all time: Ed Wood’s PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE, financed by the Baptist Church of Beverly Hills, CA, even though the film featured decidedly irreligious subject matter like grave robbing and re-animated cadavers.  Unfortunately, as the following will demonstrate, in the world of evangelical cinema the good stuff is extremely few and very far between--although the infamous Mark IV end-of-the-world series is not without some interest.  

     A THIEF IN THE NIGHT, from the Iowa-based Mark IV Pictures, was a modest 1972 production that became a monster hit among churchgoers and adequately set the tone for what was to come.  Produced and directed by Donald W. Thompson, it’s the very definition of a “Christian Scare” film, being a preachy account of the Rapture, in which the world’s True Believers are all whisked off to Heaven.  In their absence the Earth falls into chaos and the dreaded One World Government, as exemplified by UNITE, an Antichrist-sanctioned organization that forces everyone to have ID tattoos imprinted on the backs of their hands.  The film is ineptly made, as expected, and filled with dull sermonizing and stilted acting.  It does, however, build to a memorably overwrought climax in which the naïve young protagonist Patty (Patty Dunning) is betrayed by her backstabbing friend Diane and chased by UNITE’S minions onto the edge of a dam, finding herself with no recourse but to jump off.

     As lame as A THIEF IN THE NIGHT is, it’s easily the best entry in what would become a four-film series.  Running a brisk 69 minutes, it has a kicky exploitation-movie arc, but is burdened with an obnoxious it’s-all-a-dream fade out.  The film’s real significance was in introducing the specter of apocalypse into evangelical cinema, which it seems nearly every such film now requires.  Plus it featured a wealth of exploitive elements, making it and its sequels fitting follow-ups to the Ormond films.

     1978’s A DISTANT THUNDER was Mark IV’s second effort.  Patty Dunning is back, playing the same character she did in THIEF, and caught up in essentially the same story.  THUNDER is better made than the previous film, but offers far less in the way of entertainment; it’s slow and talky, with near-constant sermonizing that often gives it the feel of a Sunday school lesson.  That’s despite a car chase and a climactic dash through a forest, both sequences staged with staggering ineptitude.  As with THIEF, the best part is the outrageous finale, in which the heroine and her friends are led by agents of UNITE, having again been betrayed by the turn-coat Diane, to a makeshift guillotine in a church parking lot.  The cliff-hanging final frame has Patty screaming as she’s dragged to the slaughter.

     The saga resumed with IMAGE OF THE BEAST in 1981.  Continuing the trend set by A DISTANT THUNDER, the filmmaking has improved markedly, but at heart it’s another seriously dull yak fest.  It begins where the last installment left off, with Patty Dunning saved from the guillotine by the pleading of her little sister, who inspires God to turn the sky black and open the heavens.  Other “special” effects include a cheesy conflagration and a (very) small portion of a flying dragon’s shadow.  The traitorous Diane is back to do UNITE’S evil bidding, with those pesky agents of the antichrist becoming ever more technically proficient, utilizing a (gasp!) computer to do their dirty work (an instrument the good guys dub the “new golden calf”).  There’s a new addition to the cast in the form of hunky William Wellman Jr. as a kind-hearted military man.  Wellman’s performance has all the gravity of a G.I. Joe doll, though none of the flexibility--unfortunately he’d be returning.... 

     1983’s THE PRODIGAL PLANET was the fourth and mercifully last film in the series.  It’s also the most excruciating of them all, a snail paced 128-minute slog through an alleged post-apocalyptic landscape.  The rapture, you see, already occurred in the previous flicks, so in this one the protagonists plod through sparse backwoods locations that all look the same, occasionally confronted by rubber skeletons or people wrapped in cloaks (radiation victims, supposedly).  William Wellman Jr., who stunk up IMAGE OF THE BEAST with his supporting role, is the lead actor here, babbling endlessly about the nature of God and performing cut-rate heroics while leading a ragtag band of True Believers on a quest for a rebel stronghold.  The whole thing is unbelievably cheap and amateurish from start to finish, complete with a pathetic final showdown composed of tacky disaster stock footage.  The filmmakers even have the nerve to depict a nationwide black-out by showing a wide shot of New York City at night...with all the lights still on! 

     Mark IV Productions made other films, including ALL THE KING’S HORSES and THE SHEPHERD (both starring a pre-HOWLING Dee Wallace Stone), but none had anywhere near the impact of the Armageddon quartet outlined above.  Many like-minded productions have followed in those films’ wake, including YEARS OF THE BEAST (1980).  It covers the same ground as A THIEF IN THE NIGHT et al, but with far greater production values (at times it honestly feels like an actual movie), including a jaw-dropping ending in which the righteous are saved by Heaven-sent UFOs! 

     Televangelist Jack Van Impe got into to filmmaking in the nineties with APOCALYPSE (1998), a shot-on-video end-times epic composed largely of stock footage cleverly manipulated to serve his religious agenda.  It was once again a redo of the formula established by the Mark IV flicks, and spawned two sequels, REVELATION (1999) and TRIBULATION (2000).

     Of course, even holy indies have to turn a profit, and many such films have fallen by the wayside.  An example is 1999’s THE MOMENT AFTER, yet another treatment of the rapture and subsequent apocalypse, complete with an open-ended finale portending a sequel that never arrived (darn).  The reasons for its failure aren’t difficult to discern: it’s a subdued, resolutely non-exploitive effort, lacking the excesses of the more popular Mark IV and Van Impe pictures.  It seems that even hard-core Christians want their thrills, the cheaper the better! 

     Speaking of which, we mustn’t forget the trashy (but profitable) Christian thriller THE OMEGA CODE (1999) and its sequel MEGGIDO (2001), as well as LEFT BEHIND and its progeny, based on the popular faith-based novels of Tim LaHayne (favorites, reportedly, of Mr. George W. Bush), all centering on--surprise!--the end of the world.  

    So there you have it: the Christian “alternatives” to Hollywood’s Nightmares of Depravity.  Curiosity seekers and/or serial masochists should be able to locate these cinemutations on VHS or DVD without much hassle.  Still, I’d advise checking out similarly-themed non-evangelical fare like the original OMEN or 1992’s THE RAPTURE over these snoozers (those two films are better, after all, than nearly all the above-mentioned flicks combined)...or simply content yourself with the fact that I sat through those horrible films so you won’t have to!

 

--4/05/07

     

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