Take the Mark! – A Spotlight On ‘A Thief In The Night’
by Marc Patterson
I was recently afforded the opportunity to interview each of the ladies on our crew for Women in Horror month. One question I intentionally left out was the overused “When did you first get turned on to horror?” Not only is that question overused, I tend to think it rather trite and contrived. For the most part, who cares? But in going over the process of some site redesigns I looked at our “About” page, with our bios, and had to wonder… could there be an interesting story in there?
You see, when people ask me that question I usually tell them something boring or dull in nature. My favorite is that our regular babysitter was into horror films, and after we were put to bed she would toss some horror flick into the VCR or watch some late night splatter fest on TV, and I would sneak out and watch from the dark of the dining room. Not entirely a falsehood, but certainly not the truth. I avoid the truth because the truth is too much of a story than I’d ever want to get into in casual conversation. No… you can’t handle the truth. At least not over coffee.
After many years, this right here is the first time I’ll have told this story to anyone in a public forum. True to my bio I really did grow up in a rather conservative Christian household, and I’m talking conservative by Christian standards. Onward Christian Soldiers conservative. Outside of said babysitter, or the occasional sleepovers at friends’ houses, there wasn’t much exposure in my formative years to much of any mainstream film. Being able to rent Top Gun on VHS was a move considered risque. Thank goodness my family also has a storied Naval history so that one squeaked in. Okay? Are we on the same page now?
As I hit my teen years I started to rage against the Jesus machine, and at this time I started getting exposed to really cool shit. But this article isn’t about discovering William Burroughs and Punk Fuckin’ Rock. This is about a time before all that.
Let’s kick it back to the early 70’s. Though I hate to divulge my age I will state for the record that I was born in ’75. In 1975 we were at the end of the Vietnam war. Watergate now over was still fresh in the mind of Americans, and at everyone’s attention was the heightened state of The Cold War. The counter-culture born in the late 60’s had become mainstream, and from it was birthed the Jesus People Movement. This movement materialized in a wave of post-hippie conversions to Christianity, born in the dissatisfaction caused from the wake of the counter-culture and a government that was corrupt. From this movement was birthed a modern day evangelical front, and one I was born directly into from parents who converted to Christianity in this popular cultural movement. One major and long-lasting byproduct of this Jesus movement was the general entry of Christian beliefs into pop culture aesthetics, mainly to film and pop music. Essentially, you could start finding drum kits and “bands” replacing organs and choirs amongst select congregations. Hell, Jesus Christ Superstar became a Broadway hit.
From 1975 let’s cut back a couple of years to 1972 for just a second. In 1972 a crazy little Christian flick hit the market called A Thief in the Night. Written and Produced by Russell S. Doughton Jr. (producer of 1958’s The Blob) and directed by Donald Thompson, the story follows Biblical prophecy surrounding the end times, as outlined in the Book of Revelations. In the film Jesus has come back to call his followers home to heaven. Folks have suddenly disappeared from the earth in what is popularly known as the Rapture. In the Bible, if you’re a non-believer and find yourself “left behind” you’ll be subjected to seven years of hell on earth. During this time it is possible to convert to Christianity, but it won’t be easy. You’ll be up against a world government led by The Antichrist. You’ll be tried, tested, and possibly killed for your faith. Not good times to say the least, but one hell of a basis for a horror film. And within the political and cultural climate, end-time horror was more relevant than ever.
A Thief in the Night follows one leading lady named Patty who is “left behind”. A government entity called UNITE (United Nations Imperium for Total Emergency) is set in place to combat the worldwide disaster. To regain control they institute a system where everyone must receive a special marking on either the forehead or wrist (very Holocaust-like stuff here), which is meant to identify them. Anyone who chooses to not get the mark will basically be considered an outlaw and will be arrested if caught. Without the mark you can’t buy anything, and will have to find a way to survive outside of mainstream society (enter survivalist themes). Through the film Patty, realizing what is happening, avoids taking the “mark of the beast” in her attempt to suffer for the cause of Christ, but is ultimately cornered for capture before she falls off a bridge to her death. The big double twist is that at the end of the film Patty wakes up to find out it was all a dream. But not really. When she wakes up, she finds out the rapture really DID happen with the final title card reading “The End… Is Near!”
Let’s check out the trailer:
Assuming you’re still with me I’ll kick it up a notch. Over the course of 1972 to 1983 Doughton makes a total of four of these films. The next ones in line stay with the main character of Patty, and they are: A Distant Thunder (1977), Image of the Beast (1980), and The Prodigal Planet (1983). Once the four films were completed they were circulated among conservative churches to be shown to the congregation, usually during the Sunday evening services, with the purpose of educating folks on the end times, converting non-believers to Christianity, as well as providing some titillating entertainment on what a post-rapture world would look like. I shouldn’t need to tell you the films were more than effective.
With each film things get more and more disturbing. During the end times there are seven plagues that are put forth on the earth. Sickness, disease, natural disasters, and other such Old Testament-styled horrors. These are seemingly the least of the worries for Patty. Patty joins forces with an underground alliance of believers. There are betrayals and all sorts of interpersonal dramas that escalate the suspenseful narrative. With each installment, UNITE becomes more Gestapo than before. We’re talking not just post-rapture Christians getting arrested, but actually being beheaded at a bloodied and formidable guillotine. This includes kids. Imagine being eight years old, sitting in a church service, and being told that if you don’t accept Jesus into your heart you could be left behind in this kind of a world. AND if you are left behind you’ll have to lose your head in order to get into heaven. It’s traumatizing. There’s actually support groups out there for kids who were severely traumatized by these films, which I personally find to be laughable. However, I digress… Aside from the guillotine, life in a post-rapture world is meant to be tough for folks who choose to believe. Again, this is where the survivalist themes come into play.
Aesthetically speaking, one of the most memorable points is the white sack-like garbs prisoners are forced to wear as they go towards the nearly chrome-like guillotine. This purist look -devoid of color or emotion – remains particularly haunting, and one reason surgical rooms still make me uncomfortable. Here’s a scene from From Image of the Beast. This scene in particular has helped contributed to my total atheism, and disregard for anything of the Christian faith. If there’s something wrong with me it can probably be singled back to this singular scene….
Another particular memory lingers with me during which Patty is being chased by the militant forces of UNITE when a surly old man comes to her rescue, and leads her to his underground hideaway within the woods. This scene (sorry couldn’t find a copy online for you) forms the basis for my lifelong obsession with post-apocalyptic survival techniques. The old man is eventually captured, tortured, and put to death. Early torture porn? Perhaps. Certainly nowhere near as graphic by today’s standards, but again to the point of scaring congregations into converting to Christianity… pretty effective stuff.
As I’ve looked back over my long running fascination with the macabre, I’ve come to realize my first real exposure to the horror genre can be pinpointed directly to these four films. In their time and context they were more terrifying than The Exorcist, and though they will likely remain largely overlooked (and deservedly so) in the annals of horror history, they certainly have contributed significantly to my obsession with all things post-apocalyptic.
Now before you rush out and try to track down these films, I have to warn you… I don’t wish these films on anyone, nor do I recommend them to anyone to seek out and view (and yes they are available on DVD). They’re cheesy, dated, and full of right-wing conservative fear-laden Bible thumping; however, given the current worldwide economic disaster, the array of wars we alone are involved in, and the seemingly endless natural disasters, alongside the looming time-bomb that is 2012 I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see another crop of these brainwashing films pop up to help convert a few more to the Christian Right. But now that I mention it… what’s that? Oh yeah – a fifth film in this series is now reportedly in production: The Battle of Armageddon. I guess we’ll see you at the guillotine!
As an added bonus I thought I’d include a couple extra clips for your amusement:
Clip 1: The Death of Patty. Take the Mark!
Clip 2: Crazy old Coot and the Antichrist both lament and praise the advent of the computer. Yes… it will be your new golden calf. Who knew Jesus was a Luddite?