My first exposure to exploitation cinema was actually in CHURCH of all places and with THIS highly memorable flick. In the same way blaxploitation pictures are made primarily by and for black audiences, a whole genre of religious-themed pictures are produced by and marketed to Christian viewers, as most find the content of secular movies to be inherently sinful. So it's either one of these "safe" flicks, or none at all. Recently, the faith-based, end-of-the-world thriller The Omega Code surprised folks when it made a big enough splash at the box office to warrant a sequel. Then Left Behind brought the best-selling book franchise to the screen with "Growing Pains" heartthrob Kirk Cameron. Both films share a decades-long preoccupation by evangelical filmmakers with the Bible's book of Revelation that goes back to another and far superior scare-'em-to-Jesus series -- A Thief in the Night (1973, 70 minutes), A Distant Thunder, Image of the Beast and the epic Prodigal Planet. Even after nearly 30 years and a fraction of the funds thrown at these latest films, A Thief in the Night, the first of the series to be released on DVD, also stands out as a more creatively made movie with its sophisticated story structure and then avant-garde use of quick cuts and layered audio. And unlike today's more timid, but slickly produced entries, this is a film that isn't afraid to hammer heathens over the brainpan with its fire 'n' brimstone tinged salvation message. In fact, the filmmakers boldly claim six million conversions!
The movie: This series follows the perils of Patty (Patty Dunning), a seemingly upright girl whose hubby got called up to heaven, with the rest of the good folks, and left her behind to deal with an Anti-Christ who enjoys seeing heads roll -- literally. When we first meet Patty, she's just attended a service at Teen Town where a young preacher talks about Earth's final days when Christians believe Jesus Christ will return "like a thief in the night" and call his followers home. While strolling through the Iowa State Fair, Patty and friends contemplate the meaning of this sermon with pig-tailed Jenny (Colleen Niday) feeling compelled to go back to hear more, while Patty and her free-lovin' gal pal Diane (Maryann Rachford) decide to go on a helicopter joyride with some cute boys as they can "always get converted later." Bad move, ladies. Patty's future husband Jim (Mike Niday) experiences the flick's most dramatic conversion, as he finds Jesus after nearly croaking from a nasty KING COBRA bite! It's not long after this decidedly unique twist that the two kiddos get married and the story strolls into Raptureville where lawn mowers, electric razors and mixers whirr idly when their Christian operators spontaneously vanish. Poor Patty must then face the sudden rise of the United Nations Imperium of Total Emergency (UNITE) who demand that the world's citizenry get an electronic bar code tattoo on their forehead or hand. Gulp! Just like the Mark of the Beast warned of at Teen Town!!! Her hesitance to comply leads to a climatic chase sequence finale that still sends 'em screamin' to the alter. CineSchlockers should note that not only does Mark IV producer Russell S. Doughten Jr. appear as a preacher in the flick, he was also an associate producer of The Blob with Steve McQueen.
Notables: No breasts. Two corpses. Flirtatious winking. Gratuitous Humphrey Bogart impression. Bug squashing. Happy marriage montage. Puppetry. Foot chase. Helicopter harassment.
Quotables: The Fishmarket Combo never made the Billboard charts despite these catchy lyrics, "How could have you been so blind? The Father spoke. The demons dined. The Son has come and you've been left behind!" The Mark of the Beast is "kind of a super-evil credit card." Jimbo is quite the comedian, "I haven't felt this bad since I ate my sister's first meatloaf."
Time codes: "I Wish We'd All Been Ready" music video (4:22). Guy with wacky sideburns thinks he's Rich Little (11:27). Skinless water-skiing montage (15:00). Religious symbolism slithers up and bites a heathen (22:05). Kiddo shrieks in terror not long after a particularly charged sermon (33:35). The rapture! (41:33). Triple six tattoos become all the rage (45:29).
Audio/Video: Fullframe transfer preserves all the spots and scratches of the original, but unfortunately, often suffers from the contemporary ill of frequent digital distortion. Tiny Dolby Digital mono track wavers in quality from shot to shot, but so does the source material. Check out the Portuguese and Spanish dubs for added amusement.
Extras: All the elements are here for a great special edition. However, the overall production quality of this disc is disappointing. Director Donald Thompson and Mr. Doughten provide an excellent commentary that tells how they felt called by God to make this film, addresses common criticisms as well as offers some behind-the-scenes nuggets. Yet, the track isn't selectable during standard playback, forcing viewers to choose the commentary from the menu only. Also, when either of the gentlemen speak about a specific screen point, their voice track is dialed down almost completely in favor of the movie audio as they continue to talk creating unnecessary confusion. Another quibble is with the menus themselves that seem sluggish to respond to commands and it's difficult to see which item on the screen is selected at any given time. Granted, this is Russ Doughten Films' first DVD, so such minor missteps are bound to occur. But what's certain to invoke a snicker from CineSchlockers is that from the main menu, one is only a click away from being able to "Receive Jesus." Truly we've arrived in the digital age! The 15-minute clip features actor Thom Rachford (sideburned Jerry from the series) in an intimate discussion of the Christian view of salvation with on-screen Biblical quotations and video illustrations from the film. Trailers. Static menus without audio. Fill out the printed insert to receive a free full-color "Revelation Chart" as featured in Image of the Beast.
Final thought: This is it! Except no substitute. While most "End Times" flicks tend to favor exploitative scares over religious insight, here the underlying message is also crystal clear and smartly revealed. Unfortunately, substandard mastering earns this disc a lower rating. Recommended.
G. Noel Gross is a Dallas graphic designer and avowed Drive-In Mutant who specializes in scribbling B-movie reviews. Noel is inspired by Joe Bob Briggs and his gospel of blood, breasts and beasts.