Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #43 A Thief in the Night (1972)
Welcome, friends, to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the site and career-sustaining column where I give YOU, the ferociously sexy, intimidatingly brilliant Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron, an opportunity to choose a movie that I must watch, and then write about, in exchange for a one-time, one hundred dollar pledge. The price goes down to seventy-five dollars for each additional choice.
Y’all have exposed me to some fascinatingly terrible motion pictures, and even the occasional legitimately great movie but you’ve also tried to share the gospel of Christ with me, a secular Jew. You tried to win me over to Christ with the wonderfully bewildering Elvis-themed Christian musical The Identical and the gloriously inept homemade drama My Best Friend.
Neither of those movies took, I’m afraid. Verily, I mocked them as they tried earnestly to share the miracle of faith with me. Like a godless heathen, I laughed derisively at these messengers of faith and wrote unkind things about them in exchange for forty pieces of silver, or one hundred American dollars.
If there is a spiritual war between God and the devil, and these motion pictures have led me to believe that there is, then condemning these Godly motion pictures for being fascinatingly, extravagantly incompetent, puts me on the wrong side of that moral skirmish.
You have been patient with me and my secular ways, however, and have tried yet again to save my immortal soul by forcing me to watch 1972’s A Thief in the Night, the first entry in a Rapture-themed film series that would include 1978’s A Distant Thunder, 1981’s Image of the Beast and 1983’s The Prodigal Planet.
By “you” I am, in this case, speaking directly about donor Steve Dahlin, who, in addition to choosing this movie, hosts an alcohol and Dr. Who themed podcast called Drunktor Who that has a five star rating on iTunes. Will I also plug a project of yours if you pledge at this level? Yes, I will. And I will do so happily.
This was a real blast from the past for me. In my early days at The A.V Club I wrote extensively about direct-to-video movies for the Video section and covered any number of Rapture-themed Christian films. I was attracted to these movies by their hysterical proselytizing and amateurish storytelling as well as the gloriously random nature of their casts.
When I had the honor of interviewing Margot Kidder for Random Roles she confessed that she did not even realize what the Rapture was until she arrived on the set of the Rapture-themed motion picture she had agreed to appear in for a large sum of money.
Her exact, wonderful words on the matter were, “Oh! I didn’t even know it was a Christian movie. Me and Howie Mandel were sitting there going “What happened to my character?” You know, they just offered us lots of money to do these things. I thought it was a mystery. So I’m on the set, and I’m going to Howie, “My character disappears. I don’t know what happened. I can’t find her in the script.” I was pretty cynical about that one. I was broke, so I needed the money. These people offered me a bunch of money to go to Toronto for a few days, and then suddenly this big limousine pulls up, and out walks this guy with about nine tons of hair, like [disgraced Illinois governor Rod] Blagojevich, but white-haired. And I said, “Who’s that?” “Oh,” say the producers, “that’s pastor such and such and such and such, and he gets a part in the movie, ’cause he sells them in his church.” And Howie and I went “What?” And then the penny dropped. It was like, “Oh my God.” And I said, “Wait a minute, what happens to my character?” And they went “Well, straight up in the Rapture.” And I went “The what?” And they explained the Rapture and the end times to me, and I went “Oh shit. I’m in one of these movies.” And I was with Howie, I believe. So that was pretty funny. I went “Oh my God, the joke’s on me here.” And I still get stopped by those freaky fundamentalists going “Oh, I’m so glad you did Tribulation.” And I wanna go, “Don’t count me into your group, honeybuns. I’m not one of you.”
In related news, Margot Kidder was awesome. Yes, A Thief in the Night is one of those movies, wonderfully earnest dramas designed to put the fear of God in audiences first and entertain a very distant second.
I’ve never seen a Rapture-themed movie as old as A Thief in the Night. It feels like an alternate universe version of a funky New Hollywood movie only instead of dramatizing life on the fringes of American society it’s single-mindedly concerned with scaring audiences into giving their lives over to Jesus, and not in a bullshit, half-assed kind of way either.
A Thief in the Night shares with later Rapture-themed thrillers, including the My World of Flops Case File Left Behind (the Nicolas Cage one of course) a seething contempt for people who think they’re good Christians just because they go to Church, read the bible, and try to lead a moral life.
Think that’s enough to get you into heaven? Brother, you could not be more wrong. As far as A Thief in the Night is concerned, if you haven’t explicitly given over your life and soul to Christ, then you might as well be having group-sex with demons and sucking Satan off, because you’re fake as fuck and God hates you, but maybe HE’ll change his mind if you distinguish yourself during the period of the Great Tribulation.
Patty Dunning stars as Patty Meyer, one such fatally flawed Christian. As the movie opens, Patty wakes up in a fright to discover that the Rapture is upon us. A radio newsman seems flummoxed as to why millions have disappeared without explanation around the world before guessing correctly, “Some feel it to be a spectacular judgment of God” and later “This might be “The Rapture” spoken of in some areas of theology.”
The Rapture is perhaps the most inherently cinematic element of Christian scripture. It has elements of mystery (what happened to everyone?), science-fiction/horror (Satan is ascendant and everyone must take the Mark of the Beast) and paranoid, anti-Globalist political thriller.
Yet Rapture movies work against the cinematic elements of the Rapture by spelling everything out as artlessly and overtly as possible. Accordingly, the mystery of the great disappearance is almost immediately identified as The Rapture. We then flash back to Patty learning the Gospel from an even more on-the-nose preacher who says of the Rapture, “This is no joke. This is not a fairy tale. This will happen, just as soon as you and I are here right now.” In case there’s any confusion as to what this man’s ultimate message is, he clarifies, “So Christian, be alert. And friend, if you haven’t given your life to Christ, do it, and do it now, because the Rapture will come and Christ will return. It says in the Bible that he will come as a thief in the night.”
We’re then treated to a spectacularly funereal cover of Larry Norman’s Rapture-themed ballad, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” performed by what appears to be a depressed variety show band on near-fatal doses of Quaaludes. Even in this morose version, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” easily qualifies as the highlight of the film.
Norman was a brazen, brilliant iconoclast, a Christian rocker whose idiosyncratic music if filled with gothic, poetic, lyrical and surreal imagery. “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” is particularly haunting with couplets like, “The children died, the days grew cold/A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold” and “The Father spoke, the demons dined/How could you have been so blind?”
“I Wish We’d All Been Ready” is the great unmade Rapture art film in song form, a perfect distillation of what made Norman so very different from the kinds of Christians that gave the world A Thief in the Night.
Being a piece of shit, miserable excuse for a Christian, Patty is unimpressed but her easily-led, wildly suggestible pal Jenny heads on over to get her soul saved and her consciousness raised by a true believer who is supposed to communicate with the certainty and confidence of the saved but instead comes off as a pod person with a slug inside her brain.
The girl at the teen center explains that salvation is “free”, explaining, “what I mean is it doesn't cost anything but your life.”
Like a figure in a Jack Chick tract, Jenny responds, “That sounds pretty expensive” until this Jesus-lover explains, “Well it might seem that way, until you realize that you're living with God who created you. The God who cares for you more than any other person could. That you're letting Him take over. There's no way you could lose!”
That’s all it takes! When Jenny meets up with two of her less saintly friends and they tell they met some nice guys, she tells them she met the ULTIMATE nice guy: maybe you’ve heard of him, carpenter, virgin, has a thing about money-lenders, you know: Jesus Christ.
Being filled with God’s love causes Jenny to behave with the wild-eyed bliss of a PCP addict taking a hit in a late 70s exploitation movies. She gushes, “I feel HIM. I feel like if I had wings I could fly” before being told that with Jesus, you don’t need wings.
Yes, Jesus is the ultimate high but Patty is too wrapped in worldly matters like dating a veterinary student who gets bit by a snake and hovers on the brink of death to understood HIS beauty and truth and power.. Considering that A Thief in the Night is sixty-eight minutes long and must find time for the Rapture, the establishment of a Satanic, One-World Government and Satanic forces making everyone left behind take the “Mark of the Beast” on the back of their hands or their forehead or be arrested, not to mention a gratuitous waterskiing montage, I had to wonder why the movie was wasting so much screen time with a dude getting bit by a snake.
It turns out that Patty’s future husband is brought to Christ through nearly dying and being saved by baby Jesus. Patty’s future hubby is saved when a stranger volunteers to give his blood to save, not unlike how Jesus gave his blood to save humanity.
Eventually the Rapture happens. Jenny is of course Raptured but Patty, whose shitty conception of being a Christian involves nothing more than going to Church, reading the bible and trying to be a good person is left to deal with a one-world government that angrily demands that everyone take the mark of the Beast (666) or be arrested.
A Thief in the Night is never more haunting than during a post-Rapture sequence where a terrified and overwhelmed Patty runs deliriously from the Satanic forces now in control of pretty much everything. This largely dialogue-free sequence has a sweaty, nightmarish intensity unmatched by the rest of the film.
A Thief in the Night feels like a weird, confusing dream you half-remember. This is particularly true of its closing moments, which reveal everything that’s happened after the Rapture to be a dream while simultaneously establishing that the Rapture did actually happen and, to paraphrase the tile of a movie and book series that took its name from, our heroine has been Left Behind.
The Christ-loving scare-fest closes, adorably with “THE END” followed shortly by “….IS NEAR.”
Alas, the end was not at hand, or near, for the world, or for this particular series, which continued for three more outings, including a 1983 post-apocalyptic sequel involving mutants called The Prodigal Planet. It is, however, the end for me and the Thief in the Night franchise, even if The Prodigal Planet looks so fucking nuts it might be worth watching and writing about.
Of course YOU can make that happen by choosing The Prodigal Planet for Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. And if I am indeed saved by watching the movie and devote my life to serving Jesus as a result it’ll probably earn you points with your Christian God. If that isn’t worth one hundred measly dollars, I don’t know what is.
If you’d like to suggest a movie for this column (such as The Prodigal Planet) or just pledge any amount of money (even a dollar a month would mean the world to me) you can do so over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace