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A THIEF IN THE NIGHT (1972) / A DISTANT THUNDER (1978) / IMAGE OF THE BEAST (1981) / THE PRODIGAL PLANET (1983).

[Special thanks to Chris Poggiali at TEMPLE OF SCHLOCK for the cool old ad mats.]

A Fundamentalist epic of the Apocalypse, the Anti-Christ and the Rapture, this Iowa-lensed cinematic quartet is a true revelation -- a revelation of just how misguided religious propaganda can get, that is. Directed by Donald W. Thompson, these classic Mark IV Pictures were filmed over an 11-year period, and since many of the actors appear in the same roles throughout the series, we actually get to watch them age on-camera.

Wasting no time, THIEF kicks off with the vanishing of millions, and Patty (Patty Dunning) grieving over the disappearance of husband Jim. Then, in an extended flashback, we meet three teen girls, after a gospel meeting, with Jenny (Coleen Niday) instantly kowtowing to Jesus; while friends Patty and Diane (Maryann Rachford) prefer to hang out with hunky guys. Meanwhile, a teen preacher turns every party into an instant bummer, by spouting about the end of the world (complete with the Beast's Mark: "a super evil credit card... on your hand or forehead"). The dull drama escalates when Patty's boyfriend Jim is bitten by a cobra, with last-minute life-saving turning him into a Christian. Soon, the two are wed (cut to a 'happily married' montage of them playing checkers and fixing a TV dinner), but Patty still won't give herself over to Christ. So when The Rapture suddenly whisks all Believers to Heaven, Patty is alone, as a world government comes into power and begins an I.D. program on the back of one's hand! It gets even schlockier when rebellious Patty is chased by the all-powerful forces of Evil (a van and a helicopter) and turned in by friend Diane -- only to awaken to a "Was it only a dream? Or only the beginning?" twist. Executive producer Russel S. Doughton Jr. also co-stars as a preacher who never taught about the Rapture, and is now stuck on Earth. Desperately hoping to appeal to teenaged skeptics, everyone wears PARTRIDGE FAMILY hand-me-downs, while the entire endeavor has the unmistakable stench of white-trash drive-in slop.

Five years later, Patty's plight continued in A DISTANT THUNDER. Stuck in an internment camp for government enemies, Patty (still played by Dunning) doesn't have time for Jesus, since she's more concerned about her upcoming execution on a bloody guillotine. In yet another flashback, we see how Patty reacted to The Rapture, discovered that all of her Holier-than-her friends were gone (which includes a flashback-within-a-flashback of Heaven-bound Jenny), and was captured. Sure, the previous film was just a nightmare, but now it's all coming true. With one world government in place, a Mark (of the Beast?) is implemented, and without it, children die from a lack of medicine, people starve, and viewers suffer from terminal propaganda. Despite past warnings from her gray-haired granny (who lectured about the horrors of Judgment Day as she made gingerbread men), Patty remains an unbeliever, joins up with neighbors Wendy (Sally Johnson) and kid-sister Sandy (Sandy Stevens), and the three hide out in the country. As more Biblical prophecies come true (food and gas shortages), the gals are soon on the run after being betrayed (again!) by Diane & her boyfriend Jerry. So much for originality... Essentially, this is the same scenario as THIEF (including many of the same locations), but with slightly more impressive production values. Throughout, we're educated in the various stages of the Apocalypse, Doughton returns to preach about "godless humanism," and Patty continues to prove she's a nitwit, who doesn't deserve the joys of Heaven, much less a lead role in a movie.

IMAGE OF THE BEAST begins with The Mark firmly entrenched in society, and the opening credits filled with low-tech computers. (I can almost hear the in-bred churchgoers murmuring, "Dem things are evil.") But wait! How did Patty survive her impending execution in the previous movie? Thanks to the begging of young Sandy (now, substantially more adult), the skies turn black, the earth cracks open, and God spares her life. That's pretty fuckin' convenient. With the planet under military control, a whole new pack of non-actors (more earnest, but less talented than ever) turn up in this installment. When a few females run from the authorities, a military hunk (William Wellman Jr.) aids them in their escape, and even helps create a counterfeit Mark, to hide from the demonic government. Doughton returns, this time in bearded-Survivalist-mode, as a "babbling preacher" who lives in the woods and forces the fleeing folks to listen to his ravings about the fake Messiah (labeling computers the "new golden calf"). In addition, the continually back-stabbing Diane & Jerry make an appearance, looking older but no wiser. As the plot gets murkier, the righteous hide out in a hilariously fake, two-bit cave, even as murdered prophets rise from the dead and the military displays all of the efficiency of Colonel Klink and Schultz. Unfortunately, there's more talk than action in this outing and, hard to believe, it's shoddy in comparison to earlier entries. More inept than inspiring, it pushes its limp agenda with all the efficiency of a shopping cart that's missing its wheels.

The final installment of this Rapture propaganda epic manages to makes this Fundamentalist cataclysm almost as ridiculous as L. Ron Hubbard's alien-overlord-based Scientology ravings. But unlike the earlier, mercifully brief entries, series-director Donald W. Thompson was so deluded with his post-apocalyptic finale that he let it run 127 laborious minutes! Ouch!... The film follows a handful of survivors, long after the Rapture whisked all of God's ass-kissers to Heaven, and left the rest of us with a false savior and a nuke-ravaged world. William Wellman Jr. again stars as God-loving rebel David Michaels, who escapes from prison thanks to pretty double-agent Connie (Cathy Wellman). You see, the "Believers" underground needs his scientific savvy to help destroy the satanic government's communications network. Stealing an all-purpose, military "war wagon", Connie and David begin a DAMNATION ALLEY-like quest to locate the rebel's cave/HQ. Let's not forget about the laughable "Doomsday People" who are suffering from the "wrath of god" (i.e. radiation) and look like monk-robed THE OMEGA MAN rejects. Picking up passengers along the way (including a whiny mom & teen-daughter duo, plus a spotty-faced mutant boy, Jimmy), they travel through decimated cities (represented by a medical skeleton laying in the middle of the street), even as enemy forces are on their tail. In the meantime, the remnants of humankind are suffering through various plagues, such as having fake boils glued onto their faces... The film's rare moments of cut-rate action are intercut with tedious sequences of David and Connie deciphering some idiotic secret code -- which is almost as excruciating as its endless godspiel about that highly-overrated Jesus dude. Lacking the inept innocence of the earlier installments, that's mostly due to numbingly dull Wellman Jr., who saps every scene of its camp potential. In long-running supporting roles, executive producer Russell S. Doughton Jr. is a Reverend turned scruffy survivalist, while Thom Rachford plays evil-betrayer Jerry for the fourth time! Even the long-awaited Battle of Armageddon is a stock-footage letdown, which makes you wonder why God didn't bless them with a less pitiful budget.

© 1999 by Steven Puchalski.