Here’s a blast from the past for those of you who grew up evangelical in the 1970s. This is the trailer for “A Thief in the Night,” a 1972 film that inaugurated the “end times” genre later exploited by the “Left Behind” books and movies. It’s been said that “Thief” has been seen by 300 million people worldwide, and I’m inclined to believe that number. In its day there was nothing like it, and evangelical churches used it as a “witnessing” tool (“Invite your unsaved friends!”).
So what’s the winning formula behind this mega-hit? First, take the paranoid theology of “Left Behind,” subtract budget, subtract professional production, subtract even a Kirk Cameron-level of acting ability, add a cheesy soundtrack and an early-seventies grindhouse vibe… oh, and film it in Des Moines, Iowa.
The plot is heavily influenced by Hal Lindsey’s 1970 bestseller, The Late, Great Planet Earth, which popularized dispensational eschatology (you don’t want to know) among people who would prefer not to read books with terms like “dispensational eschatology.” Unlike the theologians, Lindsey’s approach was easy to read, vivid, sensationalistic, and made a case that the rapture (in which Jesus returns and takes away all the true, born-again Christians, and leaves everyone else to the mercy of the evil anti-Christ) was imminent.
In the film, a young churchgoer named Patty Jo finds herself left behind in a world taken over by an evil world government called UNITE (United Nations Imperium of Total Emergency) who chase her all over Des Moines in white vans painted with the UNITE logo. Only an hour long, the movie is preachy and boring in parts, stupidly plotted in others, terribly acted throughout, and ends with the worst movie cliché ever (SPOILER ALERT): She wakes up and it was all a dream… or was it?!
With its preachy style, “Thief” is as much “Reefer Madness” as it is “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” Its point was not so much to entertain people as to save them. More than the ’70s clothes and the bad guy’s funky facial hair, what stands out most is the film’s blend of sincerity and manipulativeness, its guileless assumption that it’s good and proper to use fear to push people into “making a decision for Christ.” I’ve seen the movie more than once while growing up, along its sequels — but never without a pastor’s altar call at the end. Because, you know, what if? What if it happens tonight?
And if you like “A Thief in the Night” but think it would be better with a guillotine, check out its sequel, “A Distant Thunder.”