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Russell S. Doughten was a Christian filmmaker who is best known for his series of four films promoting a dispensationalist, premillennialist view of the end times and the rapture. His first professional film work was as an uncredited assistant director on the 1958 horror film The Blob.
The films in the series are:
- A Thief in the Night (1972)
- A Distant Thunder (1978)
- The Image of the Beast (1981)
- The Prodigal Planet (1983)
Anyone who was involved in fundamentalist or Pentecostal Christianity during the 1970s or 1980s has probably had at least one of these screamfests inflicted upon them at a church youth group meeting. They have since become cult classics, both for their bad acting and badly dated 1970s fashions, and also for much the same reason ex-Christians and non-Christians take an interest in Jack Chick tracts, Mike Warnke's bizarre life story, and whatever Bob Larson is up to: for the lulz.
These films are a fascinating look inside the mindset of the rapture-ready crowd. All the elements are there: a liberal Christian minister ("Rev. Matthew Turner", a recurring character played by Doughten himself) who missed the rapture due to his unbelief in the literal truth of the Bible, who sees the error of his ways after the rapture and becomes a survivalist, preaching with his rapture timeline charts to anyone who will listen. The United Nations declaring a state of emergency after the rapture and setting up UNITE, the United Nations Imperium for Total Emergency. A world leader named Brother Christopher, who will set the stage for the antichrist to rise to power. Mobile vehicles with guillotines mounted on them, to behead anyone who will not accept the mark of the beast tattooed on their forehead or wrist.
Many of the plots and subplots revolve around several people who had been exposed to just enough end times paranoia before the rapture to know they should not take the mark of the beast, but had missed the rapture due to unbelief. They spend a lot of time agonizing over making a decision to accept Jesus as their personal savior while trying to outrun the forces of UNITE and BUMS (Believers Underground Movement Squad, which infiltrates underground groups of Christians to turn them over to UNITE for beheading).
A few things change over the course of the series. Universal Product Codes were new in 1981 so in the last two films the mark of the beast is in the form of a UPC bar code, whereas in the first two films it is a more conventional tattoo somewhat resembling a 666. The first three were filmed in Iowa, but the last one is set in New Mexico after nuclear war has ravaged the earth. Indeed, The Prodigal Planet more resembles a Christian take on post-apocalyptic sci-fi films like Damnation Alley as the underground believers drive across a post-nuclear landscape dodging mutants (and leading one mutant to Christ).
Each film in the series is longer and appears to have a bigger budget than the one before. One can assume that Russell Doughten attracted more investors as the series continued.
An earlier "end times" film by Ron Ormond, If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? (1971), in which communism is the vehicle for the rise of the antichrist, is often cited as a precursor to Doughten's films. Instead of identifying the antichrist with communism as Ormond did, Doughten follows Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth and identifies the antichrist with a one-world government under the United Nations that arises to restore order after the chaos created by the rapture.
Doughten's films in turn are a likely inspiration for the later Left Behind series, and his "mega serial" format predates the multi-sequel sagas common in Hollywood today.
Where to watch
A number of Christian bookstores often have video rental services. These films, as well as a few Creationist videos and some that insist the USA is a "Christian nation", are often worth a chuckle. Every so often, someone posts them on YouTube until they're pulled off for legal reasons (something about "Thou shalt not steal"). Type the title in the search block and if you're lucky and find one, sit back, light one up and enjoy the cheese.