Thursday, October 8, 2020

Apocalypse Month Continues: A Distant Thunder

A Distant Thunder
A symbol of execution has, of course, been a standard of church d├ęcor for centuries, but one of the churches in A Distant Thunder doesn't stop with crosses. It has not a fully functional guillotine. 

Oh no! I’ve spoiled a forty-year-old sequel! 

Please forgive me. The betrayals in this film are much crueler than film spoiling.

1978’s A Distant Thunder is a sequel to 1972’s A Thief in the Night. Thief was a Christian film designed to be an evangelistic scare tool to convert people. Central to the story is the Rapture (a belief that some -- but not all -- Christians hold that Jesus will take His people out of the world in the twinkling of an eye, leaving the rest of humanity to face a Great Tribulation before the world ends). A Distant Thunder is about the beginning of that Tribulation.

Donald Thompson, the writer and director from Thief returned for A Distant Thunder, along with the same central character, Patty Myers (Patty Dunning). This film opens with Patty sitting in a church pew, waiting with others facing execution. Her friends Wenda (Sally Johnson) and her sister, Sandy (Sandy Christen) along with a few men whose names I didn’t catch are with her. An official in the front of the sanctuary is telling those gathered they must take the I.D. mark, a tattoo on the forehead or hand, or they will be executed.

Wenda and the men are trying to convince Patty not only to continue to refuse the mark but also to receive Jesus as her Lord and Savior. Patty says she can’t trust God since He allowed all these horrible things to happen in the world. The others ask Patty to tell how she got to this place, and we get flashbacks to her story, beginning with the Rapture. She tells how she lost her husband and grandmother to the Rapture, but eventually teamed up with Wenda and Sandy to survive in a world full of famine and natural disasters.

Within this flashback, Patty has flashbacks to before the Rapture. She remembers baking gingerbread with her grandmother as her grandmother urged her to become a Christian while giving an overview of the end times.

Patty also recalls when an evangelist, Dr. Reed, came to her church and talked about what would happen during the Great Tribulation. The evangelist displayed a chart that shows the events predicted for the Tribulation in the book of Revelation. He warned all in attendance that they could, “Wake up one morning to find the Rapture had taken place.” He goes on to cite the judgments from Revelation: war and famine and death, represented by images of seals and bowls. As he speaks, the pastor of Patty’s church, the Rev. Matthew Turner (Russell Doughton, returning in the role he played in the first film) sits in the front row looking both bored and disgusted. Those who saw the first film know that Turner didn’t believe in the End Time events predicted in Scripture prior to the Rapture.

But after the Rapture, Turner taught very different things. We see a flashback of Patty, along with Wenda and Sandy, attending Turner’s church after the Rapture. The church is sparsely populated (it actually looks like the congregation is observing Covid-19 policies of social distancing.) Turner weeps from his pulpit, “I criticized the evangelist for using scare tactics….I preached my own philosophy because I wanted to keep my congregation comfortable, and I was secure. You should have challenged me because what I said conflicted with the Word of God. You should have found a church that taught the truth.”

In a later flashback of Patty’s we see the Reverend Turner preaching in an empty church. The doors have been boarded up by the authorities and signs have been posted forbidding entry. The pastor has gone mad with guilt.

Patty finishes her story and the film finishes its flashbacks and is back in the church, as people await execution. Names are called, and people are led out of the church blindfolded. Those in the church are promised a chance to escape execution, even to the last moment if they will take the I.D. mark (which the Christians call the Mark of the Beast, referring to Revelation 13: 15 – 18).

Patty wonders why people are blindfolded. Some people leave the church, scream in terror and return inside to receive the I.D. Eventually, Patty and Wenda are called by name, are blindfolded and led outside. Their blindfolds are removed to find… a guillotine. This is the terror that led some to take the mark.

Now, I may be alone in this, but if I was going to be executed, I would be relieved to find the guillotine was the method of execution. They’ve been sitting in a church where crosses were all around. Crucifixion was a nasty method of execution. Hours of agony, suffering hunger and thirst, and fighting to take a breath until asphyxiation brings death. If I could see that I was going to be killed by crucifixion, that would be one thing. Or being burned on a stake. Or even electrocution. Death by guillotine is instantaneous and therefore relatively humane, but I guess the filmmakers thought the guillotine was a cool image. A church with a guillotine would attract more attention than your average white steeple, I guess.

And speaking of Steeples, it is time to give the clergy and churches in A Distant Thunder our Movie Churches Steeple Rating. Dr. Reed, the evangelist and even the repentant Rev. Turner might get relatively high scores, but a church used as an execution grounds really brings down the average - 2 Steeples.

Though the world doesn’t end in this film, it makes it to Mid-Great Tribulation, which brings it to two gravestones on our Apocalypse Scale.

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