A Thief in the Night Retrospective: Where They (And We) Are Now

A Thief in the Night Retrospective: Where They (And We) Are Now March 28, 2018

We’ve been talking lately about the Christian Rapture movie franchise A Thief in the Night. And it’s been so eye-opening for me to see just how deeply and painfully these movies have affected so many people with their terrifying, traumatizing message. I’ve heard from a great many people over this past week who wanted to share how frightened they’d been by these movies. So we’re going to be looking at why these movies had the effects they did. I’ll start with a retrospective–about not only where the movies’ actors and creators are, but also where we ourselves are since this franchise was made. Come join me!

Two guesses came to me immediately the first time I saw this image from A Distant Thunder, and neither of them are at all appropriate to see next to a little girl’s finger-puppet.

Russell Doughten Jr.

Good Pastor, played by Russell S. Doughten Jr., was Patty’s pastor in the first movie. The character’s name is officially Matthew Turner. He’s the pastor who didn’t take the Rapture seriously enough, so he didn’t preach about it to his flocks, focusing instead on teaching about a loving god and on the necessity of being decent people.

And that made him a bad Christian.

After the Rapture, he’s left behind like Patty is. Chastened, he goes a little wacky, screaming and ranting to himself in his abandoned, closed-off church as if giving a really inept sermon, which had to be–all by itself–rather unsettling for children to see (we’ll be coming back to it next time). After that he runs off into the wilderness to take over a farmhouse or something.

Now I look back at this movie knowing that the character portrayed here is this movie’s executive producer and co-writer. This is his self-insert Gary Stu character. OMG.

The irony, of course, is that the IMDB page for the first movie does list a guy titled “Pastor Balmer (the good minister),” referring to the fire-and-brimstone pastor who wins a conversion from Patty’s husband Jim. That pastor and Jim are both Raptured. On this blog, when we talk about Good Pastor, we’re talking about Matthew Turner, the white-bearded dude with the mural-diagram in the farmhouse who was Patty’s pastor in the first movie.

Good Pastor is the only character to appear in all four movies. Indeed, those four movies are about all he’s ever acted in (another movie, Whitcomb’s War from 1980, is the fifth and only other one–and yes, he produced it as well). You’ll notice quickly from his IMDB page that he’s really more of a behind-the-camera sorta guy. Indeed, he was the producer of all of the A Thief in the Night (ATITN) movies in the franchise.

(His near-omnipresent partner in the ATITN franchise, Don Thompson, has a bio that runs along markedly similar lines. He’s just not as visible so I’m not including him here.)

Russell Doughten, the actor behind Good Pastor and one of the creators of the movie itself, was terrified very young with stories of the Endtimes. He was deeply distressed that not all Christians were as panicked as he was about this idea, to the point where he decided to make his life’s work getting everyone he could to fear what he feared.

Doughten died in 2013 without having experienced the Christian end-of-the-world fantasies he inflicted upon the world (someone online claimed he kept his beard after the fourth movie in the hopes that he’d get to play Matthew Turner again–which sounds about right). But he figured that some 300 million people had seen his first movie, most of them for free through churches and youth groups, and that millions of them had converted to his form of terror-driven Christianity, so he took comfort and satisfaction from that fact at the end of his life.

And just think, friends: All of that wickedness and perversity came from the unresolved fear of one little boy.

Love of money isn’t the root of all evil after all.

TEAM SIDEBURNS, REPORT IN!

For all three of the movies we’ve seen so far (Saturday will be our watchalong/live-comment for the fourth and last one), we’ve been rooting for the character I affectionately dubbed “Sideburns.”

Played by Thom Rachford, Jerry “Sideburns” Bradford was the foil to the TRUE CHRISTIAN™ Jim Wright (dubbed “Cowboy Jim” as he wore a cowboy hat in his first scene). I adored Sideburns as a character. He was the epitome of an ideal 1970s man: sensual, graceful (okay, except when running), earthy, in great shape, intelligent, decisive, caring, fashionable, and competent in a lot of different ways.

When a young preacher tried to scare him with stories of the Last Days, Sideburns’ response was to growl that he was the Antichrist and start wrasslin’ with his delighted girlfriend Diane. Later, he turns out to have taken the Mark of the Beast–and he plays a pivotal role in betraying and then capturing Patty for his masters at UNITE.

ATITN was the very first professional acting role that Rachford ever got (in this 2013 interview, he talks briefly about his pre-ATITN life). He was an undiscovered actor working for a theater company. One of the people at the company began working with Russell Doughten on ATITN and they noticed him there one day. It was a serendipitous meeting that Rachford is totally positive was miraculous. Certainly there was no other way that an Iowa actor could possibly ever have come into contact with an indie filmmaker who made movies exclusively in Iowa, right?

A pity the actor who brought Sideburns to sorta-life couldn’t possibly compete with his awesome character. He just seems so likeable, and then I think to myself Wow, he’s just so totally thrilled about terrorizing little children into joining his cult and get creeped the hell out.

Thom Rachford has been working infrequently but steadily in the film industry ever since on mostly secular roles in television and smaller movies, but really his big claim to fame these days is being the Vice President of Russ Doughten Films. He describes his vocation as film ministry:

I have worked in film ministry since 1972 as an actor, film production manager, designer, advertiser, marketer, distributor, convention representative, presenter of the “Share Your Faith” seminar training, post film showing counselor and what ever else is needed.

(Anyone else getting a “this prestigious film company is hosted entirely out of someone’s spare bedroom and functions largely as a tax writeoff” vibe here?) He’s been talking about getting a fifth ATITN movie made for a while, but nothing seems to have come of it yet.

Also of note: Diane, who is Sideburns’ girlfriend and then wife in the movies, is played by his real-life wife Maryann. They’re still married, too, though she’s pretty much only ever been in the ATITN movies. She talks for a minute in this very brief video, which I encourage you to watch just to marvel at the interviewing hostess’ TOTALLY BARREN FIELD as she listens to these two preaching endlessly.

Patty Dunning.

The heroine of the first movie, Patty Myers, is played by Patty Dunning (later Risinger). Like most of the rest of the cast and crew, she was from Iowa. In an interview she gave a few years ago, she said she hadn’t been totally on board with the message of the movie at first–but she rapidly fell into line. She acknowledged in that interview that yes, the movie did traumatize people, but she accepted that as the price that must be paid to “convey the truth.” Sometimes the truth is just that terrifying, I reckon, if one is a fundagelical and has no way whatsoever to critically judge threats. (She talks about some of this stuff in an interview that we missed on the special features of one of the ATITN movies. — Aww, darn!)

For someone who plays such a huge role in the first movie, though, the character of Patty is largely an empty vessel. She reacts to things in one of two ways: she whines, or she screams. The filmmakers describe her as a young woman who is “caught up in living for the present with little concern for the future,” but she largely doesn’t care much about anything. As a character, she’s simply not very distinctly written, and the actress inhabiting and presenting the character simply didn’t have the skill or experience to do much with the little she was given.

Like most of the other actors in this movie, Patty Dunning Risinger largely fell out of the industry entirely after the franchise wrapped up and now lives quietly in Iowa after her time in the limelight. She seems to be doing pretty well.

Some Others.

William Wellman Jr., who plays David, the hero of the third (and apparently fourth?) movie who’s busy trying to create the fake Mark, is a fairly solid and well-established actor with a long list of roles. It must have been a treat for the ATITN folks to have a real professional on set for those shoots. Aside from Ty Hardin, who was clearly not exactly performing at his best, William Wellman was the most professional and credentialed actor in the whole movie–and he didn’t return to Christian cinema after his brief foray into it.

Ty Hardin, a onetime heartthrob actor from the 1960s, plays a role titled “The Missionary” in the third movie. I’m 90% sure that this is the weirdo in the big hair and the Star of David who wears blue scrubs all through the movie. Hardin had an interesting life story. He almost became a megastar–but a couple of really disastrous professional decisions led to his career dribbling away by the 1970s. He did Image of the Beast in 1980, and then sorta drifted into the deserts of Arizona. He became a sovereign citizen sort of whackadoodle and got in a lot of legal trouble. He died last year, leaving behind his eighth wife and a whole passel of ex-wives and children. And I have no clue how he got tangled up in an Iowa fundagelical moviemaking venture.

I’m pretty sure Ty Hardin is on the left here.

Wenda Shereos, who played LeslieDavid’s love interest in Image of the Beast who gets shot and then paralyzed from the waist down, didn’t do much acting after ATITN. She ended up getting involved in worship ministry at an evangelical church in the Chicago area, even writing some stuff about how to make Christian church worship more creative and artistic (read: the evangelical equivalent of liturgical dance) before she and her husband, the church’s pastor, retired.

Susan Plumb, the actress who played Kathy (the single mother with the little boy in the third movie), made a brief jab at acting and then melted out of the industry after 1987. After leaving the acting field, she appears to have become a Media and Film Production Professor at Pepperdine University. I found her Facebook page and she looks like she is living the life of Riley out in California these days. I wish her well. (I’ve got no idea what became of the boy who played Billy, Kathy’s son in the movie. He’s probably just some pastor’s or deacon’s kid who got roped into doing this awful thing that he can’t even remember now, almost 40 years later.)

Where We Are Now.

The reason I’ve done a fly-by on the main creators and actors of these movies is because I think it helps to shine a light on exactly how small-potatoes, homegrown, small-stakes, and picayune these movies are. Don’t get me wrong: for the money involved, the movies did extraordinarily well, so much so that it’s mystifying that Doughten and Rachford never managed to get a fifth one underway. I’m not saying they didn’t provide a fantastic return on the investment.

But look at how things have worked out for these folks. Not one of them really went that far in acting or in ministry. The people who did best were the ones who headed into other fields. ATITN didn’t exactly open any doors for any of these folks.

And worst of all, for all the successes claimed by the folks who made this franchise, for all the renown it brought them all through that end of the religion, and for all the people who claim these movies scared them into becoming Christians, “Jesus” apparently didn’t care enough about making a fifth movie happen. Maybe he figured they’d made their point well enough already–or maybe there’s an even better explanation for that inaction.

Slowly, slowly, slowly the people associated with ATITN are dying–and the world continues to very stubbornly not fall apart at the seams. I wonder if they each get that moment of wait, where’s my Rapture? where’s my Heaven? as their brains finally tune out for the last time.

Backfire: That Loud Noise You Just Heard.

But I suspect strongly that the tactics used by this movie franchise are beginning to backfire as we continue to move through Christianity’s decline.

It isn’t hard to find people who converted as children after watching these movies. I’m not surprised at all, either. Where the movies aren’t stultifying they are horrifying, and we’re going to talk more Thursday about just why they’re so reprehensibly predatory. They look like they were custom-designed to terrorize the vulnerable. And gang, on that level they worked. They worked. They gave kids nightmares.

Nor did the nightmare end when the movies were over.

The movie’s creators actually had counselors sit in the audiences to help scare these kids even more and to spur them on up to the front of the auditorium/church/whatever to convert properly. Rachford talks about it in one of the interviews I’ve linked–he was one of the first (and, by his telling, apparently one of the more effective) post-movie counselors that sat in the audience with the guests.

Well, a lot of those kids are in their 30s and 40s today (if not even older), and some of ’em aren’t really happy about having been manipulated like that.

Evangelical churn begins to look dramatic right around that Millennial age group–and only gets steeper the younger the age cohort is. Fundagelicals’ response to their ongoing decline has been to up the frequency and the seriousness of their threats–but there is no sign whatsoever that anybody is listening to them (except those who are still in the pews–and even they’ve got one foot out the door).

I suspect that these sorts of threats worked on folks my age and older because we literally didn’t have the resources that younger people have today, making fearmongering a tactic that is quickly losing its effectiveness. When we hear a threat now, we can go find out if it’s based in reality or not. Not all of us do, but enough do that slowly Christians are watching their favorite evangelism tool dissolve in their hands. We live now in a culture where someone can see through those threats and reject Christianity with far less of a risk of retaliation than in generations past. When a pastor starts bellowing about diagrams and Seven Seals and the Tribulation up on a podium, any kid in the audience with a smartphone can double-check what he’s saying and know before the service is ended that everything that pastor just said is false.

Most of all, we’re way less likely to see the terrorization of children as a good thing no matter what the cause might be. Just as physical abuse is becoming way less acceptable, so is manipulating a child’s trust and innocence to sell them something or make them comply with a demand.

Next time, we’re going to talk about why ATITN was so scary for kids–and how it was engineered from the ground up to be that way. See you then!


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