“After the destruction of the Vatican and the bombings in Florence, it seemed as though World War III was inevitable. Now, that was before The Man took power. And there were those, including the club of Rome and a large number of scientific and cultural societies throughout the world, who became quite concerned about saving the great works of mankind.”
— Tallman, the Curator of the Museum of Man
It was the swingin’ ’70s: we just came out of the Vietnam war and the wounds of the Korean War were still fresh. We worried about, not “if” but “when,” the next war would occur. Man was disillusioned and afraid. And Hollywood loves to exploit man’s celluloid schadenfreude to turn a buck. So, after the one-two-three punch of Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, and Soylent Green, the Tinseltown apocalypse as was in full swing*.
However, while the end of the world was all the rage, it wasn’t a rage in which everyone could afford Charlton Heston. Or apes. Or contact lenses and monk habits. Or dump trucks with bulldozer scoops. But they could afford the dependable character actors of Bryon Clark (Weekend of Terror with Lee Majors) and the always awesome Joe Turkel (best known as Dr. Edlon Tyrell in Bladerunner and Lloyd the Bartender in The Shining; but this is B&S About Movies, so memory banks err to Free Grass, The Dark Side of the Moon, and his serial killer role in the biker flick, Savage Abduction). TV channel surfers may also recognize actor John O’Connell; he debuts, here, as Lt. Baldry. He matured into a respected, U.S. television career on shows such as Barney Miller, Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk, and M.A.S.H. as well as the TV Movie The Triangle Factor Scandal. Ed DeLatte, primarily a stage actor, here as Karsch, made his last film appearance in the family-friendly, Benji (1974). Our director, Tom Doades, briefly (and competently) appears as the Officer welcoming Turkel’s Colonel to the installation; the fifth member of the installation, the also-fine-in-his-role Al Chavis, is one-film-and-gone.
Unlike most of the film’s we’ve reviewed this week — as well as the past reviews we’ll recap in our “Exploring: Christian Cinema of the ’70s” feature to end the week — this Christian apoc’er has a secular pedigree behind the Brother Deluxe 700: Marshall Riggan. Making his debut with the counterculture crime-drama Cry for Poor Wally (1969) (which starred Sherry Miles, of another lost Christploiter, The Ballad of Billie Blue), he closed out his dramatic career (he transitioned into documentaries, after) with the more familiar, ’70s drive-in horror So Sad About Gloria (1973). In that film, Dean Jagger (Evil Town) stars in a tale of young woman released from a mental hospital; she relapses into visions — or gaslighted — and commits a series of axe murders. Think Let’s Scare Jessica to Death meets Messiah of Evil, and you’re in the ballpark of that forgotten, horror non-hit . . . from the guy who gave you one of the earliest films — long before The Omen appeared — concerned with calculating the identity of the Number of the Beast.
Yes. From a church-backed (well, a non-profit think tank) apocalypse flick to and early ’70s Romero-Friedkin-inspired horror film. Who knew? Well, we do. This is B&S About Movies, after all, where one’s oddball resume — in this case, Marshall Riggan — is king.
There’s nothing known about the film’s production history, outside of the fact it was produced by a concern known as the Evangelical Christian Research Center. Did a now “saved” Marshall Riggan pen the script on his own and the secular shingles he worked with passed on his Christian-slanted apocalypse tale? Was Riggan hired by the ECRC think tank to pen a science-fiction palpable “teaching and preaching” screenplay to spread the world of the foretold apocalypse? Again, the apocalypse was celluloid chichi at the time.
What we do know: Gospel Films, the distributor and co-producer behind my cherished childhood TV series Davey and Goliath, distributed this Riggan penner. Among Gospel Films thirty-plus productions over the years, the faith-based shingle also distributed the later, “Number of the Beast”-concerned Christian apoc’ers Early Warning and Years of the Beast (both 1981; reviews coming this week). Another known about the production: Tom Doades’s daughter, Lynn, commented on a trailer upload (embedded below) for the film by Brooklyn, New York’s Spectacle Art Cinema**, in conjunction with their special, 2018 screening of the film; she stated that she remembered when the film was made — and that her dad was Tom Doades; so we assume she means he has since passed away.
Anyway . . . with a Holy Bible opened next to his Deluxe 700 — and a little inspiration from Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), The Andromeda Strain (1971), and Silent Running (1972), as well as the (neither made yet) trapped-in-a-bunker-by-bats apoc’er Chosen Survivors and John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974): We have group of scientists, military and government types trapped in a secret mountain-computer brain facility (the new “Tower of Babel” if you will) when the Rapture, then Armageddon, breaks out. (While not inspired by it: As everyone runs around the underground bunker, we can’t help but evoke the forth serial of the twelfth series of the BBC-produced Dr. Who with the great, Terry Nation-penned Genesis of the Daleks. Never seen it? Find the unserialized movie version; it’s fantastic.)
While not inspired by it, a closer — and better known — Fundamentalist cousin to Six-Hundred & Sixty Six is its-released-in-the-same-year doppelganger by Mark IV Pictures: A Thief in the Night. If you thought that eventual, four-part Donald W. Thompson series (across a decade) had the science-fiction/horror hybrid of the Christploitation spectrum locked up, think again: this lone effort by director Tom Doades — courtesy of Riggan’s smart script — is intelligent, imaginative, against-the-budget filmmaking at its finest.
That’s not to say the film — which is nicely framed and well-shot by Tom Doades — doesn’t have its flaws (and we’re not referring to the condition of the uploaded steamer we’ve linked; it’s a washed out, beat-to-hell “roadshow print” that’s to be excused). As result of its non-budget . . . well, sure, there’s a production value to the proceedings, overall, but there is nothing in way of any techno-trinkets; there’s none of the spinning tape reels or rows of flashing computer banks of the film’s sci-fi antecedents. In fact, with a just a little bit more budget, we could have had, instead of an underground bunker, the later Canadian apoc’er Def Con 4 (1985) — but just the cool, budgetary space station part, not the rest of the fell-to-Earth part (which sucks). It’s Doades creative framing that sell us the idea that we are, in fact, deep inside an underground military installation (e.g., Joe Turkel meets with a superior, walks into a chamber with a Star Trek-swooshway, cross-straps himself into a flight chair; add a sound-effect: poof!: he’s descending down a shaft. Riggan’s script also intelligently tech-predicts the use of microprocessors to store large banks of data).
To that end: If you read our reviews of the later — and equally intelligent — Canadian TV productions 984: Prisoner of the Future and Music of the Spheres, as well as PBS-TV’s Hide and Seek, then you’re familiar with their wall-to-wall talky scripts more suitable for the theater stage than the sound stage.
“The literature, art, the artistic expression, scientific thought; because we all knew what enormous damage the next war could bring. So we decided to store all the cultural treasures into the memory banks of computers and then bury those computers beneath a mountain, where they would be safe. The accumulated knowledge and wisdom and artistic expression of an entire civilization called Earth.”
— Tallman, the Curator of the Museum of Man
When we first meet Colonel John Feguson (Joe Turkel), he’s the newly appointed Head of Operations Officer of what he believes is an underground missile silo; it is, in fact the world’s underground digital archive (much like ZERO, housed in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1975’s Rollerball — only with none of the prop pomp and circumstance of that A.I influencer*˟ ) created to preserve (i.e., save) man’s culture in the event of a war. We’re advised, via budgetary dialog, natch, that, through the use of “lasers and holographic memory,” the mountainous mainframe not only digitally stores books, but 3-D images of works of art and photographs of nature and architecture˟*. (There are a few convincing computer touches credited to the still-in-business, Midwest-based Communications Systems, Inc.; all of the set furnishing are courtesy the now-defunct, Lebanon, Pennsylvania-based “You’ll love it at” Levitz).
We also learn — again, in a budgetary, twenty-minute heavy, expositional dialog dump — in our not-to-distant future, the United Arab Nations, as well as the Soviet Union has fallen; China has grown in power. The world is split apart as warring Eastern and Western Hemispheres (a U.S./Europe political amalgamate, “the United States of Europe,” aka, “the New Roman Empire,” controls the latter from the capitol of Rome). As result of the ensuing political and religious unrest, both the National Museum in Venice and the Vatican were destroyed in bombings (both stopped World War III, it seems, at first) — and an organization known as “The Brotherhood of Man” has risen, with the goal of abolishing religion — to create a new, hodgepodge belief system based in Israel — as a way to a unified, world piece.
In an effective homage to Michael Anderson’s minimalist, 1956 Edmond O’Brien-starring production of George Orwell’s 1984 (which provides Tom Doades with production cues, in our opinion), an image of the world’s new leader, aka The Man, overloads throughout the film; at times, his words of wisdom echoes throughout the complex; meant to inspire, as are the perpetual poetry refrains and bible verses by the complex’s computer, Angela Company, the pontificates only demoralize. (Malachi Thorne, a long-time, respected, animated voice artist; but lots of ’60s and ’70s on-screen TV gigs, voices The Man; Helena Humann, credited in everything — from 1972’s The Last Picture Show to 1980’s Roadie to 1988’s Problem Child, along with lots of TV credits — serves as the A.I voice. Robert L. Crawford, Sr. an Emmy-nominated film editor and actor, who appeared in the late ’60s TV series, Manhunt, serves as the enigmatic image of The Man; his sons, Johnny and Bobby, appeared as child actors on The Rifleman and Laramie, respectively. Learn more with his Hollywood Reporter obituary.)
As Col. Ferguson’s assignment wears on, it’s clear the civilian-government overseer, Tallman (a great Bryon Clark), is already a wee-bit tweaked being cooped underground so long, as well as a wee-bit power mad in his job as the curator of all of the world’s historical information. In an event that foretells John Carpenter’s later remake of The Thing (1982), the mountain facility is rocked by a nuclear strike — so Ferguson and his men, think.
Cut off from the world above, the elevator damaged, and their life support systems compromised, with air, water, and medical supplies running out, the already-closed in walls, close in even more, paranoia ensues: just what Tallman needs to justify the executions of the bunker’s occupants to reserve resources. Then Ferguson and the rest of the crew — with the perpetual bible-verse and wisdom taunting of The Man and Angela, as well as observing “the end of the world” unfolding via the installation’s recording uplinks to the world’s satellites and computers (via dialog, not images that we see) — come to believe that it wasn’t a just nuclear strike on the installation: the bible-predicted apocalypse has, in fact, occurred.
As the quintet begins to decipher The Bible, plotting on maps, to figure out what happened . . . their mental state isn’t going to get any better. Then they learn, as the Euphrates River “mysteriously” dries up, China invades the Middle East; remnants of the Soviet Union and the New Roman Empire join forces to stop the invasion — and WW III breaks out at the foot of Israel’s Mount Megiddo. Ferguson, the eventual sole survivor, trapped in the complex, learns — finally — that The Man, numerically decoded, is the prophetic beast . . . and his number is Six-Hundred and Sixty Six. As with Burgess Meredith in “Time Enough to Last,” an iconic, 1953 episode of The Twilight Zone . . . Colonel John Ferguson is now just a part of a smashed landscape, just a piece of the rubble, just a fragment of what man has deeded to himself.
In the end, that’s the goal of the Evangelical Christian Research Center: not so much to entertain, but to teach you — through rambling, Biblical-based conversations dressed in a sci-fi sheen — about bible prophecy. But why does it have to be so gosh darned dry and chat-chat-chatty slow?
Yes, again, Turkel and Clark are both excellent throughout, especially Clark, in delivering their slow-burn unraveling, but outside of a little bit of chasing an off-his-nut Tallman around the complex, and his dispatching one of his charges with a rifle-shot, the action is non-existent, as the narrative relies too much on woe-is-me contemplating (“The Eurphrates can’t just dry up! Nothing can stop the Chinese from invading Israel!”) and prophetic map-plotting to decipher Bible prophecy.
This could have made for a very taunt, suspenseful episode — sans of or a lightening up on the Bible prophecy angle — of the TV anthology series The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. To that end, considering most of the church and tent revival films of the day clocked-in at 60-minutes maximum, cutting this 90-minute apoc’er by ten-minutes to 80-minutes may have helped to rise the proceedings to the professional polish of a “real” apoc movie — and not just a proselytizing apoc one. Even Cornell Wilde’s No Blade of Grass and Richard Harris’s Ravagers were secular-apoc swings-and-misses, but even their dragging, too-long woe-is-me moments were punctuated with several fits of action: a little bit of “action” outside of the bunker; e.g., having Ferguson arrive by a helicopter with an exterior shot of the complex; showing us a missile launch or a missile striking the mountain complex, would have been welcomed gear-changers. (But that would taken away from the film’s purposeful claustrophobia, so we’ll still cut the film some slack.)
So, yeah, there’s a lot of lost potential, here. However, if you’re an apoc fan, as well as a fan smart scripting and (very) solid acting — and you don’t mind a little ol’ Bible study mixed with your sci-fi, well . . . you could do a lot worse than spending time with this final feature film written by Marshall Riggan that also served as the lone directing effort by Tom Doades. Speaking of “worse,” we have: Remember all of the money our ol’ Uncle Al Bradley, aka Alfonso Brescia, spent on Star Odyssey*˟*, his boondogglin’ Star Wars rip, with all of its fancy techno-trinkets and the WIZ supercomputer? Sure you do. See, a bigger budget doesn’t always equate to better.
Since Six-Hundred & Sixty Six is in the public domain, you can stream the trailer on Vimeo and watch it on the Internet Archive. If you search for a copy in the online marketplace, the film was reissued under the more exploitative title of 666: Mark of the Beast during its video ’80s shelf life to expand its audience beyond Christian bookstores.
* We examine those films of the ’70s with our “Drive-In Friday: A-List Apocalypse” feature.
**Spectacle Art Cinema excels at rediscovering lost films. We previously reviewed another of those films, Rock ‘N’ Roll Hotel.
*˟ We examine the history of A.I. in films with our “Exploring: The “Ancient Future” of A.I” feature.
˟*Actually, it’s all courtesy of fractals, which we discuss in our review of Fractals: The Colors of Infinity (1995) from our “Ancient Future” week of film reviews back in April 2021.
*˟* We explored all five of Uncle Al’s “Star Wars” films with our “Drive-In Friday: Pasta Wars with Alfonzo Brescia” featurette.