Editor’s Note: This cinematic journey will take us from 1970 to 1983, as we explore 36 films. You’ll find links to individual, expanded reviews for some of those films, which will, in turn, have links to watch the films online. There is, admittedly, a lot to unpack here. So bookmark this article — and come back, often — for your one-source guide to discovering Christian films, films that exploited the genre, and other films that searched for the deeper meaning and purpose of man.
Trailers and/or the full films for each film we’ve reviewed can easily be found online through a wide array of video hosting and streaming service.
We dove deep into the radioactive, post-apocalyptic pools with our two-part, two-month long September and October 2019 extravaganza with all manner of “End of the World” flicks — as well as a few from the Christian Cinema subgenre of biblical prophecy-based films.
Since then, as is our obsession with niche genres, we went a little bit overboard as we reviewed more of the puritanical pablum. So, let’s round up all of those “Christian Cinema” reviews — along with a few new ones, and a few you won’t expect — as we learn more about the beginnings of the genre and its post-apocalypse subgenre concerned with the Apocalypse as foretold in the Book of Revelations of The Holy Bible.
Christian Cinema is known by secular audiences as Christploitation or Godsploitation, and as with any “-ploitation” sub-genre of films, such as Blaxploitation or Hicksploitation*, someone is exploited. So instead of African-Americans or Southerners, Jesus Christ is used to gain financial success. Only, instead of clipping taboo trends or lurid content concerning sex and violence into the frames, these proselytizing flicks center around Christian practices. As is the production model of any -ploitation film, Christian Cinema product takes their “wholesome” plot points way over the top (even more so than secular exploiters), where all non-believers are inherently evil (and ripe for the guillotine, fiery pits, or mass graves), Russians, Chinese, and Israeli peoples are behind the “end times” and are inherently damned (at least in the older, more crazed films), and Christians are perpetually oppressed for their (cheesy) patriotism (e.g, a gun is put to a believer’s head as they are told to renounce Christ; they’re bound, then dropped on spikes, etc.).
Christploitation films — even more so with their updated, ‘ 90s and ’00s versions — are in fact, not analogous to the secular, major studio biblical films of old; films that intended to inspire hope (but were “exploitative” none the less). Most of the films we explore on this list (and others we name drop within reviews) are intended to frighten you into believing. That is if they don’t make you, the secular viewer, guffaw, first. And that’s because Christian filmmakers, as well as Christian musicians, are creating their preaching-to-the-choir art solely for religious purposes, forgetting they need to create good art; a non-hokey art that will appeal to a mass audience beyond their respective Christian targets. Thus the reason for the major studio biblical-based films garnering more positive reviews and box office returns than their low-budgeted, Christian-indie counterparts.
In the pages of the book Media, Culture, and the Religious Right by Linda Kintz and Julia Lesage (1998; University of Minnesota Press), we learn that, in the 1940s, Christian film libraries emerged. Soon, Christian businessmen, most notably Harvey W. Marks, who started the Visual Aid Center in 1945, invested in the what became the earliest video stores, by creating libraries for the faithful to rent audiovisual materials and supplies churches with product. By 1968, Christian Cinema, a small theater in the Germantown area of Philadelphia, was opened by Harry Bristow to screen Christian-based films. That theater-based ministry continued its mission until its newer location in Ambler, Pennsylvania, ceased operation in the mid-1990s.
Subtly is not part of the narrative in most of the films we’re looking at or referring to; most wear their earnestness (especially those of the post-Cloud Ten Productions variety; now PureFlix has entered the fray alongside Albany, Georgia-based Sherwood Pictures) on their sleeves, leaving one with a sanctimonious, but never dull (well, sometimes; okay, most times) film. Whether or not the film is irreverent or irrelevant to one’s life depends on the secular or Christian insights of the viewers. Christian cinema isn’t for everyone, as is horror films based/set within the Bible (such as The Exorcist or The Omen) are for everyone.
While biblical-based films have been produced since the silent era and the earliest days of the “Talkies,” (1915’s Civilization, 1935’s Golgotha, and 1941’s all-Black production The Blood of Jesus are worthy of mention) the genre hit its stride in the 1950s, with the major studios’ “Books of the Bible ” epics of Samson and Delilah (1949), David and Bathsheba (1951), Quo Vadis (1951), The Robe (1953), Salome (1953), Slaves of Babylon (1953), Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), The Silver Chalice (1954), The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), The Big Fisherman (1959), Solomon and Sheba (1959), Esther and the King (1960), The Story of Ruth (1960), Barabbas (1961), Francis of Assisi (1961), King of Kings (1961), A Story of David (1961), Sodom and Gomorrah (1962), and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), and The Bible: In the Beginning (1966). Also released during this period were Luis Buñuel’s (Simon the Desert) surrealistic take with The Milky Way (1969) and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s neo-realist (a really fine must-watch) The Gospel According to Matthew (1964). Other faith-based films released during this period included A Man Called Peter (1955), Mother Joan of the Angels (1961), Satan Never Sleep (1962), Lillies of the Field (1963), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), A Man for All Seasons (1966), 7 Women (1966), and The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968). And while it is looked upon as a war film, Sergeant York (1941) chronicles the faith-based life of Alvin C. York, one of the most decorated American soldiers of World War I. (The faith-based life of World War II conscientious objector Desmond Doss is chronicled in 2016’s Hacksaw Ridge.) Then there’s the “western” Stars in My Crown (1950), where a pastor preaches in a dangerous town — with a gun on his side.
Of course, all of those early, major studio, secular versions of the bible were rife with A-List stars, such as Stuart Granger, Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, and Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, with the “faith” aspects of the film’s source materials taking a backseat to the glitz and glam of Hollywood (even more so with 2014’s later, competing Sfx spectacles Exodus: Gods and Kings starring Christian Bale and Noah starring Russell Crowe). It was time for churches and faith-based production companies to begin making their own films to get the story, straight.
Prior to the Christian Cinema industry that we know today becoming big business in the ’90s and ‘2000s, courtesy of widespread, mainstream theatrical and cable television showings, as well as those Christian media concerns embracing the DVD format to distribute their proselytizing wares, the church-financed indie-genre started out as “roadshow” films.
Those were the days when films literally “hit the road,” traveling from church showing to church showing, from tent revival to tent revival. No secular drive-in or indoor theater would offer a free screen for such fare, and the organizations behind these early Christian Cinema flicks weren’t about to pay to “four-wall” a tour of secular venues (a marketing venue that worked for the much later, Christian-oriented film, Flywheel, from Albany, Georgia’s Sherwood Pictures). So, the first exposure for the many (well, the followers of a particular church or pastor) of several of the films on this list were inside church auditoriums, chapels, and revival tents. Some may have had additional showings on local/rural UHF-TV channels in the 1970s, as well on the 1973-incorporated, UHF-based Trinity Broadcasting Network.
Then, with the advent of the home video market, these once lost, underground church n’ tent films broke away from their puritanical obscurity into the secular, VCR-inclined curiosity seekers during the home video ’80s.
As the home video marketplace completed its transformation from analog tapes to DVDs, Christian author Tim LaHaye, along with writer Jerry B. Jenkins, inspired a Christian-leaning post-apoc industry in 1995 with their first book in the 12-title Left Behind adult novel series. The books, replete with elements of sci-fi, horror and action, became a series with critical acclaim and sales that matched the secular works of Stephen King and Tom Clancy. In the pages of a February 2005 TIME magazine interview, world renowned pastoral leader Jerry Falwell said, “In terms of its impact on Christianity, it’s [the Left Behind books] probably greater than that of any other book in modern times, outside the Bible.”
And as with King and Clancy before him, Hollywood optioned LaHaye’s works for theatrical adaptions, which became a tetraology franchise by Canadian’s Paul and Peter LaLonde Christian-based Cloud Ten Pictures, a studio that specializes in end-times films. The original three films were Left Behind: The Movie (2000), Left Behind II: Tribulation Force (2002), and Left Behind: World at War (2005). The films were so successful in the home video and cable television marketplace, a big screen theatrical reboot starring Nicolas Cage (be sure to visit our exploration of Nicolas Cage’s career), Left Behind, was released in 2014.
But let’s step back for a moment.
In between the paranoia-driven insights of Donald W. Thompson, with his decade-long, four-part Thief in the Night film series, and secular exploitation filmmaker Ron Ormond teaming with Mississippi evangelist Estus Pirkle to let loose a half-dozen films, most which dealt with the tales of the Apocalypse, mainstream studio 20th Century Fox stole their “thunder,” if you will, to give us Richard Donner’s influential The Omen (1976). Its tale of the coming Antichrist not only spawned four sequels between 1976 to 1991, as well as a 2006 remake, it spawned a puritanical plethora of Italian and Spanish knockoffs**.
Prior to The Omen, William Peter Blatty’s 1971 horror novel, The Exorcist, more so inspired the European film industry**, with the book’s 1973 film adaptation by William Friedkin. But those films, as they wore on, shed their religious elements and concentrated on the horror, to the point the “faith element” that served as the soul purpose of the films by Donald W. Thompson and Ron Ormond, were lost. Some of those faith-based elements of early ’70s Christian Cinema found their way back in the major studio system, with Columbia Pictures’ apocalyptic-horror drama The Seventh Sign (1988) and New Line Pictures took a break from the Freddie slasher flicks to produce their biblical thriller-drama, The Rapture (1991).
And that takes us back to 1995 and Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s debut, best selling book, Left Behind.
Inspired by LaHaye’s books, the LaLonde Brothers, prior to their optioning of Left Behind as the best-distributed film from Cloud Ten Pictures, produced their own tetraology based on the end times chronicled in the Book of Revelations. The first in the series, known as Apocalypse (1998) during its initial release, was retitled Apocalypse: Caught in the Eye of the Storm for the home video market. The next films in the series each carried “Apocalypse” colon prefixes with Roman numerations for the sequels Revelation (1999), Tribulation (2000), and Judgement (2001).
Paul and Jan Crouch’s TBN, which began airing these modern-day biblical apoc flicks to ratings success, weren’t going to be “left behind,” so they bankrolled their own “End of Times” flick with Six: The Mark Unleashed (2004). That film, starring faith-based actor David A.R. White, led to his forming his own studio, PureFlix (think Netflix, only for Christians). The studio, in turn, produced their own Rapture films with The Moment After (1999), The Moment After 2 (2006), In the Blink of an Eye (2009), and Jerusalem Countdown (2011). Of course, the biggie for TBN was the theatrically-released The Omega Code (1999) starring Casper Van Dien and Michael York, which spawned an equally-successful sequel in Meddigo: The Omega Code 2 (2001).
Each of these proselytizing flicks, as with the Left Behind series, upped their Christian Cinema game by casting past-their prime actors, but reliable and dependable actors none the less, such as Stephen Baldwin, Corbin Bernsen, Gary Busey, Jeff Fahey, Margot Kidder, Nick Mancuso, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Mr. T, and Eric Roberts. And, as with Cloud Ten Pictures, those films also achieved significant sales, rentals, and ratings. They also failed with secular critics, with the word “worthless” accompanying their zero-to-half-star reviews. But evangelical reviewers — the intended audience — loved the films, lamenting their “transformative messages” for the masses.
Transformation or movement of the Holy Spirit was, of course, not the goal of the obviously superior produced End of Days (1999) directed by Peter Hyams and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and The Book of Eli (2010), backed by producer royalty in Joel Silver and starring Denzel Washington. Those films backburner the faith-aspects and placed the obvious sci-fi, horror and action elements prevalent in the books written by John (the Apostle or of Patmos; opinions vary) to the forefront. And once Christian-based studios, such Cloud Ten Productions, PureFlix, and Sherwood Pictures began breaking box office and retail rental records (with films like Do You Believe? and Let There Be Light), the major studios responded with, again the likes of Exodus: Gods and Kings (Christian Bale as Moses), Noah (Russell Crowe as the crazy boat guy), and Mary Magdalene (2018; Rooney Mara as Mary and Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus).
Now, let’s see if we can transform you with our reviews to these lost premillennialist flicks — with a few tangents that question who and what is the purpose of man — of Christian Cinema. Remember, we, as a society, just came out of the Vietnam War and were still feeling the dread of the Korean War. Man needed answers. And Hollywood was ready to answer the calling to instill either apeirophobia (the fear of eternity) and ouranophobia (the fear of heaven) in movie goers to make a buck. For you need not be a Christian to exploit Jesus Christ. Amen.
(Listed by Year of Release)
1. Chariots of the Gods (1970)
Aliens mixed with your bible was big business in the ’70s, much to the chagrin of the traditionalist fire-and-brimstone brigade (who believe UFOs “are Devils” sent to distract you) — and this is the film where The History Channel’s Giorgio A. Tsoukalos got his ancient aliens schtick. First released as Erinnerungen an die Zukunft, a German-produced film based on Erich von Däniken’s 1968 worldwide best-seller Chariots of the Gods? , this ancient aliens trailblazer extrapolates aliens and interplanetary craft to the Holy Bible’s Book of Ezekiel.
When this raked in $26 million in U.S. box office and received an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, documentaries on the mysteries of Earth and space, were thou loosed. A down-on-his-luck William Shatner got into the ancient-biblical astronauts game with Mysteries of the Gods (1977), while Rod Serling pulled a paycheck in 1973 with In Search of Ancient Astronauts, In Search of Ancient Mysteries, and The Outer Space Connection — all released by Sunn Classics, the studio behind Chariots.
On a personal note: I had a pastor tell me that there can’t be life on other planets, as Jesus doesn’t have the time to go from planet to planet, flying from galaxy to galaxy on a chariot, dying for everyone’s sins.
But isn’t Jesus the Son of God who turned water into wine and fed the 5,000-strong multitudes with five loaves and two fish? Can’t Jesus do everything? Aren’t all things possible with God? And why does Jesus have to fly on a chariot? Can’t he just “appear” where he needs to go in an instant?
Then I was forced to watch a Rom Ormond-Estus Pirkle flick in the chapel for our mandatory Wednesday service to wise up my inquisitiveness. For the rule is not to question: It is DO as Pastor says . . . or it off to the “bible room” you go. Yes. The Bible Room. (It’s not as bad as Carrie White in the closet, but it’s damn close to it.)
2. The Cross and the Switchblade (1970)
Christian Cinema of the ’70s boils down to this trailblazer based on the worldwide, 1963 best-seller on the life of Pentecostal pastor David Wilkerson (45 million-selling ’50s pop singer Pat Boone) who — alone and with no money — goes to the mean streets of Brooklyn to witness to street gang members. He comes to meet Nicky Cruz (Erik Estrada), the leader of the Mau Maus, whom he eventually transforms though Jesus Christ. A box office success — directed by actor Don Murray (Conquest of the Planet of the Apes) — the film was dubbed into 30 languages and has been enjoyed over the years in 150 countries.
Erik Estrada would impress, again, in his second film, one that is also critically (criminally) remembered as a Christploiter — but is not the least exploitative — the musician-cautionary tale, The Ballad of Billie Blue (1972). Don’t let the presence of Pat Boone deter you: both he and Estrada, are excellent; while Don Murray proves as a solid director who should have made more films.
The first exposure of this early Christian post-apoc’er by secular audiences was the film’s dialog appearing on Negativland’s albums Escape from Noise (1987) and Helter Stupid (1989) (which subsequent garnered mainstream press in alt-rock publications, a first for Pastor Pirke). Courtesy of the “modern” technology of VCR, this once forgotten film, not seen outside of church services and tent revivals, found a new audience on home video. After one viewing, we, the secular, sinning hoards were hooked; we sought out the rest of the utterly insane Ormond-Pirkle canons.
If you were unfortunate enough during your middle-to-high school life subjected to 16-mm shorts regarding drugs, vandalism, and teen pregnancy during social sciences and civics classes (which also played in private schools), that’s what we have here: the same slanted, low-budget drive-in styled production values, only as a pastor’s sermon unfurls with docudrama reenactments of his message. Footmen‘s production came about after Westerns and exploitation drive-in purveyor Ron Ormond survived a single-engine plan crash; upon “finding God,” he woke to the literal, fire and brimstone teachings of Mississippi pastor Estus Pirkle. Together, they’d make three films; Ormond, with other pastors, made a half dozen faith-based films, in total.
If you want to see a film where good Christian folks are subjugated by Communists, forced to renounce Jesus Christ and accept Fidel Castro as their personal savor (at gunpoint) this is the film. But be warned, this Ormond-Pirkle debut is rough watch . . . and not because of its production values, but of its squeamish violence. Christians are wiped out by machine gun; they’re stabbed, hung, tortured and murdered. Children — children — are made to hang, then dropped on buried pitch forks — at least the ones who don’t have their hands bound behind their backs, only to have bamboo shoots shoved into their brains through their ears, leaving them to puke their guts out.
Mind you, this film is meant to inspire you. But as is the case with most of the films on this list, Christians prove they’re sicker than Satanists and excel in shilling their outright fear equals inspiration marketing technique. Seriously, the kids really go through the ringer in this one, to the point of it almost being a pedo-snuff film. I need to stop talking about this film, now, as its upsetting me.
Next up for Ormond-Pirkle traveling salvation show, The Burning Hell.
* We love this movie so much so that frequent guest writer Herbert P. Caine took another swipe at it as part of our 2022 April Movie-thon. Yes, pardon the pun, but Estus Pirkle is a celluloid god in these here parts. Fear the Reaper, ye sinner.
4. The Night God Screamed (1971)
We know. We know. Why is an exploration of ’70s Christian Cinema starting off with a crime-horror that warns “Death is the only way out,” as brought to us by Cinemation Industry — the Drive-In shingle that gave us the likes of Teenage Mother (1967), I Eat Your Skin (1971), and an X-rated cartoon in the form of Fritz the Cat (1972)?
Well, it was the ’60s and Charles Manson-inspired films, such as The Love-Thrill Murders (1971), were all the rage — and when you’re director Lee Madden of Angel Unchained (1970) fame, you work in a little Jesus teachin’ and preachin’ into the counterculture frames to upend the religious establishment. And Madden did just that. When it comes to the Christploitation genre — even in the shadow of Estus Pirkle’s admittedly honorable films — this is a real scrape through the rusted bottom of the barrel.
Ex-20th Century Fox starlet Jeanne Crain co-stars with director Alex Nicol (Point of Terror) as a preacher’s wife on the run from a faux-Manson and his “Jesus freaks” hippie minions after they crucified (literally) her preacher-husband. They, of course, get off, only to lay a revenge-siege to Crain’s country home.
So, yes. It’s an unconventional Christploitation listing. But after Pirkle jamming sharpened bamboo shoots through children’s ears, this film is — while offensive — still a peaceful stroll to Damascus. Just thank us for our decorum in not including the Christ-Sexploiters Girls in Trouble (1971), The Astrologer (1975), and Dark Sunday (1976). (Hey, we just did!) Ditto for the Bette Midler musical screech-fest, The Greatest Story Overtold, aka The Thorn (1971) — which is less enjoyable than an Estus Pirkle bamboo shoot in the ear. Oh, Bette . . . being nailed down to wood would be more enjoyable.
5. The Ballad of Billie Blue (1972)
The pedigree is the thing in this imperiled-musician-in-a-spiritual crisis tale (Starcrossed Roads in its VHS shelf life), with our director being none other than Kent Osborne of the counterculture dune buggy romp Wild Wheels (1969); as an actor he appeared in Al Adamson’s Blood of Dracula’s Castle and Five Bloody Graves. The scribe behind this Christploitationer, Ralph Luce, also wrote Wild Wheels; and that’s Robert Dix and William Kerwin from Satan’s Sadists and Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast, respectively, in the cast, as well as a pre-CHiPs Erik Estrada (in his second, faith-based film and second film overall; his first was The Cross and the Switchblade).
It’s the tale of a drug-and-boozed out country music star — our faux-message “Jesus Christ” of the proceedings — sent to prison, aka Hell, on a bum murder rap; he finds God by way of a prison preacher and a Christ-following country music star.
Regardless of its secular, exploitative pedigree, this was Rated-G — and it ran as a “Special Church Benefit” in rural theaters, as well as in churches and tent revivals. But, unlike a Pirkle movie: no children were harmed to get its salvation message across.
6. Pilate and Others (1972)
It took forever to find a copy of this on VHS with subtitles, but the days of pre-Internet grey market catalogs came though — and this film didn’t disappoint.
Andrzej Wajda touched on biblical adaptations with his art house take, Samson (1961), a philosophical amalgam that sets World War II to the Old Testament tale of Samson. While that film is not well-know outside of its Polish homeland, Pilate and Others was rediscovered upon its showing at the 2006 Berlin International Film Festival where Wajda received and honorary Golden Bear.
Wajda’s satirical take, set in 1930s Germany, is based on the 1967 Russian novel The Master and Margarita (1967) by Mikhail Bulgakov (set in Moscow). U.S. audiences didn’t know or care about the film until it began appearing on video after the BIFF showing; suddenly aware, now U.S Christians had issues with Wajda ‘s contemporary take on Pontius Pilate, which placed the Roman governor of Judaea on the same Nuremberg platform where Hitler gave his speeches.
Yeah, no one wants a New Testament-based biblical set in Germany. That’s their loss. There’s several other Euro adaptations of Bulgakov’s multi-language best-seller, but Wajda’s is the best known.
You can watch a Polish TV upload on You Tube.
7. Six-Hundred and Sixty Six (1972)
So, you think Donald W. Thompson, with his four-part A Thief in the Night series, had the sci-fi end of the Christploitation spectrum locked up? Think again: Thompson may have made it to the tents, first (in March ’72), but this imaginative, against-the-budget apoc’er by writer Marshall Riggan (the secular debut Cry for Poor Wally, the later psych-horror So Sad About Gloria) is, by far, the superior film. The quality comes courtesy of the always-dependable Joe Turkel (ironically, of the later, influential apoc’er, Bladerunner) starring as a Colonel in command of a secret mountain-computer brain facility when the Rapture, then Armageddon, breaks out.
Shown exclusively at churches, tent revivals, and Youth For Christ centers into the ’80s (yes, part of another Wednesday Chapel “Media Day” we had once-a-month at school), it was re-discovered by the booming ’90s Christian film market and reissued on DVD as 666: Mark of the Beast. If you’re a fan of Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), Silent Running (1972), and the trapped-in-a-bunker-by-bats apoc’er Chosen Survivors (1974), then you’ll enjoy this science fiction-inflected Christploiter.
8. A Thief In the Night (1972)
Donald W. Thompson is an indie writer-director not well-known in secular circles as Ron Ormond who began in secular films, but when it comes to Evangelical Christian Cinema, Thompson is a prolific filmmaker who created 16 films centered around his faith. His best known work to secular audiences — due to its Good Life TV Network showings (Inchon) — is the Christian-romantic drama All the King’s Horses (1977). The many have sought out that film, as it stars an early Dee Wallace (who we came to know in The Howling) and Grant Goodeve (Mark Hamill’s replacement on TV’s Eight Is Enough).
But it was Thompson’s pioneering “Rapture” tetralogy series — all written by Russell Doughten, who produced and did uncredited direction on The Blob; no really — that that had the greatest impact among evangelicals searching for non-secular entertainment. The prolific films, concerned with biblical “End Times” prophecies, crafted two decades before Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series of novel and films, dispense with the family-friendly evangelism of Thompson’s other films (and the fire and brimstone mania of Ron Ormond’s later films), placing the bible into a contemporary sci-fi/horror context.
While A Thief in the Night wasn’t made as a TV movie, but for roadhouse showings in churches (where I got stuck watching them during Wednesday chapel), it certainly all plays as a TV movie. And if you know your TV movies, these religious apoc’ers come complete with the same, strained acting, harshly-lit flat production values, and all the stock music cues you expect. Thompson, however, effectively hits all of the plot points (a one-word UNITE organization, marking of hands and foreheads, etc.) from the rash of all the of the bible-poc films produced in the Left Behind backwash, so it makes for a fascinating watch. Even more so considering Thompson produced his film — and was most likely inspired by — Hollywood’s mainstream, post-apocalyptic sci-fi craze with the likes of The Omega Man (1971), Soylent Green (1973), and The Ultimate Warrior (1974).
Strangely enough, as it is peppered with radio and black and white TV broadcasts (and awful stock music), A Thief in the Night plays as a Christian version of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead — sans the zombies, which are replaced by disappearing, i.e., raptured, people. Oh, and instead of the Communists of the Ormond-Pirkle gospel train, it’s the U.N — the United Nations themselves — which will lead the world’s demise.
Should you watch? Well, it’s purported that over 300 million have seen the film and converted (i.e., scared) more people to Christ than any other Christian film. What proof Thompson can offer to back up that claim, is questionable.
Next up: A Distant Thunder, aka A Thief In the Night II.
9. Encounter with the Unknown (1973)
This odd-duck documentary-portmanteau trilogy of “true tales” narrated by Rod Serling doesn’t really belong here, but the second installment, The Darkness, is concerned with “a hole to Hell”: a real-life hole to Hell that swallows a dog and drives a man insane. You can’t get more biblical than that or find another reel of tabloid filmmaking any finer.
The studio behind it, American National Enterprises, returns with Mysteries from Beyond Planet Earth.
10. Godspell (1973)
As with Andrzej Wajda’s contemporary bible take set in Nuremberg, Germany, faith-based audiences weren’t keen on a Broadway musical adaptation of parables from The Holy Bible‘s New Testament Gospel of Matthew set in contemporary New York City. One look at John the Baptist gathering disciples (aka, ’60s hippies) to follow Jesus Christ (decked out in a Superman “S” tee-shirt and suspenders), who then take to the streets as a roving acting troupe to reenact Jesus’s parables . . . well, out came the picket signs. The pickets didn’t matter: the secular reviewers were split and generally towards the positive, but the film’s box office barely broke even.
The “Jesus Rock” soundtrack, however, is fantastic, courtesy of the four musicians from the original stage production and cast album — Steve Reinhardt on keyboards, Jesse Cutler on acoustic and lead guitar and bass, Richard LaBonte on rhythm guitar and bass, and Ricky Shutter (Bo Diddley and Gary U.S. Bonds) on drums and percussion — returning for the film. Assisting in the studio are Hugh McCracken (Van Morrison, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel’s early recordings) and Paul Shaffer (of David Letterman fame and A Year at the Top, which has its own religious bent to it).
You can stream Godspell on Amazon Prime and Vudu.
11. The Gospel Road (1973)
Columbia Studios, Universal Studios, and Paramount all got into the “Jesus” game with their respective films Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. So Johnny Cash easily pitched his country-gospel musical take on the life of Jesus to 20th Century Fox, who released this in March amid those films — and met the same public and critical indifference. Narrated by Johnny Cash, his heartfelt (and not the least exploitative), self-financed production that shot on location in Israel came with an accompanying double album of all-original music penned by Cash, June Carter (who stars as Mary Magdalene), and Kris Kristofferson (who doesn’t star, but would have made a great Jesus).
12. Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Before he let thou loose Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on an unsuspecting world, Robert Stigwood produced this Norman Jewison directing effort based on the 1970 Broadway rock opera.
The film goes meta, as it begins with the cast and crew traveling by bus into the Israeli desert to re-enact the Passion of Christ. They set up their props and get into costume as the story begins, concentrating on the conflict between Jesus and Judas during the week of the crucifixion of Jesus.
As with Godspell released in March, the August release of JSC met to mixed reviews — with outright criticism from religious groups. The film, however, garnered Golden Globe nobs for its lead actors Ted Neely (Jesus), Carl Anderson (Judas) and Yvonne Elliman (Mary Magdalene).
You can stream Jesus Christ Superstar on Amazon Prime, Vudu, and Google Play Movies.
13. Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973)
The September 17, 1981, cover of Rolling Stone #352, with a picture of Jim Morrison emblazoned on the cover, proclaimed: “He’s Hot, He’s Sexy and Dead.” In the early ’70s, the same could be said about Jesus Christ, for the Son of God rules the airwaves and theater screens.
So, with Columbia and Universal releasing their competing films versions of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973 (in March and August, respectively), the odd-studio out, Paramount, wasn’t missing the “Jesus Rock” boat. So they optioned writer Richard Bach’s 1970 best-selling novella, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. And since the book — as did the two stage-to-films that inspired its production — didn’t come with a soundtrack, Paramount, through Columbia Records (his label), contracted Neil Diamond to write a companion piece to the book/film. Yes, Neil Diamond, the bane of one’s musical existence (not me) made a “Jesus Rock” album — and topped the album and singles charts.
If you enjoyed the book — which many (criminally) dismissed as metaphysical drivel and thus, hated the movie — you’ll love the movie, a movie that is of its time and place: a time when seagulls could talk and Jesus was, in fact, “hot, sexy and dead.”
14. The Burning Hell (1974)
While Ron Ormond and Estus Pirkle’s debut film If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? turned your stomach — courtesy of its child abductions, bondage and murders by communist soldiers — this film tells you of the aftermath of those sinners who failed to follow Jesus — and will give your outright nightmares. Again, fear equals inspiration.
According to the statistical preaching of Pastor Pirkle, people enter Hell at 60-bodies per minute to the tune of over 3,000 each hour of every day, where those worms will eat you forever and ever and ever and ever. People — as with all Christian films obsessed with swords and guillotines — are beheaded. People are actually seen burning in Hell, covered in blood, sores, and soot, while chased by devilish, fanged centaurs. Yes, we do see real worms and grubs crawling on people — and not even the most discriminating Italian zombie purveyor will hold back the puke. Fear Factor contestants wouldn’t make the background-extra actor grade, as they’d run screaming from the set.
Hey, scoff if you will at Pirkle’s sermons, but Ormond’s against-the-budget depictions of Hell, as well as his actors, are impressive (considering they’re non-pros working for free-for-Jesus) and on equal to the previous depictions of Hell imagined by Jose Majica Marins as Coffin Joe in (the obviously better made) This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse. Yeah, it’s all a bit goofy, but still powerful.
And, with that, the Ormond-Pirkle “grindhouse gospel” train rolled into the station and Ormond made The Grim Reaper (1976). Their next dual-project is a companion piece to The Burning Hell, known as The Believer’s Heaven (1977), which does for Heaven, what this film does for Hell. However, between the making of The Burning Hell and The Grim Reaper, the Ormond family made the “travelogue/documentary” feature, The Land Where Jesus Walked (1975).
15. Mysteries from Beyond Planet Earth (1975)
If there’s a cinematic kitchen sink to the freak-out-the-puny-humans genre of ancient alien-cum-biblical films, then his entry from exploitation sausage factory American National Enterprises (also gave us the previously entry, Encounter with the Unknown), is it. No theory is too obscure nor too crazed for discussion. Biblical clairvoyant Edgar Cayce (who believed Jesus was the reincarnation of Adam) talking about Atlantis and UFOs? You bet. Then there’s the Bermuda Triangle, Telepathy, ESP, firestarters, Kirlian photography that captures auras, and examinations on plants being able to communicate. And there’s still frames left to discuss witchcraft, Satanism, Black Masses, the Hollow Earth, Bigfoot, black holes, genetic engineering, clones, and cryogenic suspension and reanimation.
You need more weirdness and unexplained Earthly phenomenons concerning Edgar Cayce, Bigfoot and Atlantis? Then you need to watch The Force Beyond (1977). Bankrolled by FVI – Film Ventures International (see our “Drive-In Friday” feature on the studio), it’s directed by William Sachs (Van Nuys Blvd.) and Orson Welles, the voice behind another film on our list, The Late Great Planet Earth, narrates. And don’t confuse The Force Beyond — remember, it was the Year of Our George Lucas — with The Unknown Force (1977), in which Jack Palance bellows about psychics, miracle healers, and Man’s and the Earth’s untapped energies.
Needless to say my church and youth pastors (Sam?) preached against and warned our parents not to let us see Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica. For UFOs, again, “are Devils” and “there is no life on other planets” . . . because Jesus just haven’t enough time in his enteral life to die for everyone’s sins, and God didn’t “seed” other planets to then “seed” the Earth. Oh, the memories . . . that Wednesday chapel service when my blue-plaid blazer and pink-striped tie pastor went off the deep end, saliva spraying, collecting in the corners of his mouth, ranting-to-aneurysm about George Lucas and Glen Larson as the “false prophets” of Satan. Horrifying, good times? You bet! (Maybe it’s true: God punished George with Howard the Duck and Glen with Buck Rogers, after all.)
16. The Grim Reaper (1976)
Ron Ormond’s third Christsploitation flick — sans Estus Pirkle and his cheap suits — is a loose rewrite of The Burning Hell that dispenses with the preaching-documentary reenactments of If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? and The Burning Hell. This time, the Baptist propaganda pedaled is a drama about a family asunder amid a crisis of faith.
A God-fearing mother and her preacher-aspiring son toil as her husband and stock car racing other son refuse to attending church. When their son dies in a race, the father falls under the spell of a fortune teller, communicating with the dead, so as to comfort his wife and keep her out of the graveyard. Meanwhile, a pastor (Greg Pirkle, the son of Estus) refuses to perform a sermon for the dead son, because the son rejected Jesus and was cast into Hell.
Oh, this movie . . . when the fortune teller connects to the after world, with the winds, the screaming, and the photo-trickery imposed ghosts. When Frankie, the son, comes out of a wall, crying out for “his momma.” Then there’s momma’s flashbacks, the stock car racing, Estus’s wife, Julie, showing up as a Spirit Halloween-cackling witch, and appearances by Jack Van Impe and Jerry Falwell. . . wow, this one has it all: all played serious and straightforward, which makes is all the more entertaining. Again, Ormond’s against-the-budget Hell scenes are effective. If you take away the heavy-handed Bible message, you have a scrappy, little Drive-In horror exploiter cash-in on The Exorcist and The Omen, here.
Don’t fret, dear believer. The agit-preaching of Pastor Pirkle returns in The Believer’s Heaven.
17. In Search of Noah’s Ark (1976)
A documentary based on the best-selling book by David Balsiger made by Sunn Classics (Hanger 18) on the cheap and quick in Park City, Utah, was bound to happen. The main point of all of this: Noah’s Ark “has been found” on Turkey’s Mount Ararat, yet physical and political challenges have kept mankind from studying the ark any further.
Sunn’s magic worked: In Search of Noah’s Ark was the number nine movie for all of 1976, up against the likes of Rocky, the aforementioned The Omen, King Kong and Silver Streak. Sunn made this movie for next to nothing and it grossed $55 million in the U.S. So, there, take that, you gomorrahites of Tinseltown.
18. Mary’s Incredible Dream (1976)
My life’s current mission statement is to instill an obsession in B&S About Movies’ boss Sam Panico equal to my own over this religious-variety show pastiche. Think of an adult version of TV’s The Monkees obsessed with the parables of Adam and Eve and Noah and the Ark from The Holy Bible. Then envision ’70s song and dance man Ben Vereen — decked out in green sequence suits and red dump jumpsuits, as the Devil — singing the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” Oh, ye believer, yes there is more, as you haven’t begun to scratch the surface of watching TV’s Mary Tyler Moore whisked off into a disco-ballet version of The Wizard of Oz.
No, I am not explaining my own LSD trip. This is real. This films exists. This film is an epic disaster on equal with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Italian-produced religious-disco disaster that is White Pop Jesus. And we thank God that Ms. Moore opted to sing Cat Stevens’s “Morning Has Broken” and not the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” for the big “Flood” set piece. And while the proceedings are bad, it is still not as awful as Bette Midler’s foray . . . which, now, just got two more mentions than it deserves in this “Exploring” feature. Stop it, Bette! We are not giving your train wreck of a movie a full review, no matter how many times you interject!
19. The Passover Plot (1976)
The ecclesiastical crowd wasn’t thrilled with British biblical scholar Hugh J. Schonfield’s published translation of The Holy Bible‘s New Testament — from a Jewish perspective. And everyone — especially the Catholic Church — wasn’t thrilled with his controversial non-fiction work, The Passover Plot (1965).
A decade later, the book was pretty much forgotten. But the Jesus train was rolling down the tracks and the major studios optioned all the best materials. So leave it to our old ’80s video junk cinema buddy and exploitation bandwagoner Menahen Golan (who gave us his futurist Adam and Eve new wave musical The Apple in 1980) to adapt a controversial book that concluded that the Holy Savior’s death and resurrection was a conspiracy purported by Jesus — who drugged himself to feign death — and his followers.
Now, you say you’re not up for a biblical conspiracy flick, but would the fact that Michael Campos, he of the early ’70s Oliver Reed post-apoc’er Z.P.G. (1970) and the Blaxploition classic The Mack (1973), directed it, interest you? Perhaps that Zalman King portrays Jesus (and shot the rape-sleaze fest Trip with the Teacher the year previous)? That Donald Plesence is Pontius Pilate? That TV character actor Dan Hedaya (Joe Versus the Volcano) is one of the Twelve Disciples?
Not since Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ — penned by Paul Schrader of Taxi Driver fame, based on Nikos Kazantzakis’s (equally forgotten) 1955 novel of the same name — with its depictions of Jesus Christ pulling himself off the Cross and engaging in sexual intercourse (it’s all symbolism, not literal; exploring spiritual conflicts), caused more rabid outrage and protests than The Passover Plot. But let’s not forget Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), which set solely on the horrors of Jesus’s suffering, The Da Vinci Code (2006), with its claims Jesus Christ was married, the German-made Pilate and Others (1972), with it’s satirical take set in 1930’s Germany, and Jesus of Montreal (1989) with its contemporary take in Quebec by a down-on-their-luck acting troupe hired to put on The Passion Play.
You can free stream The Passover Plot on You Tube and Vimeo. (We’ve since given this film a full review proper, in honor of cinematographer Adam Greenberg, who shot Lemon Popsicle, and its American remake, The Last American Virgin. So controversial, Pat Boone, the star of The Cross and the Switchblade, purchased national syndicated TV time to create an hour-long show asking people not to go see The Passover Plot.)
20. The Believer’s Heaven (1977)
Ron Ormond follows up The Grim Reaper with this fourth film in his “Christian Exploitation” phase. This time, Ron produces and directs with a script by his producing partner Estus Pirkle (who wrote Footmen and The Burning Hell). In this biographical tale-cum-documentary, real-life fire-and-brimstone preacher Estus W. Pirkle conveys to his followers what a Christian Heaven looks like, according to his interpretation of the Bible. (Immense marbled chapels supported on Corinthian columns; everyone wears white robes and sports a pair of — in a nice, budget effect — transparent angel wings.) Thank God, Estus toned it down. After the first three, horrific-saving films, we needed something a little more upbeat.
Nope. Think again. Thou let it loose, Estus.
We’re only three minutes in and we’ve already had a bubbling pit of boiling mud and an earthquake, along with post-quake famine and plague, and heavy equipment digging mass graves. Yeah, the depictions of a literal Hell are back. And Dear Lord, more dead children, piled up in a mass grave? How did the Estus convince the parents to convince the kids to portray dead bodies in a big hole in the dirt? How? Why are children always tortured and butchered in Estus’s films? Thank god no sharpened bamboo sticks are jammed into brains via ear canals.
I need to stop talking about this film. I’m getting upset, again.
21. Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
Passing on a film by director Franco Zeffirelli (1967’s The Taming of the Shrew; 1968’s Romeo and Juliet) isn’t an option. Originally a miniseries backed by Sir Lew Grade (Saturn 3) and airing simultaneously on ITV in the U.K., Rai 1 in Italy, and NBC-TV in the U.S. and running at 382 minutes, the current DVDs run at a criminal 10-minutes short at 374 minutes; the older VHS is even shorter, at 270.
The casting is the thing, here: Robert Powell is fantastic as Jesus, as is Ian McShane (of the recent John Wick franchise) as Judas Iscariot. Then there’s Ernest Borgnine (Escape from New York) as a Roman Centurion, James Farentino (The Final Countdown) and James Earl Jones appearing as disciples, along with Rod Steiger and Anthony Quinn, and Micheal York as John the Baptist.
Watch this, if just for the great filmmaking and acting. It’s a magnificent epic.
22. A Distant Thunder (1978)
This second entry in the A Thief In the Night series is pretty much a retread of the first film, only this time it’s not a “dream”; the premonitions have become real. Although there’s been a six-year gap between productions, most of the original players are back, with Patty, who, it turns out, didn’t jump off the bridge to escape the Mark of the Beast in the first movie. Again, that was the “dream,” remember?
Now, she’s awake and awaiting execution — by guillotines — for her refusal to accept the Mark. She escapes and spends the rest of the film avoiding the murderous U.N. troops, which is now known as UNITE (and now, instead of those nifty red, white and blue vans (well, one) from the first film, now we’re stuck with a drab, UPS-styled brown van. And how’s about those nifty, drab-green Cuban military uniforms to keep pushing that evil Communist angle?
As hokey as a Jack T. Chick’s track can be, the production values are non-existent, but creative, and the non-linear scripting is inventive, with flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks. Then there’s the subplots about the evils of UFOs (again, with UFOs are demons, ugh), how credit cards and the “Mark” aren’t the same thing (oh, the folly of those who believe we are “already marked”), and the guillotine are back. Oh, how turn-the-other-cheek Christians rejoice in their razor-sharp guillotines and sinner-head removals.
Next up is part three in the series: Image of the Beast.
23. Beyond and Back (1978)
Roger Ebert listed this as one of his most hated movies on his site and it’s one of the entries in his book I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie. (That’s two for him on this list: the other was Jonathan Livingston Seagull.)
Eh, what did Sunn Classic producer Charles E. Sellier Jr. care? He said of his juxtaposition between revival house and grindhouse that he “believes God wants me to do the films I do, otherwise He wouldn’t have made me a success.”
As with Sunn’s previous documents we’ve reviewed in this feature, In Search of Noah’s Ark and the later In Search of Historic Jesus, this documentary on the “science” behind Christianity cleaned up at the box office, as Sunn Classics four-walled it in out-of-the-big-city rural drive-ins and single/dual-plex theaters.
24. Born Again (1978)
Frank Capra, Jr. produces this uplifting, biographical film on the life of Richard M. Nixon’s Special Counsel and Watergate co-conspirator, Charles Colson (Disney stalwart Dean Jones). He comes to his conversion to Christianity while in prison and incorporates the Prison Fellowship Ministries.
Courtesy of the full cooperation of the federal government and the Episcopal Church, this AVCO Embassy Pictures’ production (yes, they brought you Escape from New York) gets a lot out of its budget — even though it was, at the time, the highest-budgeted religious film and the first religious film released by a major distributor. Dean Jones, as well as Anne Francis as his wife (TV’s Honey West, Forbidden Planet), are both excellent throughout. Highly suggested.
You can watch this courtesy of the Jesus Wept Movies You Tube portal. If you need the other side of the story: consult Alan J. Pakula’s critically acclaimed All the President’s Men (1976).
25. The Late Great Planet Earth (1978)
How can you pass up a film by nature film purveyor Pacific International (Challenge to be Free, Mountain Family Robinson, and The Adventures of the Wildness Family) based on a 1970 international biblical gloom n’ doom best-seller — complete with narration by Orson Welles interspersed between biblical reenactments, chicken-little-the-sky-is-falling talking-head academics, stock footage of war, starving children, gibberish about entomology cross-breeding of bees, planetary alignments, and supercomputers running Ronald Reagan through numerology algorithms to determine if he is the dreaded Antichrist?
This movie rocks, for it is a mutual obsession between myself and Sam Pacino, the head honcho around here. I know Sam the Bossman, with his overexposure to all things post-conversioned Ron Ormond, can relate: freaked out and obsessed when the Rapture was coming — and if we had a “ticket” to ride. Sure, we can laugh at it now over our Rolling Rocks (Olde Frothingslosh, if you got ’em), but back in the day, this movie scared the crap out of us and other Church-laden kiddies.
Since this was a major studio film, there were no copies to play for Wednesday chapel. So a school field trip was planned. I hated school field trips (long story), so I played “sick” that day . . . and received an “F” for the day — in all subjects.
26. The Nativity (1978)
The great Bernard L. Kowalski — for whom we did a week-long tribute — expertly directs John Shea and Madeline Stowe, both in their feature debuts. They star as Mary and Jesus, in this against the-budget television movie based on the canonical Gospels of Matthew and Luke. There’s not much middle ground with this (well-down, IMO) adaptation: fundamentalists appreciate the acting (you’ll recognized many, familiar character actors), but not the fictional liberties taken with the Holy Bible’s text.
27. In Search of Historic Jesus (1979)
When your on-the-cheap documentary on Noah’s Ark grosses $55 million is U.S. box office, you know Brother J will get his own docudrama — and score box office gold. Again, the casting is the thing, so if you want to see John Rubinstein (who would go on to play Daniel Webster on Netflix’s Sabrina and Einstein of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow) in reenactments as Jesus, then this is your movie. And if you wanted to know more about the Shroud of Turin, well, you get that in the frames, as well.
Sunn Classics also hit box office gold with The Bermuda Triangle (1979) and (the scary as hell) Nostradamus romp with its own post-apoc slant, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow (1981). Yeah, no one did the mysteries-of-man documentary genre better in the ’70s than Sunn Classics.
28. Jesus, aka The Jesus Film (1979)
After the musical versions on the life of Jesus from the hands of Columbia Studios (Godspell), Universal Studios (Jesus Christ Superstar), Paramount (Jonathan Livingston Seagull), and 20th Century Fox (The Gospel Road), it was time for a movie proper on Jesus of Nazareth — and this finely crafted drama was Warner Bros. late-to-the-major-studio-Jesus-Game offering. And it’s a very well-made film, one filmed at over 200 locations in Israel.
Based on the gospel of Luke in the New Testament, and unlike any other film on Jesus, this six-million dollar production shot in full English, with actors also speaking in their character-appropriate Aramic, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. That latter multi-language version is then voiced-over in numerous languages for its international distribution — and noted as the most translated film in history. Regardless of those efforts to assure the film appealed to and was accessible to everyone, with its historical and culturally accurate take and high production values, many were taken aback by a jovial Jesus; non-stoic savior, laughing in glee as a newly converted-to-God tax collector returns his ill-gotten gains to those he’s cheated.
Now, you probably do not want to watch a historically accurate drama on Jesus Christ. But I think you would watch one where Jesus is portrayed by (incredible) British actor Brian Deacon; he who starred in Paul Naschy’s cohort Jose Ramon Larraz’s Vampyres (1974). Mostly working in British television, Deacon currently works as a video game voice artist.
Other, later dramatic depictions on Jesus you may be interested in, courtesy of the casting, is Jesus (1999), with Gary Oldman as Pontius Pilate, and Last Days in the Desert (2015) with Ewan McGregor as Jesus. Then there’s the supernatural bonkers The Young Messiah (2016) that may interest you — since it’s based on a book by vampire purveyor Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt (2005), centered on the Holy Savior as a young boy.
You can stream a copy at the Jesus.net You Tube portal.
29. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)
Sure, Eric Idle and the Python troupe will inspire you to watch a parody on the Holy Scriptures. But we’ve been here before with Luis Buñuel’s (Simon the Desert) surrealistic, but not as parody-driven, The Milky Way (1969).
Remember Python’s take on the Beatles with The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978)? Well, it’s like that: an alternate-universe Jesus, if you will, with Brian (Graham Chapman) born at the same time as Jesus — and Brian gains his own following. Of course, Christians and Catholics alike lost their minds, even thought Idle and his cohorts insisted the film was a goof on organized, man-made religions and not a spoof on Jesus or The Holy Bible itself. And so it goes.
At least Life of Brian is funny. The same can’t be said for Bette Midler’s (never understood the fascination; singer or actress) utterly abysmal The Greatest Story Overtold, aka The Thorn (1971), where she screeches as a trope-laden Jewish mother. (Oh, come, Bette! Three times? We’re not going to do a full review. Stop it.) The same goes for the awful, religious satires In God We Trust with Marty Feldman (who we love, but), and Wholly Moses with Dudley Moore (both 1980), not because of their subject matter — but because they’re just inherently stupid. Watch the Python’s version . . . and just leave the Jesus parodies, at that. Moving on.
There’s Blu-ray rip on You Tube to enjoy — and you will!
30. 39 Stripes (1979)
Ron Ormond returns with his fifth directing-producing effort in this follow up to The Believer’s Heaven. This time, Ron goes the bioflick route with the story of Ed Martin (who appears briefly on camera and narrates; Ormond’s son Tim, in addition to scripting, also stars as the younger Martin), a former chain gang convict who converts to Christianity in 1944 and founds the HopeAglow Prison Ministry. Martin gets his “big break” when the prison’s God-fearing warden inspires Martin to take over for an absent preacher on the prison’s Sunday services — and Martin comes to convert a convict intent on murdering him.
Clocking in at an hour, in terms of old fashioned, drive-in style “chain gang” movies, this is a pretty good flick. Granted, this is no Cool Hand Luke, but Tim Ormond was shaping up as a pretty decent actor, here, in his first leading-man role carrying an entire film. While appearing in all of his dad’s Christploitation works — except for The Second Coming — he also appeared in Ron’s secular works Girl from Tobacco Row, White Lightnin’ Road, and The Exotic Ones. (Ron’s other pre-salvation movies we’ve reviewed include Please Don’t Touch Me and Mesa of Lost Women.)
Yeah, we can trash on the prosperity preachers of today (yes, talking at you, Joel Osteen and Creflo “fifteen-year old daughter beater” Dollar; Senator Grassley didn’t dig enough on you, Ceffy; you can’t hid behind the bogus 501c3 paper trail, forever), but not all pastors are false prophets. Ed Martin was one of the (very, very few) real deals actually “called” by God; a true apostle who served people with a legitimate compassion on equal with the calling of Christ’s original twelve. (David Wilkerson of the aforementioned The Cross and the Switchblade, is another.)
This is a touching film, only undone by its budget. And highly recommended.
31. The Day Christ Died (1980)
After Sir Lew Grade and NBC-TV gave us their take on the life of Christ with Jesus of Nazareth (1977), CBS-TV was bound to get in the game with this effort bankrolled by 20th Century Fox for overseas TV and theatrical distribution.
An adaption of Jim Bishop’s 1957 book of the same name, it’s adapted by James Lee Barrett, he who scripted bible epic The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). So, yeah, this 142-minute dramatization (that survived cuts and made it to video, intact) on the last 24 hours on Jesus Christ’s life is that good. Really good.
Of course, everyone lost their minds — as with The Gospel Road (1973) and Jesus (1979) — of a jovial Jesus who laughs and plays with children, and in this case, of Chris Sarandon’s (Fright Night) Jesus playing an ersatz game of primitive football with the Apostles. For our Lord Savior must be a perpetually dour, stoic contemplator who never smiles.
Oh, the youth sermons denouncing this film! My youth pastor went off the deep end with the verse and overhead slides. I am talking red, pock-marked cheeks obsessed to the point of a brain aneurysm. “Jesus doesn’t play games! He’s the Christ sent to save our souls, not to play games! While he’s wasting time playing a game, a soul is not saved and lost!” Then, we were subjected into force “witnessing” labor; for if we did not witness to a person, and that person goes to Hell, we too, shall go to Hell. So, thanks, for that, Chris Sarandon. But you’re still the best Jesus, next to Robert Powell, and Brian Deacon, in that order.
You can stream it on You Tube.
32. Image of the Beast (1980)
Scoff if you want at this third installment in the A Thief in the Night series, but even-against-its-budget, the production values, scripting, and direction is improving with each film. And it’s even more intense that the previous A Distant Thunder.
Yes, Patty’s back, but not for long: Uh-oh, we are flashing back to and fo, and forward again, and within — again — as Patty, finally, looses her head to the guillotines. Amen.
So, now, we meet David, Kathy, and Leslie, a trio of freedom fighters, aka warriors for Christ. And it’s this film’s focus on these Christian guerrillas battling the evil UNITE forces — with its budgetary pinching of the paramilitary police state plotting of Escape from New York, as the Antichrist is full-on dictator mode and God rains down his golden bowels — that gives third installment more of a sci-fi vibe over the first two films. Then there’s the computer hacking, the evils of UPC codes, the manufacturing of fake Mark chips, literal giant locusts swarm the Earth (not seen due to budget), and a nuke drops.
Just wow. This one has it all. And there’s still one more film to go: The Prodigal Planet.
33. The Second Coming (1980)
Ron Ormond comes full circle with his sixth and final production, which serves as the directing debut and second writing credit of his son, Tim Ormond (he served as an editor and cinematographer all of his father’s Christploitation films). The story returns to the apocalypse, as a troubled man continues to avoid church — and fails to pay heed to the Bible stories unfolding before him — even as the end of the world draws nigh.
Sadly, Ron Ormond died during the film’s pre-production, which Tim and Ron’s widow, June, to complete the film as a final testament to his life. While there’s six other pastors spewin’ the brimstone, here, Ormond’s fans (moi) miss the paranoid mania of Estus Pirkle’s crazed scripting and dedicated preaching. As with 39 Stripes prior, for a production on a shoestring budget, Tim was shaping into a decent filmmaker (the vision of King Nebuchadnezzar, Jesus arriving on a horse-clouded phalanx, and the John Carpenter-styled “new world” police are impressive). While he stopped acting in 1979, Tim continued to work behind the camera on a half-dozen faith-based film into the late ’90s — even one starring Jim “Ernest P. Worrell ” Varney (but not as that character).
There’s no trailer or streams to share of this lone, lost Ron Ormond film. If Sam and I had the resources, we’d restore this film as part of an ongoing Ormond box set series: secular and religious. We love ya’, Ron!
34. Early Warning (1981)
In a tale that predates the Tim LaHaye-inspired “religious thriller” industry by a decade, a Christian woman, who is part of an underground rebellion, teams with a newspaper reporter to warn the world of the dangers behind the ever-growing One World Foundation. Along the way, unlike most Christian films, real actors show up — in the form of Alvy Moore (an astronomer-cum-Christian scientist) and Buck Flowers (a scruffy desert rebel, natch). Needless to say, their (minor) parts are the only ripples of hope in this otherwise flat production — but it’s still an ambitious, inspired effort.
Film and television sound editor David R. Elliot, in his lone writing and directing effort, was certainly influenced by Donald W. Thompson’s and Hal Lindsey’s eschatological works that we’ve discussed. I, however, can’t help but think the post-apoc visions of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York served as an influence, here, courtesy of the (slightly) above-the-usual (non) production values of low-budget Christian films — especially ones that veer into sci-fi territories — as Elliot gives us car chases under helicopter sniper fire by black-clad soldiers, over-the-cliff car crashes, and some techo-trinkets.
35. Years of the Beast (1981)
This watching-paint-dryer possesses none of the charms of the Russell Doughten (Six-Hundred & Sixty Six) and Donald W. Thompson’s (A Thief in the Night) PreMillenialist Dispensationalism flicks we talked about in this feature, and it lacks the techno-trickets of David Elliot’s take on the last days.
The copywriters on this claim this is a “fast moving, dramatic” film. I’m not sure what movie they were watching, as this overly-talky, proselytizing pablum moves at a dry, snail’s pace (and dry snails don’t move). If this film’s goal was to “convert” the non-believer to Christ, well, it pushed viewers towards Satan-rock loving atheism (see Raging Angels).
If the title hasn’t already given it away, the Beast, aka the Antichist, has risen and driven his heel into the backs of the world — a world where money is now worthless; a world besieged by every manner of natural disaster, government corruption, and oppression. Seattle is (low-budget) nuked. Of course, we experience none of this, in camera: we learn about it from a whiny, out-of-work college professor and the once kindly, now Machiavellian small-town Sheriff who will force the Mark on our collegiate — no matter the cost.
So: Years of the Beast, Early Warning, or Six-Hundred Sixty Six in the apoc-religious sweepstakes: the latter — easily, by three-lengths — for the win. Yes, even beating Thompson’s fourth and final. . . .
36. The Prodigal Planet (1983)
Well, it took Donald W. Thompson a decade (1972 to 1983), but he final wraps up the A Thief in the Night series with this fourth and final film. As with Patty back in part II, aka A Distant Thunder, David, our hero from Image of the Beast, didn’t die. He’s been rescued from the chopping block by Connie, a UNITE double agent with BUMS (Believers Underground Movement Squad) from the previous film, an organization that weeds out Christians for beheading. Of course, Connie’s con is to have David lead her to the rebel’s hidden base (yeah, the sci-fi crazed Star Wars era certainly had something to do with this).
Oh, this film has it all! It’s pure ’80s post-apoc, with non-believers stuck with a leukemia outbreak and facial legions, monk-adorned, wasteland-roaming monks, helicopters, and God cleaning up the mess with a battery of B-roll ICBMs. Oh, and the maps and sermons dispensed via flashback, directing us through the plot, as is the norm in the series . . . are back, and more than ever before.
It’s an indie-Christian roadshower like this that gives films like Years of the Beast a bad name. For this may be hokey, but it is — unlike Years of the Beast — never boring. Not for one single frame. For Donald W. Thompson was the man when it came to Christian apoc-mania.
Our list of these 36 films is by no means complete in our exploration of Christian Cinema — and its exploitative perimeters — in the 1970s. You’ll also find uplifting, faith-based messages in the following films:
Witchhammer (1970) — Czech Republic filmmaker Otakar Vavra adapts the best-selling Czech history novel Kladivo na čarodějnice (1963) by Vaclav Kaplicky; the 17th century tale chronicles the real-life, human rights atrocities of the North Moravia Witch Trails of the 1670s by Witchfinder Inquisitor Boblig von Edelstat in which 100 people were murdered. While dismissed as an early Euro-horror film, it is, in fact, an important literary-cinematic lesson of man’s ills in political-based paranoia and political prosecution that ranks with with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953).
Brother John (1971) — James Goldstone (later of Rollercoaster fame) directs Sidney Poitier’s passion project regarding a man who can sense death and appears to offer spiritual comfort to the troubled. A valiant film that was a box office failure for Columbia Pictures.
Johnny Got His Gun (1971) — Directed by Dalton Trumbo and co-written with Luis Buñuel (of the aforementioned The Milky Way; 1969), this anti-war statement adapted from Trumbo’s own 1939 novel of the same name, stars Timothy Bottoms and Jason Robards. A powerful film, but not an easy one to watch.
Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972) — Franco Zeffirelli, who also gave us the previously reviewed Jesus of Nazareth, directs this tale on life of Italy’s Saint Francis of Assisi. The Saint’s life was examined four times, previously: by Federico Fellini (1950), Louis de Wohl (1961), Liliana Cavani (1966), and Pier Paolo Pasolini (1966). Cavani explored the Saint once more in 1989 with Francesco, starring Micky Rourke as Francis. Both versions — all, in fact — are must watches for their stellar filmmaking.
Pope Joan (1972) — Directed by Michael Anderson, Liv Ullmann and Franco Nero star in this examination of — be it literal or myth (this film treats it as fact) — the legend of the female Pope that ruled the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. Not a great film, but the familiar cast of Lesley-Anne Down, Trevor Howard, Patrick Magee, and Maximilian Schell, captivate, none the less.
Soul Hustler (1973) — Shooting in San Diego (at a 1971 Osmonds’ concert) under the title That Lovin’ Jesus Man, then reissued on the drive-in circuit as The Love-In Man and Matthew, then The Day the Lord Got Busted (1976), this plays a lot like The Ballad for Billie Blue (1972) — with its concerns about a faith-crisis “Jesus Rock” musician. Matthew Crowe, a hard luck musician (Fabian Forte; A Bullet for Pretty Boy), joins a preacher’s touring tent rival. As the evangelist’s career rises, so does Matthew’s; the usual drugs and sinful carousing intervenes. Christsploitive to the extreme, the act is known as Matthew, Son of Jesus: Matthew wears a white robe and sandals and sings at a mike’d pulpit; his band adorns in brown monks’ robes.
Luther (1974) — Stacy Keach, who impressed in the better-known American neo-noir The New Centurions (1972) and boxing drama Fat City (1972), is equally stellar as the German theologian and Augustin monk who brought about the 16th-century Reformation. The directorial quality behind the lens comes courtesy of Oscar-winning cinematographer Guy Green (Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, 1946; the multi-nominated A Patch of Blue, 1965, as a director).
Christmas Lilies of the Field (1979) — A made-for-television sequel — produced by the Osmond Family (yes, as in Donnie and Marie) — to the 1962 theatrical feature Lillies of the Field starring Sidney Poitier. Now played by Billy Dee Williams, Homer Smith returns to the Arizona desert to build a school and orphanage to go with the chapel he built in the previous film. International, multi-award winning Austrian-Swiss actress Maria Schell (1974’s The Odessa File) as the Mother Maria is, of course, excellent.
Peter and Paul (1981) — Anthony Hopkins and Robert Foxworth star as the disciples Peter and Paul in this CBS-TV four-hour miniseries based on the Book of Acts concerned with their apostolic missionary in the wake of the death of Jesus. The top-flight cast is rounded out by Herbert Lom as Barnabas, along with Eddie Albert, Raymond Burr, Jose Ferrer, and Jon Finch. Shot on the Greek island of Rhodes, it was nominated for two, and won one Emmy (for make up; the second nod was for costumes).
* Be sure to visit our other film-genre explorations with our ongoing “Exploring” series:
“The Top 70 Good Ol’ Boys Film List of Hicksploitation Films“
“Italian Giallos of the 1960s through the 1970s“
“Disclosure and the Exploration of the “Erotic Thrillers” of the ’90s“
“The Ancient Future of A.I.“
“Intermission-Based “Epic” Films of the ’50s through the ’70s“
** We also explore the darker, horror side of the Christian-spectrum with our “Exploring: Ten Possession Movies that Aren’t The Exorcist” and “Exploring: Ten Antichrist Movies that Aren’t The Omen.”
About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews, as well as short stories by R.D. Francis based on his screenplays, on the Medium portal. You can learn more about his work on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies (the link guides you to a text-only site-listing of all of his reviews).