This low-budget 1981 film opens with a professor, Stephen Miles (Gary Bayer), giving his last lecture at Seattle’s University of Washington. He’s been laid off from his job. He’s depressed. The students around him don’t seem to be interested in anything that he has to say. The world seems to be plunging deeper and deeper into chaos. Society seems to be collapsing. Stephen just can’t understand why everything just seems to be getting so bad.
Having taught his last class, Stephen walks across campus and drops in on his friend, Dr. Carl Kilneman (Malcolm McCaimen). Dr. Kilneman says that things may look bad now but they’re only going to get worse. He then talks about how his research has led to him discovering that every bad thing in the world was previously predicted by the Bible. Stephen starts to laugh him off but he’s interrupted by what sounds like an overhead explosion. Suddenly, Dr. Kilneman has vanished.
Dr. Kilneman is not the only person who has vanished. In fact, every believer in the world has vanished. Without any Christians around telling people how to behave, it doesn’t take long for Seattle to descend into chaos. (Seattle in chaos? Well, it was bound to happen someday….) Soon, people are raiding the grocery stores and roving bands of frat boys are flooding the streets, openly drinking beer and smoking weed….
Yes, I know that actually kind of sounds like the sort of stuff that happens everyday and not just in Seattle but you have to remember that this film is from 1981 and, from what I can tell, it was apparently mostly shown to church groups. So, for the time, maybe it was shocking….
Anyway, Stephen and his wife, June (Alana Rader), decide to go out to June’s father’s farm. They manage to get out of Seattle and probably not a minute to soon as Seattle itself is soon wiped off the face of the planet by a storm of biblical proportions. When Stephen and June reach the farm, they discover that her father has vanished. They also meet up with one of the farmhands, Gary (Jerry Houser) and a young woman named Cindy (Sarah Reed), who needs a place to stay.
Meanwhile, with the world in chaos, an enigmatic man known as the Prime Minister (Michael Amber) takes control and promises to bring peace to the planet but only if people agree to follow him and be branded with a special mark. At one point, the Prime Minister gets shot in the head and then comes back to life a few days later so …. well, we all know what that means.
Stephen, June, Gary, and Cindy do not want to take the mark so they go running into the wilderness. Pursuing them is the local sheriff (James Blendick), who is determined to make sure that the law is followed even if the law is being written by Satan.
Years of the Beast is a bit of an oddity. On the one hand, it’s an extremely low-budget film and the pace is often painfully slow. One of the reasons why the film’s destruction of Seattle is so much fun to watch is because the special effects are so extremely cheap that they’re almost charming but, at the same time, the film’s narrative momentum dies right after the city. Unlike a lot of faith-based film, the cast was made up of character actors who actually had a career in mainstream cinema so, on the whole, the performances are better than you might expect to find in a film like this but, at the same time, none of the characters have much depth. They start out as nonbelievers and then they become believers and that’s pretty much it as far as their characterization tends to go. I liked the fact that the outwardly friendly Sheriff was actually a fascist but that has more to do with my own natural distrust of authority than anything else.
At the same time, if you’re looking for a time capsule of tacky 80s fashion and interior design, Years of the Beast will deliver. I especially liked the interior of Stephen and June’s home in Seattle, which was basically so bland that it become oddly fascinating. Actually, oddly fascinating is a good way to describe the entire film. It’s hard not to enjoy epic film making at discount prices. It’s almost like a bit of outsider art. For all of its flaws, it did get made and it apparently did play in theaters and now, nearly 40 years later, it can still be found on YouTube. Such is the power of cinema.