First released in 1972, A Thief In The Night is one of the most successful independent films ever made.
Shot in Iowa with a largely amateur cast, A Thief In The Night was made for a budget of $68,000. During the first decade of its release, it made a profit of 4.2 million dollars. Interestingly enough, the film itself rarely played in theaters and the majority of the money came from donations made by the members of the audience. Consider that. Audiences had the opportunity to watch the movie for free and still chose to pay. People were either extremely generous in the 70s or the film’s target audience really responded to it.
In a 1989 interview, the film’s producer estimated that the film had been seen by 100 million people. By the time the 2010s rolled around, that number had grown to 300 million. Though the film never got much attention from the mainstream press, it was a big enough success to spawn three sequels and to also inspire countless other films that dealt with the same themes as this film.
As for what the film’s about, it opens with Patty (played by Patty Dunning) waking up and discovering that her husband has disappeared. (His razor is sitting in the sink, almost as if he had been holding it before suddenly vanishing into thin air.) Over the radio, she hears reports that people all over the world have disappeared! Religious scholars are saying that perhaps the rapture has happened. Interestingly, those religious scholars have apparently been left behind and …. wait a minute! Patty’s been left behind too!
The first half of the film is full of flashbacks to Patty’s childhood and how she first met and married Jim Wright (Mike Niday). Interestingly enough, the flashbacks don’t necessarily play out in chronological order, which gives the entire first half of the film a stream-of-consciousness feel. We also get a somewhat random scene of Jim getting bitten by what appears to be a cobra. It feels like one of those things where you simply don’t turn down the chance to put a cobra in your film. If you’ve got a snake, you use it. And the first half of the film actually works surprising well. The low-budget and the random flashbacks and even the rather amateurish acting make the entire film feel like something of a fever dream.
During the second half of the film, the UN takes over the world and everyone is required to get the mark of the beast. Patty doesn’t want to get the mark but it turns out that those without the mark can’t shop for food or buy the latest fashions. Eventually, soldiers start to round up the unmarked and, before you know it, Patty is being chased through Des Moines by not only the United Nations but also by all of her friends, who now have the mark. Eventually, Patty ends up on a bridge with only two possible options. Either get the mark or jump. As opposed to the unconventional first half of the film, the second half is basically one long chase scene and it does get a bit repetitive after a while. That said, it’s kind of interesting to see someone being chased through downtown Des Moines as opposed to downtown New York or Los Angeles.
A Thief In The Night is undeniably crude and it gets a bit heavy on the preaching. Patty is continually told that it’s not good enough to just be a Christian. She has to be a super Christian or she’ll get left behind. I would think that would make anyone either extremely neurotic or extremely cynical. But if you can overlook the film’s preachiness, it’s a crudely effective in a dream-like way. You can tell that the filmmakers must have spent some time at the drive-in and that maybe they watched Night of the Living Dead when they weren’t in church because they whole film is full of skewed camera angles and abrupt jump cuts with a good deal of emphasis being put on Patty’s newly isolated status. In more ways than one, the film was obviously designed to scare the Hell out of its target audience.
A Thief in the Night works best when viewed as being a filmed fever dream. It’s crude but effective.