The B-Section: X-Ploitation

It’s hard for me to say anything nice about the modern Christian film. God’s Not Dead, October Baby, Old Fashioned, War Room? These are hateful works of trash. They’re as much political as anything else with an emphasis on Christian “values” that bear no resemblance to the purity of the Gospel teachings I love so much. The ones that aren’t like Miracles From Heaven and Breakthrough are overproduced studio glop with nothing to say. They’re the kind of glurge that used to be made without the religious coating.

So today, I want us to look back to another era. A much more innocent time. The age of the religious exploitation film.

I want to start by noting some very glaring films missing, namely the big Biblical epics. They were definitely exploitation. But they were big studio films. They were the A-movies. Not interested in those. My focus is roughly on the 1970s to the early 2000s, namely the weird bubble and how it burst.

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Ah Estus. Love you, man. If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? is one of the most batshit experiences you’ll ever have. Basically a dramatized sermon, you will be confused and horrified. It’s graphic as hell and surreal. But it wasn’t really a movie. It was made to show in churches at revivals. Hence we get the ad above. I’m jumping past this one quickly because I’ve talked it to death. Just watch it.

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Y’all, this is why I do this column. This movie did not play theaters. But I found an ad as if it did. A Thief in the Night is the prototypical Christian film. Since with this column I’m trying to shift a bit of focus to discussing the ads themselves rather than the films, let’s analyze this ad. Cover up the location where it’s showing. This is a perfectly solid exploitation ad. Nothing too weird. Looks like what it is. Wonder if the makers had ever tried a conventional release.

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A conventional release was tried for The Cross and the Switchblade. And it was a good move. This one falls somewhere on the cusp of the Hollywood religious movie and the indie, being distributed by Gateway Films in the US and Fox in the UK. It’s an interesting what if for the genre. It had edge and reviews were solid. I wonder if religious themed films had mimicked it and not the films to come what the genre would be now.

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Hello my representative for World Wide Pictures. Information about this barely exists but it’s clear it’s a story about a down on his luck youth who gets trapped working as a gay hustler in Amsterdam. And you know what? I can tell. This got a PG13. Again, gay hustler plot.

But let me pause to note WWP was the light in the darkness for much of this era. They set the model for the rest of the era. Blitz releases largely as ads for the home releases. Good model. They rarely had stars or premises beyond tv movies but they were out there. They gave churches excuses for outings. I can respect that.

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Can we agree this looks like a horror movie and not a Christian film (I’m adding the color add to emphasize this. In fact this looks kinda crazy. Which is a shame as it’s apparently quite dull and generic. It’s what if Jesus waited until 1990 (the film sat on the shelf for 3 years) to arrive. Not a bad idea, The similar novel Eli did the same plot and this counts as a recommendation. This is not that according to reviews. Rote, cheap, dull.

And so things sat. There was no drive to wake the genre up despite a growing level of power. Left Behind hit the bestseller charts. Christian fiction in general exploded. One of the great what ifs of this era was Chuck Russell flirting with Frank Peretti’s brilliant This Present Darkness, not out of a desire to capture the religious elements but to do the angels vs demons war. Really wonder what would have happened if that had happened because it might’ve been great. No, instead one film set the clock on the bubble.

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The Omega Code. This film was an example of the perfect movie at the perfect moment. I think any end times themed movie in October 1999 would clean up. It was the one to capture the millennial buzz. It doubled its modest budget. It wasn’t well liked but it was competent. You had actual actors for once. Casper Van Dien was just figuring out it wasn’t gonna happen while Michael York took a paycheck. It’s generic but it’s a thing.

The Omega Code made a lot of people race for their wallets. A boom was set to begin in Christian cinema. And the very next film to come out riding this boom would show it was never to be.

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OK, let’s list all the reasons this movie didn’t happen. First, opening post 2000 was insane. 2000 was the moment and frankly any energy for the end times was shot the morning of 1/1/00. The rapture didn’t happen. And a lot of doomsday excitement was gone. So this was dated already even if the book cleverly clung to the nobody knows when or how strategy.

But the notorious release strategy was out there and it was awful. See, I don’t necessarily think releasing a movie to theaters after video is a bad idea. This weekend, El Camino hit and I suspect would probably make a few bucks in theaters even with the Netflix release because fans wanted to see an apparently excellent film in a theater.

Left Behind was on video for anyone who wanted to see it. I did. And it was so unfaithful aside from bizarre moments of accuracy like Canadian character legend Gordon Currie actually at times having a faint young Robert Redford vibe. I was inclined to be nice to it. And it was bland. So the fans weren’t going.

Also look at that theater count. Easily the most in this column yet. There are A-movies that didn’t get that play Of course it tanked. And unfortunately that meant a lot of money was about to vanish.

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OK, I kinda feel bad here. Carman seems like a lovely guy with a great sense of humor. I’ve seen the reviews of his stuff and I get why he has fans in the irony community. But…this is horrid. Just horrid. A clichefest. A former boxer with a potentially fatal condition must get that one last fight to save a center. This is just so boring. And yet I feel like it’s the canary in the coal mine for what came next. You couldn’t get much mileage of of the end times anymore. Why not try for generic messaging? So much of what goes DTV feels born of this.

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:head in hands: Brian Trenchard-Smith is a legend. He is the king of the late stage b-movie in my eyes. He was on to every trend. He rode Australia’s boom and smartly cast a burgeoning young beauty/eventual queen of everything named Nicole Kidman in BMX Bandits. He did war movies when that was the trend. He hooked into the Leprechaun series for 3 and 4: In Space. And he did this.

This is, I stress, a Brian Trenchard-Smith movie posing as a Christian film. It’s filled with lots of military plotting. It ends in Armageddon. There’s a monster version of Satan. I kinda love it.

And let’s look at that ad! Damn that is a beautiful ad. The world breaking in two. Numbers. War imagery at the bottom. This promises something! Great logo too. Megiddo is a hard word to make seem scary but that does it.

But let me be blunt. If Left Behind killed the Christian Exploitation film’s chances then this murdered the corpse. 20 million budget. Didn’t come close to recouping. Huge loss.

Which makes the fact this column isn’t over hysterical.

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Sup VeggieTales. You guys are chill with me. This even spawned a less successful sequel. I’m waving at you because you were a big Christian release but you’re not exploitation. Hell my most cynical friends love y’all. Maybe because your focus is on the lessons of the Bible which means teaching kindness and aid. Y’all are here but you’re getting waved through the line.

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Christiano Brothers! Your ad was directly beneath Jonah so sit down. Time Changer was the largely TV movie based pair’s big screen shot. You know how Crime of the Age, The Pretender, and of course Second Glance are so quotable? Nobody brings up a movie about a writer whose book creates a world that’s, well, basically ours being sent to it. It’s dull. It’s whiny. Y’all belonged at home.

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OK, let’s dissect. First off, hello Dante Basco. You deserve better. Good news: there’s a cartoon coming you’re going to really shine on. Site contributor Zephyr noted it references two PG13 movies. That’s weird. Also did Champs Sports help finance it? Aside from a religious studio logo, there’s no sign this film is religious. Apparently it’s only “religious” in the sense it’s wholesome. No wonder this trend bottomed out.

Had all gone as trends usually go, the Christian Exploitation market would’ve died and maybe resurrected around 2012 or so. Nope. One film changed the game.

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If I had to choose between hernia surgery and discussing this film, I’d beg you to prep me. I have such conflicting thoughts about this powerful yet fueled by hate film that I’m angry I have to bring it up. But I do. Great poster. Tells you nothing good is coming. Also whose ego drove it. This was the moment looking at these films stops being fun. At least mostly. Another boom was on its way.

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I try not to get political and this is intended as a study of exploitation films so I’ll try not to. After this. Look at everything about this poster. A mother holding a son. A dangerous looking native. The tagline: Dare to make contact. Yup, we’ve got a film about missionaries and scary brown people. This is textbook definition exploitation. This ad ran in California just to make this worse.

This was thankfully an outlier at least in the moment. I’m not getting this column far enough along to get to this era. I explained why at the start. I won’t repeat myself. I want to close this column by looking briefly, just briefly, at a lighter subject. One that makes me happy. Things would get dark almost as soon as this trend ended. But let’s enjoy ourselves.

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I am sad I missed the brief run of Christian best sellers on screen. Thr3e was the only one to play in my area. The List also scored a limited run while The Visitation went DTV, a huge loss as that book is wild fun. If there was any way that Christian media should’ve at least done ok, it was tapping good reads. But alas the distribution wasn’t there. I do at least have House on DVD to watch. Review is coming soon.

OK, that was a lot. Next time, let’s go random. Rather than one focused topic, let’s look at a year. The B-Section is going back to 1979 to examine the era just before the late, lamented 80s All Over.

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