The Shittiest Films Ever Made
No. 14: Tribulation
If writing about shitty movies occasionally for the last three years has taught me nothing else, it’s taught me that there is no deeper dumpster for cinematic garbage than the Christian film industry. Evangelicals have been producing movies almost as long as they’ve been complaining about how evil they are, but the last twenty years in particular have seen a deluge of fundamentalist flicks flooding the home video market, with a few even breaking through to limited theatrical releases. Why, it’s been positively Noachian!
This series has dealt with two evangelical films already — the Casper Van Dien/Michael York epic The Omega Code from TBN Films, and the most didactic time travel movie since Star Trek IV, Rich Christiano’s Time Changer. Now I come to Tribulation, the third in a series of four films centering on the apocalypse produced by the LaLonde brothers at Cloud Ten Pictures. Why Tribulation and not Apocalypse, the first film in the series, or Revelation, the second? Excellent question, I’m glad you asked. I’ll give you three excellent reasons.
Gary Busey, Margot Kidder, and Howie Mandel. Oh, and apparently only crazy Busey knew this was an evangelical film before they started filming.
Kidder told that story to the A.V. Club a couple months ago. She was offered the role of Eileen, pious born-again sister to Busey’s character, took the job because she needed the money, and then — shit, I’ll let Margot tell you:
These people offered me a bunch of money to go to Toronto for a few days, and then suddenly this big limousine pulls up, and out walks this guy with about nine tons of hair, like Blagojevich, but white-haired. And I said, “Who’s that?” “Oh,” say the producers, “that’s pastor such and such and such and such, and he gets a part in the movie, ’cause he sells them in his church.” And Howie and I went “What?” And then the penny dropped. It was like, “Oh my God.” And I said, “Wait a minute, what happens to my character?” And they went “Well, straight up in the Rapture.” And I went “The what?” And they explained the Rapture and the end times to me, and I went “Oh shit. I’m in one of these movies.”
Yes, Margot was indeed in one of these movies. Lucky for her she gets raptured after the first act; poor Howie Mandel has to stick around to the bitter end. Busey is deeply nuts and probably has only a faint sense of his surroundings at any given time anyway, so he was probably fine.
As for the guy with nine tons of white hair Kidder mentions, I’d bet that was Jack Van Impe, whose ministry gets a producer credit alongside those of John Hagee and T.D. Jakes. All three also get cameos of sorts — characters are shown watching clips of their televangelical shows throughout the movie. Van Impe must have ponied up more than Hagee and Jakes, because he’s in this about twice as much as they are. It effectively turns Tribulation into a horror movie; you never know when someone’s going to round a corner and find themselves face to face with Jack Van Impe’s grinning death’s head on TV.
So what is Tribulation even about? As the title suggests, most of it takes place after the Rapture, the magical event where God pulls all the good Christians up to Heaven with him and turns the Earth over to Satan for reasons that nobody who believes in this shit understands, least of all the people who made this movie. I’m no biblical scholar, but I’m pretty sure the Bible leads us to believe the apocalypse will be an epic occurrence, with global plagues and the armies of good and evil clashing over the ultimate fate of the Earth. Haven’t those Left Behind guys gotten like fifty books out of the concept? Yet, due to budgetary limitations (I blame the shallow pockets of the TV preacher investors), Tribulation gives us an End of the World that centers around a few ordinary people whose activities are confined to several square miles of suburban Toronto. Its version of the antichrist is Franco Maccalusso, played by Nick Mancuso as an about even split between Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin and Vince McMahon. Rather than a Satanic global dictator, Maccalusso is essentially the most popular televangelist in the post-Rapture world (the irony is apparently lost on the filmmakers). He uses virtual reality helmets to either convert stragglers to his cause or kill them, and his evil minions (all five of them) don black robes and hold corny black-light séances in a slightly redressed Holiday Inn conference room.
Gary Busey, a cop who wakes up from a coma after the Rapture has taken place, spends most of the film searching for his wife and avoiding the forces of darkness, who are oddly incompetent for having just taken over the entire world. He’s forced to avoid contact with other people, since he has not accepted the mark of the beast, a “666” tattoo on the top of your hand. Gary could make things a lot easier on himself by getting hold of a Sharpie, it seems to me, but he’s not even that clever. He eventually finds an ally in his mentally deranged brother-in-law Howie Mandel, and together they make contact with Gary’s wife, Suzie, who has joined a small band of Christian rebels. They battle the evil of the antichrist by driving around in a van and hacking into Maccalusso’s satellite feeds, transmitting pirate broadcasts of old Jack Van Impe and John Hagee tapes. The filmmakers (acting at the insistence of their investors, I’m sure) are careful to add a little lower third message to the bottom of the pirate broadcasts establishing that they were recorded prior to the Rapture, so we know that Jack Van Impe, John Hagee and T.D. Jakes are all safe and sound with Jesus.
If not for the pushy religious message, Tribulation would be tailor-made for my new Now That’s Quality Cheese! feature. Its overbearing proselytizing made me long for the light touch displayed by Mel Gibson on The Passion of the Christ. Before she gets caught up in the clouds, Kidder’s character lectures Busey more than once on needing to find Jesus. There’s one exchange in particular, where Busey brings up some of the Bible’s more explicitly ridiculous stories (Noah’s flood, Jonah in the belly of the whale) and the best retort the writers can come up with for Kidder’s mighty Christian is “Yeah, well you haven’t even read it!” Do they realize the disservice they’re doing to their own beliefs? Do they see that Gary Busey is clearly the more reasonable party? He’s made to regret his damnable secular humanism, of course. When one of Maccalusso’s minions finds a Bible left behind in Busey’s kitchen he picks it up and tells his buddies, “Good news. He’s completely unarmed.”
There are technical shortcomings, to be sure — a horribly edited chase scene stands out, with one shot of a hobbled Busey gingerly descending stairs immediately followed by his pursuers charging relentlessly after him down the same steps, yet somehow never able to catch him — but it’s the evangelical elements of Tribulation that make it so putrid. Despite pulling up stakes, God has not abandoned the Earth entirely. At one point Busey hides in a closet, and God (at least I guess that’s who it was) helps him out by making the closet appear as a bare wall to the bad guys. How lazy is this God? We’ve seen several people murdered to this point, and been told that the antichrist has killed all those who refused to join him, with God declining to intervene. But he steps in with some hocus-pocus to help out Gary Busey? Nevermind how any reasonable person could believe in any of this shit — why would anyone want to? I’ve heard evangelicals talk of the End Times, which they imagine to be about a thousand times more horrific than anything in Tribulation, with almost giddy anticipation. They expect global war and pestilence, the death of billions, including all of their non-Christian friends and family — and they can’t wait. They hope and pray it gets here while they’re still alive so they can get raptured and enjoy the show from God’s personal skybox. What the fuck is wrong with people?
In Tribulation’s final scene, Busey comes around to being a good Christian, and enters a ruined church to bow in supplication before the God who abandoned him and enabled humanity’s suffering under the heel of Satan. Being the God of the Bible must be a great gig — you get to scare everyone into worshipping you as a being of ultimate benevolence while never lifting a finger to do a damn thing for anyone, and when one of the sheep starts complaining too much, you convince him it’s his fault. Sounds like good work, if you can get it.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t make for such a great movie. If you’re looking for low-budget science fiction financed by zealots, I suggest you avoid the oeuvre of the LaLonde brothers and stick with Ed Wood.