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Apocalypse mania


Jerusalem, 6 p.m. The end-of-workday whistle blows. Crowds of people file out of their offices and stream into outdoor cafes and shops. The sun, a perfect, golden orb, is just beginning to dip in the sky. It's cocktail hour in the Holy City, and life looks divine.
Then a shadow crosses the massive, polished Dome of the Rock.. And another shadow. Suddenly the air is swarming with mud-coloured jets and helicopters that have crossed the Mediterranean Sea. Tanks, like a colony of ants, charge across the desert. Bombs explode. Buildings tumble. The sky goes black. It's 6:05.

Cut to a different time and place. On a 747 from Chicago to Heathrow, flight attendants are, at first, perplexed. Then terrified. Passengers have vanished from their seats, leaving rumpled Levi's, suit jackets, baby sleepers, wedding rings and dental fillings. On the ground, cars and buses -- suddenly driverless -- are crashing. Subway trains are derailing. In a flash, more than 150 million people simply disappear.

Could this be the sequel to Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Uh, no. This story is more gripping -- and, according to biblical prophecy, more authentic -- than that.

Lights, camera, Rapture! The scenes are, in fact, part of a $17.4-million movie, called Left Behind, based on thebest-selling book series of the same name. This film, and its sequel Left Behind II: Tribulation Force, made by a tiny St. Catharines, Ont., company called Cloud Ten Pictures, have together grossed more than $130-million (U.S.) in video and box-office sales.

And this powerhouse, Christian-fundamentalist brand of videos and paperbacks (the latter is consistently found among New York Times bestsellers, with more than 60 million books sold) has sparked one of the hottest genres in literature, TV and cinema. Let's call it endtimes entertainment.

These hugely popular books and movies are based on the Apocalypse, or Armageddon, as foretold in the New Testament's Book of Revelation. According to Christian theology -- a belief especially close to the hearts of fundamentalists -- during the Apocalypse the faithful will be raptured (think, giant vacuum) up to heaven.

Then begins a seven-year period of hell on Earth, with the Antichrist throwing his weight around, locusts swarming, seas turning to blood. It's overall abject misery. Then Christ beats the Beast at Armageddon and begins His 1,000-year reign of peace and prosperity.

In bookstores, some evangelical Christian thrillers have broken sales records set by beach-bag staple John Grisham. Armageddon, the 11th in the Left Behind series, had a print run of three million and shot to the top of the New York Times fiction list this April, selling faster than the average Stephen King title. And Cloud Ten's founders, two lads from North Bay, Ont., are still on cloud, uh, number nine from the heavenly spoils of their Left Behind movies, which combined B-list stars, the fear of the Apocalypse, and Nick Mancuso as Satan, and turned the unholy mixture into a to-drool-for franchise that outsells Hollywood blockbusters such as Erin Brockovich and American Beauty on video.

Browse through movie and TV listings, comic books, cartoons, and video shelves at Wal-Mart and Blockbuster, and everywhere you'll see people are talking about the end of the world: the Apocalypse, Rapture, Tribulation, Armageddon and the Second Coming of you-know-who -- all events that were foretold in the Book of Revelation and predicted by Nostradamus.

Why this fascination with our own cataclysmic demise? For one thing, the times are biblically ripe, says Toronto director André van Heerden, who co-produced Left Behind: The Movie. The attack on Manhattan's twin towers, the war in Iraq, and the constant threat of terrorism have made people fearful about the future, adds the 32-year-old filmmaker, who works for Cloud Ten Pictures.

But more than that, van Heerden adds, "What could be better drama than the Apocalypse? Drama is conflict, and you can't have a bigger conflict than God versus Satan." After the Rapture (when Christ takes true believers up to heaven), there are quakes, flesh-eating locusts and ghastly airborne horsemen. Take that sci-fi-ready script, put it in modern times, and presto!, you've got the main ingredients for gripping TV, film or reading.

For centuries, there have been apocalyptic messages in the cultures of the day. Look at Dante's Inferno or Milton's Paradise Lost. Many were convinced the end was coming when Rome was sacked in 410, when the Black Death wiped out thousands of Europeans in the 14th century, and during Hitler's campaign of genocide.

Post 9/11, the appetite surged for all things apocalyptic -- wth help from Michael Drosnin, author of the best-sellling The Bible Code and Bible Code II: The Countdown. In the latter, he writes that he found "twin," "towers," "airplane" and "it knocked down" -- as well as "crime of bin Laden" -- in the Bible.

The proliferation of new media and the Internet means apocalyptic soothsaying is now readily accessible to the mainstream. It's not just evangelical Christians who frequent the multiplexes to see these movies or buy the books, points out John Pungente, a Jesuit priest in Toronto. It's often non-fundamentalist Christian folk, the priest adds, who have been spooked to the bones by the World Trade Center attacks and the anthrax scare.

"The apocalypse has always been the favourite theme of right-wing Christians, who believe 'that the end is nigh . . . and the nigh is sooner, rather than later,' " he says. "And people have built on that because of what is happening in the real world. And more and more people are starting to think about it.

"There was a bad joke going around Toronto recently with the SARS epidemic that we had three of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse: war [Iraq], death [SARS] and pestilence [West Nile virus]. The one thing they said we didn't have yet was famine, but they were waiting for that to hit."

Pungente also believes the trend has taken hold because "there is a tiredness of things material among many younger people. . . . There is a real fear, especially among young Americans, about the future. Their future. And because of that, they're turning to things more spiritual."

That uneasiness was reflected last year in a Time Magazine/CNN poll. It found 59 per cent of Americans believe the end-of-the-world prophecies in the Book of Revelation will come true. About 25 per cent believe the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were predicted in the Bible. And 17 per cent believe the world will end in their lifetime.

Given those stats, it's hardly surprising the Apocalypse-as-blockbusting-entertainment has moved beyond a fringe phenomenon. It started off slowly, about 30 years ago, with the likes of Rosemary's Baby (1968); Hal Lindsey's 1970 novel The Late Great Planet Earth (which sold 25 million copies); and surely the scariest film of all time, The Omen, which rocked audiences in 1976 and carried the unforgettable tagline: "Good morning. You are one day closer to the end of the world. You have been warned."

Because of the runaway success of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins's Left Behind novels, publishers have been falling over themselves to produce copycats. Penguin subsidiary Plume has a new series of seven thrillers, The Prodigal Project, about the end of the world.

LaHaye and Jenkins have recently ended their eight-year collaboration (Book 12, their last together, is scheduled for 2004). Still, each managed to land lucrative publishing deals to continue on their own. LaHaye signed a $45-million (U.S.) deal with the Bantam Dell Publishing Group to do four books about a born-again Christian archeologist who sounds a lot like Indiana Jones. Jenkins, too, is working on an endtimes thriller.

No talk of religious films would be complete without mentioning The Omega Code and Megiddo: The Omega Code 2, in which Michael York plays media tycoon Stone Alexander, a sort of Rupert Murdoch, only with horns and creepy yellow fingernails. Like Cloud Ten's Left Behind films, the Omega Code movies, particularly the first in 1999, were an unforeseen success. The film, based on the Book of Revelation, stunned Hollywood by grossing $12.4-million (U.S.). With next to no advertising, Omega became the second-highest-grossing independent film of that year, according to the trade bible, Variety.

Fast-forward a few years, and the age-old battle between good and evil is being enacted in the most unusual places. Now kids can watch the live-action show (on video) called Bibleman, a superhero in purple spandex and banana-yellow body armour (actor Willie Aames, formerly of Eight Is Enough) who fights off evil by quoting the Bible.

When Left Behind: The Movie was released on video in 2000, and later on a limited number of screens, it was critically panned. Its makers -- the Lalonde brothers -- kept the faith and persevered. The first one, which stars Kirk Cameron (the apple-cheeked heartthrob of the 1980s sitcom Growing Pains) outsold such films as Toy Story 2 at U.S. video stores. Its sequel also hit No. 1 on in its first week of video release, knocking Spider-Man into second place.

Now the Lalondes are considering an animated version of the first Left Behind movie, and toying with spinning it into a TV series. Neither brother could be reached for comment, but a few years ago Peter Lalonde commented in an interview that "while there's a separation of church and state, I don't think there needs to be a separation of church and entertainment." Amen to that. Both Lalondes remain God-loving, but extremely wealthy, men.

Van Heerden says Cloud Ten has produced half a dozen Revelation-based films since 1998, resurrecting stars such as Gary Busey, Margot Kidder, Howie Mandel, Corbin Bernsen, Burt Reynolds, Judd Nelson, Louis Gossett Jr., and Mr. T. Those films had much smaller budgets than the Left Behind productions, but they continue to get snapped up off the video shelves.

Van Heerden says the reason is simple: "Everyone is curious about what's going to happen in the future. We're all going to die some day and we want to know, Is there a heaven? Is there a hell? Is what the Bible says true? Our movies really play as big, science-fiction stories."

John Martens is a professor of ancient apocalyptic thought in Judaism and Christianity, whose book, The End of the World: The Apocalyptic Imagination in Film and Television, came out this spring. The 42-year-old professor, who teaches at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minn., points out that fewer people are turning to rabbis, priests, or ministers to satisfy the basic human need to understand their destiny and the nature of reality. Instead, they're going to for an endtimes fix, or hitting the cinemas.

Ted Baehr, publisher of The Movie Guide and chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission in Camarillo, Calif., says there's always a cycle of religious films, which rises and falls between periods of calamity and calm. He believes the trend to millennial films and books is on the wane: "They've reached their apogee and they're about to decrease."

What's coming in this next wave of Christian-based entertainment? Films such as Mel Gibson's The Passion, about the last 12 hours of Jesus's life. And the three-hour, $18-million (Canadian) feature film, The Gospel of John, from none other than Toronto's live-theatre impresario Garth Drabinsky, who is facing criminal and civil charges for alleged accounting fraud tied to his former company, Livent Inc.

"In the mid-1980s, 81 per cent of the films making it to screens were R-rated, and a fraction of what was left were suitable for families," Baehr says. "In 2002, only 40 per cent were R-rated, and 40 per cent were aimed at families. Religion films have gone from apocalyptic to more focused on the good news of Jesus Christ," he says confidently.

While van Heerden says he and the Lalondes have several apocalyptic projects in the works (including Left Behind III), his next film might be something Christian lite. "A teen romantic comedy with a Christian theme to it. I've directed three features based on the Book of Revelation . . . and creatively I need to do something different. They're heavy, these movies. Very heavy."

Like many at Cloud Ten, van Heerden is Christian. He believes the Book of Revelation, but adds there's no point dwelling on it. All we can do, he says, is watch the signs of the times. "My personal belief is to be ready. I have a wife and two young daughters, and I'd like to think we'll be together forever."

The final countdown

Some terms commonly used in end-of-world prophecy (taken mainly from the New Testament's Book of Revelation):Antichrist (aka the Beast): A man who will appear to have been resurrected from the dead. He will be empowered by Satan, perform false miracles, and represent himself as God. Apocalypse: The name often given to the Revelation of St. John, the last book of the New Testament. It usually describes the evangelical Christian take on the world's cataclysmic end and the beginning of Christ's kingdom on Earth.Armageddon: The site of the granddaddy of all battles, between Christ and the Antichrist. Christ's victory ushers in his 1,000-year reign.End Times: The period during which the Apocalypse will take place; the end of the world as we know it.Millennium: The 1,000-year period following the Tribulation in which Christ rules, and there is an era of peace, prosperity and justice on Earth.Rapture: The time after Christ's return to Earth when he lifts all living and dead true believers up to heaven.Second Coming: Christ returns to Earth, ending the Tribulation. He comes to judge the Antichrist and the world.Tribulation: Seven years of unequalled war and supernatural disaster, when the Antichrist rules the world. The period ends after Christ defeats evil at Armageddon.


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