The movie screen was slashed; the film "The Last Temptation of Christ" was missing.

That's what theater employees discovered when they arrived at the Centre Theatre, 101 E. Third South, Friday morning.Was it a religious fanatic, a disgruntled employee, a mad man, or a publicity stunt?

Salt Lake police had no answers Friday evening.

"We're handling it as a regular, old burglary," said detective Lt. Mel Shields.

But by about 4 p.m., they had located the film in a remote storage room in the theater's basement. It was unraveled, torn, crumbled and in a pile. Loss is between $2,000 and $5,000, sources said.

Investigators hope to lift some fingerprints from the film. Other than that, they had no solid evidence. There were no messages and no one has accepted responsibility, Shields said.

Police and theater managers said an unknown intruder or intruders either entered the theater or stayed behind following the late show, which ended about 1 a.m. Friday.

A police officer, who asked not to be identified, said it is most likely that someone had stayed behind because a rear exit was forced open, apparently from the inside.

Sometime before 9 a.m., the intruder slashed the movie screen in two forms that faintly resembled withered crosses. The forms, about 10 feet tall, were centered in the screen and were apparently made by a person who stood on a stage behind the screen, police said.

The incident forced cancellation of the scheduled 1 p.m. showing, but a repairman had the screen stitched in time for the 4 p.m. showing. That screening, however, was delayed 45 minutes while the theater made last minute security preparations.

As the theater opened, police officers were inside searching handbags for any sharp objects or objects that might be used as projectiles.

In addition to slashing the screen, the intruder removed the hinges from three doors to gain access into the projection room and remove the entire film from the projectionist's "platter," sources said.

The Centre Theatre is owned by Cineplex Odeon, which issued a brief statement Friday from its corporate headquarters in Toronto, Canada:

"An attempt was made to stop the film from appearing in Salt Lake City. This attempt was unsuccessful. A print of the film is now on the screen and it is business as usual."

Lynda Friendly, a Cineplex Odeon vice president, denied that the vandalism was part of a publicity stunt on the part of the theater.

`That is absolutely not true," she said.

Cineplex Odeon district manager Ernie Hoffman said the vandalism could be the work of a disgruntled employee, who knew his way around the theater and knew the theater had no burglar alarms.

And as the filmed opened for its 4 p.m. showing, controversy continued to dog it.

The film, which has drawn critical acclaim as well as the wrath of the Christian community since its release several weeks ago, opened in Salt Lake City to full houses and about 30 pickets.

And this film's reputation preceded it's arrival - thanks largely to national headlines and news reports that have played up the controversy and served to enhance curiosity.

"I'm really curious," said Norma Tharpe, who was one of about 150 people who stood in line in front of the Centre Theatre late Friday afternoon to be among the first to see the movie.

"Given the nature of the film, I think it deserves to be seen so that we can make our own judgments about it," said Bob Avery.

Afterward, Tharpe and Avery both gave the film glowing reviews.

"All we can tell you is that people were crying when it was over. We're surprised so many people are so disturbed by it."

Harry Klekas said he wanted to see the movie to find out if it's as good as the critics say, or as bad as the Christians suggest.

When he left the theater, he simply said, "It made me a better Christian."

Some, however, found the film overly long and tedious. "It drags a bit. I fell asleep a couple of time," confessed John Luck. "I'm glad I only paid $3 (for the early show) to see it. If I'd paid $5, I'd have been disappointed."

His wife, Kim, said it was apparent up front that the movie is an interpretation and is not faithful to the scriptures. "It's all made up; its purpose isn't to convert you."

Most who saw the movie were attracted by the attention it is generating. But others said they'd have seen the movie regardless of all the hype.

Some expressed indignation that the Deseret News chose not to run advertising for the movie.

Deseret News Publisher Wm. James Mortimer said earlier in the week that the paper wouldn't run advertising promoting the film because "those things that demean Deity are best omitted from the Deseret News."

Outside the theater Friday night, protesters passed out Christian literature and carried placards with slogans like: "Read the biblical account."

One protester, Scott Olsen, a parishioner at the Grace Baptist Church, said he was not tempted to see the movie.

"This is a blasphemous film. It's no temptation for me not to see the movie," Olsen said. "I don't have to go to Germany to see Nazi death camps to know they were an abomination to God."

Gary Misner, associate pastor at South East Baptist Church, said he hasn't seen the movie and refuses to pay the theater to watch something he knows he won't like. He said the protest has already been successful because it's shown people that Christianity is alive and well in Salt Lake City.

One of the protest organizers, Mike Stimpson, said it hasn't been decided if picketing will continue, but protesters plan to continue to pass out literature during the film's run.