In 2002, two things happened. I finished year five, and The Mothman Prophecies was released. You can judge for yourself, but I feel that I perhaps made more of a lasting impact on the world as, well, I’m still here and yet not many people have heard of The Mothman Prophecies these days. Having said that, the late but still respected film critic Roger Ebert wrote about the film and never about me, so go figure. Anyway.
The film stars Richard Gere as John Klein, a top political journalist with the Washington Post who loses his wife to a brain tumour, but not before she sees “something” thoroughly supernatural which she starts drawing all over every piece of paper she can find. When she passes, he throws himself into his work to try and get over the loss. Eventually, Klein decides to go for a late-night drive south of Washington DC, and ends up in the snoozy town of Point Pleasant, on the border of Ohio and West Virginia, which according to him is 400 miles from his intended destination. Given that it only took him about 90 minutes to make this journey, something is definitely amiss. Eventually it comes out that the whole town has been having horrible nightmares and there’ve been some strange goings-on. With the help of local police sergeant Connie Mills (Laura Linney), Klein works out that there’s a connection between what his wife and what the townsfolk of Pt Pleasant have seen, and he risks everything to prevent a massive disaster.
When I was a kid, I used to be fascinated by just this kind of story, so I watched The Mothman Prophecies last week, I was surprised I’d never previously heard of it, or indeed the legend of the eponymous man. The film is based on a 1976 book of the same name by John Keel, which details mysterious happenings and alleged sightings of Mothman around Point Pleasant during 1966 and 1967 leading up to the Silver Bridge collapse at the end of 1967. Matters documented by Keel include sightings of a giant moth-like man, and encounters with Men In Black, and a man named Indrid Cold who appears in dreams and makes freaky phone calls before presenting in person.
Throughout The Mothman Prophecies, Klein is repeatedly spoken to on the phone by a strange-voiced being calling himself Indrid Cold. Despite knowing the potential dangers of obsessions with the supernatural, Klein is drawn right in and takes the calls very seriously. Cold vaguely describes a number of disasters and accidents, which leads to the end of the second act where Klein thinks he knows Cold’s game and disgraces himself in front of a Presidential candidate when trying to prevent a predicted disaster that doesn’t occur. Messages from Cold, especially to the folks of Point Pleasant are often accompanied by red flashes of light and the shadow of Mothman, which everyone who encounters it draws in exactly the same way.
The film version conflates a number of the separate phenomena discussed by Keel in the book into one overarching Mothman myth, leading to the implication that the Mothman IS Indrid Cold – thus the Mothman literally predicts disasters, rather than simply preceding them. Some have argued that this conflation detracts from the story somewhat; it certainly changes the meaning of the book’s title for the film relative to the contents of its material. Furthermore, it’s suggested that because Mothman never really manifests on-screen as a truly physical presence, and that it’s never made clear exactly what he is and what he can do, and that there is not a direct confrontation with the monster himself, that the film is ultimately a letdown. I think, however, that it makes the story a little more horrifyingly off-centre exactly because it’s never made 100% clear precisely what Mothman is and what he can do, only that he is a terrifying presence who inhabits multiple planes of reality.
What I’m getting at here is that the chills come from the idea of Mothman, rather than the Mothman himself, and we share the characters’ discomfort because we don’t know what’s going on either. Certainly this is what’s causing the citizens of Point Pleasant to be on edge – their nightmares are not becoming tangible beings, rather just the flashes of light and the impression of a moth-like shape on their memories. And the odd unexplainable injury here and there. Really, I think mixing all the events of ’66-67 and updating them to a contemporary setting serves to make this something more of an edgy psychological thriller, as opposed to just a horror anthology akin to some sort of Halloween special.
Aside from some issues with the writing, which I’ll go into shortly, the film is nothing short of well crafted. There are some elements of the cinematography which are very 2002, particularly the stylised fades between scenes which are reminiscent of TV techniques. However, and thought I must admit it’s hard to pick one facet that really makes it stand out, the rest of the cinematography is brilliant – after about 20 minutes, both my Dad and I were remarking how good the film looks. Then he fell asleep, but he just does that – he wasn’t condemning the film. The director (Mark Pellington, who also directed 1999’s Arlington Road) gets a lot out of his actors, with Richard Gere being surprisingly un-wooden, and Laura Linney being magnificent, as she always is. The supporting cast do a lot of work to make the “town on the verge of social collapse” thing quite convincing; they all carry on their day-to-day existence. Will Patton, who plays the simple but homely Gordon Smallwood, effectively gives us a man being driven slowly insane. And the final scene is a very, very competent piece of special effects work, which seems to have been proper model work, rather than CGI.
I suppose the main issue really, then, is that The Mothman Prophecies is never quite clear exactly what kind of horror film it wants to be. It’s at its best when being a cosy catastrophe psychological thriller, and so the small parts where the story shifts to a larger focus, such as Klein’s aforementioned attempts to interfere with the Presidential candidate’s schedule, jar significantly. In a similar vein, the resolution of the story is well executed technically, but leaves a sour taste in the mouth considering the rest of the film has kept you guessing about where it’s going. Indeed, the one thing that, prior to the ending, the film does consistently is kill off seemingly important people, so, when it fails to do so, you wish they hadn’t opted for a pseudo-happy ending. Hitchcock’s Vertigo ends on a downer for everyone, and that’s a classic.
The Mothman Prophecies is a film which, like its titular antagonist, is confused about its identity. However, I found it to be a very gripping piece of cinema which I already wanted to watch again after it finished. It’s not too scary, but it can be very thrilling. Certainly a film I’ll be suggesting for my next movie night!