An eerily puzzling mystery, "The Mothman Prophecies" gains much of its visceral power not from onscreen violence and bloodshed (there is very little of both), but from the fact that it is based on a stunning true story that occurred in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, in 1966-'67. Director Mark Pellington (1999's "Arlington Road
") wisely recognizes that not all scary movies require an ax-wielding maniac chopping people's heads off; instead, he uses a thick undercurrent of atmospheric dread and truly creepy sound effects to keep the tension high.
Based on the supernatural non-fiction book by John A. Keel, the story has been updated to the present day but has kept most of its plot points intact. Washington Post journalist John Klein (Richard Gere) and his wife, Mary (Debra Messing), are a couple very much in love and looking for a bigger home to movie into. On their way home one night, Mary sees something that horrifies her so much she crashes their car and is seriously injured. While in the hospital, it is discovered that she also has an irreversible brain tumor.
Switch to two years later, John still hasn't fully recovered from the loss of his wife. While traveling to Richmond, Virginia, to interview a politician, his car breaks down. After seeking help from a nearby house, the inhabitants, Gordon (Will Patton) and Denise (Lucinda Jenney), call the police on him, claiming that he has knocked on their door at 2:30 a.m. for three nights in a row. More mindboggling is John's realization that he is in the sleepy town of Point Pleasant, located 400 miles in the opposite direction from his target destination in Richmond.
With the help of local police officer, Sgt. Connie Parker (Laura Linney), John is drawn into an investigation concerning the residents' recent claims of seeing bright lights in the sky, spectral phone calls, and an 8-ft.-tall moth-like creature--the same one the now-deceased Mary claimed she saw the night of their car wreck. Are these otherworldly sightings dangerous phenomena or merely warning signals to impending disaster?
Because the real-life sightings were never solved in the '60s, culminating in the fatal collapse of Point Pleasant's Silver Bridge, "The Mothman Prophecies" poses a great deal of questions and very few answers. This is how it should be. Credit director Pellington and screenwriter Richard Hatem (1995's "Under Siege 2: Dark Territory") for not crafting a bogus conclusion that neatly ties all of the plot points together, but allows them to remain true accounts of the still-unknown.
The key to the film's ultimate effectiveness is in its methodic pacing that draws the viewer into the perplexing circumstances surrounding the characters. Save for a stunningly orchestrated finale set on the town's bridge, there is little action to be found. Pellington has smartly chosen to tell this particular tale by way of a static-laden, frightening use of sound; blustery cinematography by Fred Murphy (2001's "Soul Survivors
") that takes full advantage of its blue hues; and an escalatingly dire set of horrific developments that are rarely seen, but often heard.
Underscoring the central premise is the sensitive story of a man learning to come to grips with the loss of a loved one. Richard Gere (2000's "Dr. T and the Women
") is an underrated actor who brings a sensitive, heartfelt aura to the mourning John, and Debra Messing (TV's "Will and Grace") makes a haunting impression as the ill-fated Mary. Messing has limited screen time, but her character hangs over the film like a ghostly apparition that won't go away. Joining Gere and Messing are Laura Linney (2000's "You Can Count on Me"), as Connie, the woman who halfheartedly joins John on his crusade to find out the truth, who does the most with a modestly underwritten role; and Will Patton (2000's "Remember the Titans
"), doing exemplary supporting work as Gordon.
If there is a disappointment with the final product of "The Mothman Prophecies," it is that the film might have been even more frightening were we to have gotten at least a glimpse of the title specter that the townspeople claim to keep being visited by. Except for a one-second flash of it in the first act, it is never visually glimpsed again, only seen through a set of drawings. This filmmaking decision on the part of Pellington is not a poorly construed one by any stretch of the imagination, but might have made for a more satisfying denouement since so much of the picture is left dangling in the air at the end.
As with "Arlington Road
," director Mark Pellington once again has made a thriller that goes against the conventions of the genre, yet loses none of its overall power in the process. Sure to give almost anyone a hefty case of the willies, "The Mothman Prophecies" is not only a very scary way to start off the new year, but also a movie with far loftier, thought-provoking themes than the premise might suggest at first glance.
©2002 by Dustin Putman