The Mothman Prophesies (2002)

Originally Appeared in The Green Man Review.

The Mothman Prophesies is based on a book by the same name from John Keel which tells of 200+ claimed sightings of a mysterious creature, attended by prophetic utterances, in Point Pleasant, Virginia. The sightings occured from November 1966 through December 1967. The prophesies never seem to mean what the listener thinks they mean.

Richard Gere plays reporter John Klein (i.e. John Keel), while Alan Bates is a more interesting Alexander Leek (Keel if you backward mask it). Leek is the monster mythos guru a la Bram Stoker’s Dr. Van Helsing, the older more scholarly character who’s spent his life doing the research on “them”. So, in fact, there are two Keel figures in the film: one the romantic but thoroughly ordinary yuppy reporter with the usual overly expensive house, the other the weird researcher who’s spent time in a mental institution. Perhaps splitting Keel in two helps “normalize” the lead character while satisfying the stereotypes about people who go off to chronicle Fortean events. I’d rather have had the hero and researcher integrated.

The film is chalked full of classic gothic horror devices. Lots of film of gnarled bony branches in poor light, some black wrought iron, a looming house or gothic cathedral. Aerial views of the main character, so you know something must be watching. Alternate moments of lour and quiet, for the same reason. Eerie music and industrial noise, lots of work with breathing sounds, changes of camera speed…

Even though it’s obvious the director (Mark Pellington) is having fun with the viewer, it works because it’s a ritual. There’s a formula, so we know what to expect; it’s either done well or poorly. In this case, it had to be done well because the plot is one that is supposed to leave us, as with the real events, unsure what has really happened.

I would have been satisfied with the film just ending. But it does give us something to resolve, and it is the interwoven question of Klein’s willingness to let himself be loved after the death of his wife Mary (Deborah Messing), and the dilemma posed by Leek: “Which was more important, having proof or being alive?” The tearjerker element was unnecessary and distracting, standard Richard Gere fare, and not too convincing with a lot of squinting and blinking to pass for deep emotion, but if it pays for Leek’s interesting question, all right then.

There are some nice, genuinely creepy moments. John Klein’s first conversation with the mothman is lovely. Klein wakes up once to find someone else in his bed — always a shocker if you aren’t expecting company. The spookyness is constant throughout the film. It doesn’t hand over gore, an exorcism, or monsters one can stake or fry with Super-Soakers full of holy water (From Dusk til Dawn), but it maintains the tension and flavour of an urban legend right to the end.

All in all, Mothman Prophesies is a fine cinematic treatment of a little-discussed piece of modern American folklore. If you like a good X-file, you’ll like seeing this at least once, at least on video.

The CryptoZoologist handles all sorts of creepy creatures including the Mothman. The drawings alone make it worth a look. Other sources include the Ghosts of the Prairie site and Blather Archives. The movie’s official website is here.

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