The Mothman Prophecies

(Mark Pellington, USA, 2002)


I generally try to avoid reading other critics' reviews until I have formulated my own response to a film. In the case of The Mothman Prophecies, however, I could not dodge being told that Lisa Alspector of the Chicago Reader considers it "the scariest movie I've ever seen".

This is a big call. Scarier than The Innocents (1961),The Birds (1963), The Exorcist (1973)? Plus, The Mothman Prophecies has something in common with the two of the films on that list. It is based (via John Keel's book) on events that are said to be roughly true.

The story concerns catastrophes and premonitions. Whenever bad things happen, to entire communities or to unfortunate individuals like John (Richard Gere), they are associated with sightings of a large, enigmatic creature dubbed the Mothman.

After the tragic death of his wife, Mary (Deborah Messing), the normally hard-nosed, no-bull John finds himself stuck in a hick town with some mighty disturbed individuals. He hears messages emitting from telephones even when they are not plugged in. Apparitions follow him everywhere.

There is very little intrigue in this movie – only slow countdowns to further catastrophes. Director Mark Pellington's previous effort, Arlington Road (1999), was among the worst films of the '90s. Here he further exaggerates his maddening style. Every cut, every sound effect is meant to jolt and pound us into submission. The pyrotechnics soon become tiresome.

The film has an impressively mounted finale, a great opening split-second – John's first shock from a telephone receiver in his workaday life – and some enjoyable scenes involving Gordon (Will Patton) and his wife Denise (Lucinda Jenney) as freaked-out locals.

Gere is much less satisfying; it is one of those roles that require him to merely alternate frowning, yelling and running. And John's burgeoning friendship with cop Connie (Laura Linney) goes nowhere interesting.

Between them, the '90s TV series Twin Peaks and The X-Files executed a pincer manoeuvre from which popular culture is still wriggling to escape. Strange, possibly supernatural events are freighted with vague intimations of a grand design behind it all. Feverish, possibly paranoiac hallucinations suffered by characters and gleefully depicted by directors constitute an ubiquitous, postmodern house-style.

Slickly mounted movies as excessive, incoherent and sloppy as The Mothman Prophecies make me nostalgic for the good old days of B films like Larry Cohen's Q – The Winged Serpent (1982). Cohen knows the classical rules of the fantastique genre.

Firstly, there must be a number of plausible but incommensurable interpretations of events offered to the viewer, ranging from the most rational to the most irrational.

Secondly, there must be a constant hesitation between these options, perhaps never resolved within the plot.

Thirdly, the entire premise must mean something, must serve as a pulp-fiction metaphor for a crisis in our real world.

Pellington and writer Richard Hatem respect none of these conventions. They are so hung up on trying to convince us of the Mothman's reality that they drain proceedings of any mystery, ambiguity or resonance. The film resembles a sermon haranguing the audience to have faith, to believe.

But, since cinema is all a big illusion anyhow, such bald exhortations are rarely persuasive. And when this movie has finally shouted itself hoarse and supposedly clinched its case, you might find yourself wondering: well, so what?

© Adrian Martin May 2002

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search