Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Mothman Prophecies (2002)

The Mothman Prophecies: adapted from the novel by John Keel by Richard Hatem; directed by Mark Pellington; starring Richard Gere (John Klein), Debra Messing (Mary Klein), Will Patton (Gordon Smallwood), and Laura Linney (Connie Mills) (2002): I suppose there's an alternate universe out there in which Mark Pellington has been an acclaimed director of horror and suspense films for the past two decades. Here, he seems to have poured much of his energy into TV production after The Mothman Prophecies came out in 2002. More's the pity.

When the publisher of the mid-1970's 'true-life' book you've based your movie on classifies that book as a novel (as Tor did John Keel's The Mothman Prophecies), you might as well run with it. I suppose if this movie were advocating the dangerous practice of exorcism while purporting to be a true story, I'd find it repugnant. 

As it instead generates a cosmic thrill-ride that ultimately comes out against pseudoscience and occultism, and as it's extremely well-made and well-acted -- well, I think The Mothman Prophecies is just swell. Pellington's games with visual and audio distortion give the film the unnerving quality of cosmic horror. The script's intentional vagueness about just what the hell is going on also helps.

Basically, back in the 1960's, a bridge collapsed in a small town in West Virginia, killing 46 people. There had been a Mothman craze in the town, fueled by a character on the Batman TV show and by our old friend, the barn owl, which has been linked to erroneous reports of aliens and monsters ever since people invented artificial lighting and started walking and driving around at night.

Nearly 10 years after the bridge collapse came the publication of John Keel's The Mothman Prophecies, a surprisingly boring mix of facts, speculation, and loopy metaphysics. More than 25 years after that came this movie, which pretty much invents all its characters and moves the bridge collapse 30 years forward in time while oddly reducing the death toll by 10.

But while the 'true facts' of the case are a lot of Hoo-Ha, Pellington's movie is smart and ambiguous and clever on both the narrative and visual fronts. Richard Gere's perennial insularity as an actor serves the movie well, as his character is an obsessive emotional cipher following the death of his wife. The rest of the cast is also fine, with Laura Linney and Will Patton keeping things low-key. Even Alan Bates underplays the role of John Leek, a stand-in for writer John Keel. With Gere as John Klein, that's two author stand-ins for the price of one! Recommended.

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