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Saturday 9 February 2002

The Mothman Prophecies

Directed by Mark Pellington
Screenplay by Richard Hatem and Becky Johnson, based on the book by John A. Keel
Starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Will Patton, Debra Messing, Lucinda Jenney, Alan Bates

Reviewed by John Shirley

As a "polygeneric" writer I can tell you from personal experience that if one's creative work is difficult to categorize into the usual marketplace niches, it often gets short shrift from the confused marketers assigned to distribute it. The Mothman Prophecies — a fascinating and powerful film — may be the victim of just such a failure in marketing intelligence. The film is sometimes subtle, for one thing — and subtlety's a marketing sin, in Hollywood. It appears to have been dumped in the theaters with little P&A (prints and advertising) support, as if they'd decided to fulfill their obligations and cut their losses. There's not even an ad for it in the local paper. Trailers were minimal.

The confusion is to some extent understandable because the Mothman is neither beast nor fowl; it's not a horror film, but is horrific; it's not a psychological suspense film, in the usual sense, though it has some of those qualities. It has the bad luck to be original.

It's way overdue, too. Movies and TV series — like The X Files — about Fortean phenomena line up by the dozens, but there have been no truly Fortean films that I know of. In case you're not hip to it, Charles Fort, about a century ago, was the first guy to really collect and organize accounts of "the unexplained": rains of frogs and fish, spontaneous human combustion, inexplicable flying craft, apparently magical disappearances and so forth. He funneled these anomalies into The Book of the Damned, which got its title from science's blinkered attitude toward phenomena it couldn't explain. Fortean Times and writers like John Keel carry on Fort's legacy.

The Fortean vibe is distinctive: it is skeptical while being relentlessly open-minded about the anomalous; it refuses to come to easy answers, easy filings-away; it carries with it an atmosphere in which anything can happen, and reality itself is always suspect. Consensus Reality, indeed, is interrogated by Forteans as if it were a notorious liar, a dangerous felon. There have been films about Fortean phenomena — but no films till The Mothman Prophecies that felt truly Fortean. Phil Dick's work had much in common with Fort's, though PKD was more speculative — and he'd have loved this film.

Loosely based on accounts (I hesitate to say "true events") of sightings of a radically strange gray, winged, creature often described as headless but nevertheless possessed of glowing red eyes, the book that inspired the movie describes a town plagued by inexplicable bouts of precognition, eerie phone calls that couldn't have happened but did, and sightings of the Mothman — and just seeing the Mothman brought about something like radiation burns in the eyes of many encounterers. The movie weaves an imaginary Washington Post reporter into the Mothman mythos, a pundit believably played by Richard Gere, who disappears into the role so effectively that you forget he's Richard Gere, and a lady Deputy played by Laura Linney whose resonant performance evokes a living character with a sense of history. Will Patton is grittily excellent as a man haunted by the Mothman — and by apparent jumps into alternate timelines. His character grows from being a kind of vaguely sympathetic redneck to an Everyman coming profoundly to terms with the mystery of death itself.

The film goes out of its way to establish a loving relationship between Richard Gere's character and his wife so that we feel it when he loses her to a rare brain tumor. Said brain tumor is apparently complicated by a car accident which seems to have been provoked by — or prefigured by — a visit from the "Mothman." Before she dies she draws grim, expressionistic images of the apparition, which are echoed by other Experiencers (as some paranormal researchers call those who encounter the unknown). The film is equally expressionistic, sometimes using a marvelous digital-dissolve effect that seems to reduce shots, for a moment, to an alien point of view that further dissolves into something like pure electrical energy. And this is itself evocative, for by degrees we build up a picture of the Mothman as a creature more defined by energy fields than by biological physicality. He's apparently shaped by one's expectations of him, and one's own nature — as if he personifies the Enigma of Reality Itself, notoriously mercurial and subjective — and sometimes even calls people on the phone (and it's no use ripping the phone from the wall), identifying himself by a peculiar name that sounds human and inhuman both.

Layering the reporter's grief-driven investigation with his forays to meet a John Keel-like character named Leek, (Keel spelled backwards), the film creates authentic dread, and a highly instructive existential uncertainty. With artfully embellished zig zags, the story builds to a disaster that took dozens of lives, in actual fact, and ambiguities abound as to the role of the Mothman in the disaster. The film skirts being a ghost story, as the reporter's wife turns up, in an oblique kind of way, after her death, and it's possible some of his perceptions are more the product of grief than of objective events.

Pellington's directing and the editing are reminiscent of Nicholas Roeg's, especially of Don't Look Now — which would be a good double bill with this picture — and if he's not yet quite as masterful as Roeg at his best, he's a very creative, intricately craft-conscious film-maker. He's a master in the making, perhaps. He flashes images at you — omens, really, and remember that the word Monster originally meant omen — that seem to suggest that reality itself is contrived of synchronicities and psychic energies. We glimpse the moth shape in a flickered image of the brain tumor, in shadows and graffiti; we see the footprints of the Unknown trammeling the blank snowfall of our presumption.

This is a film of ideas presented in the twilight borderline of genre fiction; various genres overlap here, but none of them hold this elusive film fast. As an exercise in suspense and dread, the film does not always work on every level — it's quite ambitious, and demands real attention from the viewer — but it powerfully draws us into its dark world. This is a brave film: the director and writers turned their backs on clear-cut monsters, gutted victims, diabolic plots. We never see the Mothman clearly; the whole point is sinister ambiguity. Yet there's a sense of underlying hope, an intuition of a greater world that encloses our world within it, a metaphysical mystery that offers transcendence into something we cannot understand until we're there.

A measure of a film's worth is how much one thinks about it afterwards, and for how long. I'm still thinking about The Mothman Prophecies, days later...

John Shirley is the author of numerous books, including the forthcoming Demons from Ballantine/Del Rey, the Bram Stoker award-winning Black Butterflies (Leisure books) and Darkness Divided from Stealth Books. His newest novel is And the Angel with Television Eyes from Nightshade books. He is also a writer for screen and television. The authorized website is

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