Directed by Mark Pellington (Arlington Road) and starring Richard Gere, The Mothman Prophecies is a supernatural thriller based on true events, though I'm not sure how closely it adheres to John Keel's book, which I haven't read, though by other accounts the book is far more gripping and bizarre, and the movie tells a much-reduced version of Keel's story, which centres around a series of strange sightings, events and disasters in Point Pleasant, West Virginia in 1968.
Spoilers Galore! If you haven't seen the movie or read the book, do yourself a favour and skip the next section, because one of the best things about this movie is the suspense and sense of confusion.
The first twenty minutes or so introduce us to John Klein, a successful reporter for the Washington Post, who is driving back from viewing a house with his wife when she sees something rushing out of the darkness towards the car and loses control. She wakes up in hospital and says to John "You didn't see it, did you?". He didn't. The doctors identify a frontal lobe tumour, and soon afterwards she dies, but not before filling an entire notebook with spooky, smudged, dark pictures of a figure with black wings and burning red eyes, which is pointed out to John by a mysterious hospital orderly who says "She knew," and then disappears. This pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the movie, in which you really, truly don't know what the hell is going on, just like everyone else.
Skip forward two years. John is still working for the Washington Post and can't get over the loss of his wife. He sets off one night to drive to a nearby city for some kind of work engagement the next morning, when his car stalls in the middle of nowhere and he has to get out and look for help. He calls into a nearby house, where the occupant, Gordon Smallwood (Will Patton), grabs him and points a gun at him and calls the police, claiming that John has knocked on their door at 2:30 a.m. for the last three nights, and is stalking them. The policewoman, Connie Mills (Laura Linney), arrives and calms Gordon down, John tells her that he's never been here before in his life, and they leave the house. John checks into a motel and discovers that the town he is in - Point Pleasant - is about 400 miles away from where he thought he was. There's no way he could possibly have driven there in the time that has passed since he left.
He finds out the next day that this isn't the only weird thing that's been happening in this area, and he decides to stay after finding out that some of the residents of Point Pleasant have reported seeing a strange, dark man-like creature with dark wings and burning red eyes, just like the pictures his wife drew before she died. This is (apparently) where the movie begins to diverge significantly from the book - probably for the sake of simplicity and focus, the movie decides to focus on the Mothman and its effects, ignoring the other weird phenomena that John Keel reports from that time, including UFO sightings and the ubiquitous Men In Black.
Gordon Smallwood soon claims to have actually met the entity which has been appearing to the people of Point Pleasant. It calls itself Indrid Cold, and speaks to John on the telephone, displaying telepathic and precognitive abilities, and telling him that he will see his wife again soon. John brings a tape of the conversation to a nameless friend or colleague who has some funky sound equipment, and the analysis shows that the voice is not human, its frequency range being far too high. Things continue to get weirder - John receives constant phone calls with nothing on the other end except a strange howling or shrieking static sound, Gordon begins to receive prophecies of disasters in different places around the world, and eventually John finds a message on one of his tapes saying that there will be a "great tragedy on the river Ohio". Point Pleasant is on the river Ohio. John puts two and two together (with the help of a writer called Alexander Leek (Alan Bates) who has encountered and written about these entities before) and decides that he has been brought to Point Pleasant for a reason - he is to warn people about the coming disaster.
John decides that the coming disaster will be at the chemical plant further down the river, because one of the many weird things that happened to him was that someone with his voice (exactly his voice, even after digital analysis) called the director of the plant to ask if there had ever been any accidents there. The clincher is when he is asked by the Washington Post to cover a senator's visit to the plant. John embarrasses himself by trying to persuade everyone (including the senator) that there will be an accident, and in the end nothing happens, and John is left confused and suspecting that maybe he is going insane. He receives another message that his wife will contact him at his home in Georgetown at noon the next day, and he drives back there. Just before she is due to call, Connie (who he'd told about the message) calls him and tries to persuade him not to answer the phone if it does ring at noon. She invites him to come to her house for Christmas dinner, and he decides to go, but not until after an emotional scene where the phone rings at noon, and he nearly answers it, but rips it out of the wall instead, only for it to continue ringing. He leaves the house.
When he arrives in Point Pleasant, everything that has happened before becomes clear in a gripping climax. He gets caught in a traffic jam on the Silver Bridge across the river Ohio, which collapses, killing 36 people (but not Connie, who he rescues heroically). End of story.
I recently ranted about Moulin Rouge for being all style and no substance, but The Mothman Prophecies is a perfect example of a movie whose style is there for a reason. The camerawork involves a lot of unusual angles, moving shots from a distance, and disorienting movement between scenes. The sound is amazing (and so is the soundtrack, which features a nice helping of eerie, edgy techno), combining human voices and digital noises (telephones, static, electrical wires) to give a sense of what the movie is about: the human world meeting something inhuman. There is no sense that we, the viewers, know more than anyone else in the movie - there is no detached perspective from which we can be comfortable that we know the 'reality' of events any more than the poor confused characters do. Most of it is shot at night, with the daylight scenes bringing a sense of comfort that disappears again quickly as soon as the sun goes down. Speaking of which, there is no sunlight in this movie at all. Everything is cloudy and dark and obscured and filtered, and all the characters are trying to perceive something they can't understand and can't see clearly. The style meshes perfectly with the subject matter. Baz Luhrman should stop listening to all the luvvies telling him he's a good director, and go watch this film to learn something about filmmaking.
And it's very spooky. Not in the sense of ghosts and gore and predictable make-you-jump manipulation - genuinely spooky, a feeling that pervades the whole movie and stays with you afterwards. It's the sense that something is happening that you don't fully understand, but which is very real. It's impossible to forget that these events, or something closely resembling them, actually happened. Whether or not you believe in the 'supernatural', it can't be disputed that these people actually did think they saw all these things. The Mothman has been seen and reported hundreds of times all over the world, and the movie shows you all the fear and doubt and surreal confusion that grips the people who see it, who are aware (as we are) that common wisdom says that they are crazy to see such things, but who also can't deny the reality of their own experience. I defy anyone not to jump or scream or flinch throughout the entire movie, and I defy anyone not to feel at leat a little creeped out afterwards, especially if it's at night, especially if you're on your own.
As for the rest - Richard Gere is really good - in fact, everyone is, except for Alan Bates who really hams it up as the disgruntled, scared UFO writer who talks to John about his experience with strange entities. For anyone who's seen Richard Gere in a few bad movies and has thought things like "I wish he'd move his face a little," here he's perfect, playing an ordinary guy who gets caught up in stuff he doesn't understand, trying to stay rational and balanced while everything seems to be going crazy, but gradually becoming more and more emotionally involved until he needs to be rescued from madness by simple human contact with someone who cares about him. He's probably never going to win an Oscar but he's very believable here, and he has such an unusual and attractive face that you can forgive him a lot. Laura Linney is pretty good too, though she doesn't have to do much except act normal while everyone else is going nuts.
Did I mention how good the soundtrack is? I think I did. No harm in mentioning it again. The soundtrack is really good.
The Mothman Prophecies depends heavily on drawing you into its world of doubt and altered perception. I went for it hook, line and sinker, but if you're a heavily skeptical person when it comes to the occult or 'supernatural' things, and if you think that you know what reality is and aren't open to believing, however briefly, that it might be different to what you think, then this movie probably won't work for you. On the other hand, if you're that kind of person you probably would never have watched it anyway, throwing it into the crank file in your head as soon as you read the words "true story" and "mysterious entities" together. But if you let yourself identify with John Klein's confusion, and experience what he experienced, namely the disintegration of your sense of what is real and unreal, or possible and impossible, then this movie will scare the shit out of you. In a good way.