Sunday, March 3, 2019

Off Script: The Mothman Prophecies

Film: The Mothman Prophecies
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on laptop.

I always, or at least often, appreciate it when a horror movie really attempts to do a lot with its atmosphere. The Mothman Prophecies is entirely about the atmosphere. The entire movie is really a long series of events that are all designed to get the audience to buy into a feeling that something going on in the world is just slightly off. There’s no gore here and no real jump scares. Instead, what we get is a slowly building sense of dread. It’s done pretty well, and I’m always happy when that works.

Washington Post reporter John Klein (Richard Gere) and his wife Mary (Debra Messing) make an offer to purchase a house. On the drive afterward, Mary sees a huge apparition and their car skids off the road. John is fine, but Mary ends up in the hospital. A few tests later and she’s been diagnosed with glioblastoma, and she succumbs to it soon after, leaving John alone.

We jump forward a couple of years and John is still mourning the loss of his wife. One night out driving, his car dies and he approaches a lone farmhouse. His reception there is unpleasant because the owner, Gordon Smallwood (Will Patton) claims that he has shown up at the house in the middle of the night for three nights running. Local police officer Connie Milles (Laura Linney) arrives to sort out the mess. John claims to have no knowledge of any of this. He also has no idea how he’s shown up in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, hundreds of miles away from D.C.

He begins investigating and discovers through Connie that there have been sightings of a strange creature in the area and that she has had a disturbing dream. Gordon also has a prophetic dream, being told that 99 will die only to learn that a plane crash has killed all 99 people aboard. Eventually, Gordon claims to be in contact with a being that calls itself Indrid Cold, an entity that seems to have a great deal of knowledge about John and everything going on around him. What follows is a series of increasingly strange, disturbing, an inexplicable events that seem to keep pulling John back to Point Pleasant and seem to have some connection with the vision his wife had on the road that night earlier.

In truth, The Mothman Prophecies is all about the atmosphere. It’s about creating a feeling that something is wrong and that something terrible is going to happen. For the most part, it works really well. Nothing is awful or would force the audience to turn away from the screen, but the mood continues to build throughout the movie’s running time. More and more, we feel as if we are being pushed forward into something unavoidable and terrible. It’s not quite fate or destiny, but it’s the closest cousin to it. The question becomes why these signs and portents are happening. Happily, like many movies that do this, no real answers are given, and this is done in a way that is not entirely unsatisfying.

My only real issue with The Mothman Prophecies is that it seems to go a very long way for very little payoff at the end. Don’t get me wrong—the final tragedy that occurs when we get to see it is pretty spectacular. It’s a great special effects moment and it goes on for a very long time. But in terms of earth-shaking importance, we’re left with something that isn’t really that monumental except in the lives of a few people.

Okay, I do have another issue with the movie. It claims to be based on real events. I have no idea, of course, if any of that is true, but I’d need a lot more than this movie to convince me that real people in Point Pleasant, WV, had a series of visions that preceded a terrible event. I don’t buy it, and I don’t buy into the idea of cryptids. As a piece of horror fantasy, it works entirely. As something that claims to be based on reality, I have my doubts.

That said, I think The Mothman Prophecies is ultimately successful. I’ve come to like Laura Linney more and more the more I see of her, and seeing Will Patton is always a treat. Richard Gere is a capable actor, and here he’s asked to be extremely sympathetic. I’m not sure that Gere is always that proficient at being truly sympathetic, but he works here.

That said, the real star of the film is Mark Pellington for directing it within an inch of its life. This film moves entirely on its atmosphere, and it works very well, giving us just enough information to keep things interesting and keep the plot moving forward without spoiling things completely.

Why to watch The Mothman Prophecies: Great atmosphere.
Why not to watch: It’s ultimately kind of a big “so what” at the end.


  1. Too much style over substance for my liking. I found this one leaning heavily on inconsequential spookiness to try and hide an inane story.

    1. There may be a fine line, and we're just ending up on opposite sides of it.