From the opening moments of The Mothman Prophecies, the film’s world feels not quite normal—which is exactly the way it should feel. Street lamps flare ominously, turning the surroundings into creepy over-lit nightmare-scapes. The crackling hiss on the other end of a telephone receiver becomes a portent of doom, and mundane objects like power lines take on unsettling significance.
Mark Pellington directs The Mothman Prophecies with such an elegant mastery of dread that scarcely a minute goes by that isn’t at least a little unnerving. He manages this feat with a story in which, for most of its running time, nothing of any real consequence happens—certainly not in the booga-booga sense we’ve come to expect from Hollywood thrillers. And he manages this feat with Richard Gere as his leading man. Ladies and gentleman, remember the name Mark Pellington—he’s going to be giving you the shivers for a long time to come.
Based on actual events, The Mothman Prophecies casts Gere as John Klein, a Washington Post reporter and TV pundit whose personal bliss with his wife Mary (Debra Messing) matches his professional success. But his life is changed one night by an apparition that leads to a tragedy. He re-discovers that apparition two years later when an unexplainable detour lands him in the West Virginia town of Point Pleasant, where the residents are seeing and hearing strange things. In pictures and descriptions, the image of a giant “mothman” becomes a constant. Is Point Pleasant experiencing mass hysteria? Or is some strange intelligence trying to warn people of impending disaster?
It’s a very X-Files premise, with plenty of strange phenomena being batted around by believer Klein and the skeptical Point Pleasant sheriff (Laura Linney). There’s also plenty of pure cinema cheese tucked away in Mark Hatem’s script, most notably the paranormal expert played by Alan Bates. Bates’ expository character is the sort of B-movie horror staple—a variation on the gypsy who explains everything about werewolves—that occasionally makes The Mothman Prophecies feel like one of those genre pieces that deserves to be dumped in late January. Gere, meanwhile, continues his career as poster boy for thespian sleepwalking, lending his range of intense-but-puzzled facial expressions to a role that at least had a shot at being emotionally rich. Not exactly the raw material of a creepy keeper, to be sure.
But, oh Lordy, the things Mark Pellington can do with a scene. Like many of the new wave of film directors, Pellington cut his teeth in music videos (Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy,” U2’s Achtung Baby). Unlike many of those contemporaries, however—and most like fellow video alum David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club)—Pellington understands how to shape his sense for imagery and atmosphere into films that insinuate themselves into your subconscious. The Mothman Prophecies is a spook show in which the shudders come from watching understood reality turned upside-down, from seeing people unable to trust that the voice they hear or the face they see belongs to the person they thought it belonged to.
Pellington captures this unease with a brilliant combination of sound design, cinematography and editing trickery. In one of the film’s subtlest but most effective moments, he shoots Gere next to a full-length mirror, the reflection’s movements coming just a half-second behind those of the real person. In half-glimpsed images and half-understood words, Pellington crafts one of those film worlds that will have you peeking over your shoulder on your way home.
The Mothman Prophecies will probably be dismissed and overlooked just like Pellington’s last film, the snappy conspiracy thriller Arlington Road. As a supernatural thriller, it will more likely be picked apart for its obvious flaws—Gere’s monotone acting, the thinly developed characters—than praised for its achievements as a tone piece. Audiences in the 21st century are so used to thrillers that grab them by the shoulders and shake them that they can hardly remember a time when ghost stories like the original The Haunting took a more understated approach. Mark Pellington is that rare filmmaker who seems to understand that the best way to scare you is to drag one cold finger across the back of your neck.