Tag Archives: Mark Pellington

‘The Mothman Prophecies’ Offers Cosmic, Cryptid Horrors

When I checked out David Prior’s The Empty Man last Spring, it conjured a nightmarish mood board in my brain. A seedy urban legend not unlike The Ring, and a bleak cult fable akin to The Wicker Man and Hereditary. While all three serve up one hell of a box set, they were missing something cosmic in the mix. And that connective tissue may just come in the form The Mothman Prophecies, Mark Pellington’s 2002 horror film.

If you’ve heard of this horror gem starring Richard Gere, you probably had insomnia like I did, and an internet phase of nightly cryptozoology rabbit holes. If this is your first time hearing of the Mothman, then bundle up. We’re going to Point Pleasant.

Based on John Keel’s book of the same name, The Mothman Prophecies is not so much a monster movie as it is a psychological thriller that happens to feature a creature. Gere stars as a reporter investigating sightings of a “moth-like” entity plaguing a small West Virginia town.

As cryptids go, Mothman is in the B-tier compared to Bigfoot, Loch Ness, and the Jersey Devil. It stands out from the bunch for its more alien nature and context. The Mothman’s form shape-shifts based on eyewitness accounts. Those who encounter it describe wings, red eyes, and bright-light phenomena like an extraterrestrial event — and it always brings warnings of looming disaster.

Synopses of The Mothman Prophecies and The Empty Man line up near perfectly. John Klein (Gere) and James Lasombra (James Badge Dale), respectively, are widows haunted by the memories of a dead wife. One is a reporter for The Post, the other an ex-cop. Both are detectives who dig into what appears to be a local superstition. The ensuing legends start urban, then become something greater and cosmic.

What both films are ultimately about is where the paths diverge. The Empty Man is a cult-conspiracy with a Lovecraftian revelation at its center, while The Mothman Prophecies is a portrait of spiraling grief.

Though Gere was no stranger to thrillers, it is still something of a shock that he starred in this supernatural mystery. This is the same year as Unfaithful and Chicago, films that proved his resilience as a box office star. Here, he plays a man inconsolable after the death of his wife, Mary (Debra Messing). The film does something unique with Gere by using the deep black holes of his eyes. Klein is lost and doesn’t know what to do besides bury himself in his work. He’s empty, man.

In his grief and workaholism, he winds up in Point Pleasant, 400 miles from where he’s supposed to be for a work assignment. He knocks on Will Patton‘s door for help, who tells him he’s been harassing him for three nights in a row. Things only get stranger and more X-Files from there. Before Klein’s wife died, she glimpsed a flying creature which caused her to swerve off the road. Klein now finds himself in a town that experiences similar phenomena almost nightly. Did he arrive in Point Pleasant by accident? Or was he brought here for a reason?

“What do you look like?” “It depends on who’s looking.” The Mothman’s elusive nature may be a cattle prod for some, but I assure you that’s a feature, not a bug. Creepy drawings do most of the legwork — the biggest budget save a horror movie could ask for.

So we never actually see the Mothman aside from sinister silhouettes and glowing red eyes — a recurring visual motif. Traffic signals, storefront lights, to red dots on a phone base; it creates an over-the-shoulder paranoia where the Mothman is always watching from afar. Director Mark Pellington never resists twin visuals that echo wingspans: brain scans, smeared raindrops, or reflections where something’s just off in the mirror.

The free-floating camerawork is especially fiendish. Aerial shots keep the supernatural threat ever-present, and Pellington moves the camera ground-level like fate rushing upon the lives of ordinary people. Though the flashy transitions and saturated images date this back to the heyday of MTV music videos, the movie is diabolically clever with its low-budget scares. The most hair-raising moments are with Klein alone in a motel, talking to a disembodied voice on the phone. His dimly-lit isolation makes it look like he’s trapped in a David Lynch movie, receiving transmissions from an otherworldly dimension.

The story at heart is pinned to earth, one of bereavement and coping with the void of losing a spouse. The film hints at fugue states where Klein can’t account for time passed, though it may just as well be part of the town’s increasingly unexplainable phenomena, or both. He maps his sorrow onto the investigation, probing unanswered questions surrounding Mary’s death. His sanity is further compounded by her ghost taking shape in Point Pleasant.

Laura Linney as police officer Connie Mills is the Scully to Gere’s Spooky Mulder. Mills holds onto her emotional foundation in the face of greater unknowns, whereas Klein is in freefall heeding each premonition. They are typically rational people caught in the chaos of daily tragic headlines.

Such is a nihilism that H.P. Lovecraft could appreciate. Despite the Mothman dropping cryptic doomsday bars on these characters, there’s nothing anybody can do to prevent each disaster. Much as Klein tries, his effort is insignificant. “No one can stop it, John,” Mills explains to him. “People you know and love are going to die.” It’s meant to be reassurance, but in the grander scheme of the universe, it lays bare the point.

As death tolls soar, Klein’s only role in the design is to bear witness. The opening car crash isn’t what kills his wife. She sustains a head injury, and an MRI reveals a tumor that will eventually kill her. There was nothing to be done except slowly watch her die. The same is true in the film’s climactic bridge collapse where Klein is merely there to witness the tragedy, Final Destination-style.

Perhaps the larger metaphysical mystery is the search for a scapegoat whether real or paranormal. Why tragic things happen is beyond our understanding. That there’s a demonic harbinger pulling the strings (i.e. “The Mothman did it!”) is easier to grasp than the randomness of an existence that can kill you for no reason at all. We, then, are utterly hopeless in the equation. It’s this bleakness that conjoins the Mothman with The Empty Man. A fellow detective pores over grisly crime scenes with Lasombra, random acts that bear no logical motive, and laments, “We can’t indict the cosmos.” A stark tagline that suits both movies.

Anything stamped with “based on a true story” should be taken with a grain of salt. The Mothman Prophecies is better remembered as an X-Files event episode and best enjoyed as one of the few cryptid features that does right by its legend. Don’t believe me? Believe the annual festival in Point Pleasant held in Mothman’s name. Had this been a bigger hit, could we have gotten a whole Cryptid Universe? Commercial successes often ignite a trend. This was the same year as The Ring remake, coming off a string of old school horrors like House on Haunted Hill and Thirteen Ghosts being given a modern facelift.

The Mothman Prophecies was the rare cosmic horror movie in a burgeoning sea of remakes. 20 years later, it makes for an excellent existential double feature with The Empty Man, which also came and went upon release. Like Gere and Linney finding each other in the back of an ambulance at the film’s end, perhaps there’s a happy ending for every being. Somewhere, in a Lovecraftian corner of the universe, I’d like to think the Mothman and the Empty Man are out there just chillin’.