The Mothman Prophecies is based on a book that's classified as non-fiction. I'm not going to put it any more strongly than that. I haven't read it, but I will note that it received a favourable write-up in Fortean Times 156. It concerns the author's experiences with and investigations into UFOs, Men in Black, Mothman, ghosts and the collapse of the Silver Bridge across the Ohio River near Point Pleasant, West Virginia in 1967.
"What does all that mean?" I hear you cry. For those who haven't heard of Mothman, he's a creature akin to Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, spectral hounds and other such phenomena. All of those could be said to have a certain level of reality, by the way. We can talk all day about what it was that people saw, but reported sightings exist in considerable numbers. They're on file. If large numbers of people believe they've seen Bigfoot, put statements on record to that effect and thus add more weight to a popular myth that's inspired books, films and Doctor Who TV stories, then clearly the phenomemon is an everyday fact of our culture irrespective of the existence or otherwise of actual hairy mountain men. Sometimes we even take these sightings at face value. Alien big cats such as panthers have been not just witnessed but hunted down and recaptured in Britain.
These things fall into various categories. Hairy men, lake monsters and so on. The least well-known category is the flying creatures such as Mothman or Owlman, which is where we come in. Well, sort of. You'll need to watch this film on freeze-frame to catch most of Mothman's appearances, but there's plenty more forteana to keep you busy.
Basically, it's the X-Files. Some of those early episodes could get pretty damn creepy and that's this film. Weird stuff happens in the middle of nowhere, shot with cinematography so chilly that it'll give you hypothermia. Yikes. Remind me never to visit West Virginia in the winter.
Of course it doesn't star Mulder and Scully, but Richard Gere and Laura Linney are a pretty good match. Gere has the same number of facial expressions as David Duchovny and a similar kind of pinched good looks. He's quite effective here, but I remain unconvinced that he's doing much acting. However they're being asked to play rather different characters. Mulder and Scully were funny. They could be charming and entertaining together, whereas this is a much bleaker, more serious-minded piece. You don't have the security blanket that comes with our heroes being top FBI agents in a weekly TV show. No one's safe. Gere loses his wife about ten minutes into the movie and is pretty much throwing away his job as he gets ever deeper into his investigations, while Linney is a small-town local cop who's freaked out by all this and would love to be able not to believe in it.
This isn't a film that you remember for its performances. Everything's low-key and grounded. Will Patton does solid work as Gordon Smallwood, a dumb scared working-class hick with a gun. However the one you're most likely to remember is Alan Bates as Alexander Leek, paranormal expert and bearer of foreboding warnings. "We're not allowed to know."
Obviously the world of this film is meant to stretch your definitions of reality, but so is its style. Time is compressed. Gere meets his future wife ("Mary with a Y"), then is buying a house with her before you've even realised what you're watching. They can't keep their hands off each other. Then they see something on the road and their lives turn upside-down. Not long afterwards, two years have passed.
The film also plays visual tricks, for instance with the camera taking flight or soaring overhead. Arty editing takes us from a close-up of an eye to a telephone receiver. That kind of thing. Sometimes they put on a cheap-looking and slightly annoying Photoshop filter. Occasionally you even see Mothman, but almost subliminally. The film spends more time playing games with a moth wing design that's slightly reminiscent of the Batman logo. It's all in the cause of loosening our grip on the real world.
I've been saying slightly frivolous things about this movie, but in fact it's serious almost to a fault and seemingly agreed by almost everyone who's seen it to be one of the creepier films to have hit the cinemas in recent years. I wouldn't call it scary. Creepy. That's the word. However the corollary of that is that I wouldn't really call it fun. It might not have hurt to have trimmed twenty minutes from its running time. Nevertheless it does seem to be trying to say something about people and their desire to believe in fate, see patterns in the future and even decide that we can subvert fate. Furthermore it is true that well over 100 people in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, claimed to have seen some kind of Mothman between 15 November 1965 and 15 December 1966, when the Silver Bridge collapsed. There are even reports that didn't make it into this movie, such as the men in black and, yes, lots of UFOs.
There's a woman in the shower at the beginning, although she's only visible through shower glass. That was a good bit. Thinking about it now, I think I like this film more than I did at the time. It's telling a kind of story one doesn't often see and is taking it as seriously as anyone could wish. I'm sure most Forteans would like it. It's well-made and doesn't make any mistakes. It's also genuinely trying to convince you, unlike the X-Files, which wasn't pretending very hard to be anything other than fantasy. I don't expect to be rewatching it any time soon, but I respect it.