The Mothman Prophecies
Movies tackling renowned supernatural or folkloric themes are prone to satisfy no one. Most certainly not the devotees, for whom the key features are inevitably dumbed down or simplified. And more than likely, not a general audience either, since despite all available concessions, attempts to convert such material into an accessible narrative still fall short. I remember seeing The Mothman Prophecies at the cinema and being unmoved by Mark Pellington’s snoozefest, the occasional atmospheric moment or two aside. Revisiting the film, I wonder if I might have given it too much credit.
Pellington came on board after Carl Franklin had fallen out. As Bob Rickard reported it, Pellington was interested in the problems of objectivity that confront the investigator – John Keel, of course, in the 1975 book, here reconfigured as Alan Bates’ Alexander Leek – “when he loses detachment and becomes personally involved in the unfolding drama”. Which could make for a good movie; on numerous occasions, rewatching the picture, I imagined a David Lynch take on the material. But the effect on Pellington’s picture – who had earlier delivered the smart little paranoia thriller Arlington Road, all about the subjective lens – is to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Pellington, from a screenplay credited to Richard Hatem, fashions a narrative focusing on Washington Postjournalist John Klein (a typically somnambulant Richard Gere), sucked into the strange goings-on in Point Pleasant, West Virginia following the death of his wife. According to Rickard, Pellington “told me that previous scripts of Keel’s book were too literal. He was more interested in the psychological predicament of the witnesses than in making a film about UFOs or an alien creature and so rational or materialistic explanations are glossed over. In the film, Klein is tormented by the death of his wife from a brain tumour. Before she died, she had visions of a sinister shape with glowing red eyes, but even the pragmatic reporter cannot accept that all the witnesses are afflicted with similar tumours”.
Consequently, the movie gives us a predominately passive protagonist who roams around Point Pleasant aimlessly, occasionally offered moral support from Laura Linney’s police officer and lent a conviction that something very strange is definitely going on by a reliably unhinged Will Patton. Plus: strange voices on the telephone, foretold events and slips of time. None of it remotely coheres in a gripping or even mildly arresting manner. Pellington’s unable to locate any glue to bind his story, because he’s already decided that the story’s most salient feature – the literal, or treating it as literal – isn’t interesting.
I suspect The Mothman Prophecies needed to be treated as a historical document to lend it substance and a through line. It could still have exhibited the most important element to Pellington, that of psychological impact, but without the extraneous Hollywood baggage of Gere grieving over a lost Debra Messing, and the redundant crutch of Linney’s understanding shoulder.
As told, all the elements Pellington chooses to include from Keel’s account – the Mothman visions, predictions that come true, ones that don’t, the bridge collapse, the marvellously named Indrid Cold – lack any impact because, in isolation, without the “fact” of them, they’re meaningless. Or worse still, translate as rather minor and pedestrian. There were common criticisms at the time of its release that The Mothman Prophecies wasn’t so far from an X-Files, and that’s very much what we have: a feature-length episode that has loses its bearings on the essential, uncanny lure of Keel’s book, so leading to a generic and forgettable – and dull – piece of work.
The late Robert Anton Wilson covered The Mothman Prophecies (the book) in Cosmic Trigger Vol.1 – The Final Secret of the Illuminati. He commented on a series of significant elements – crucial ones, one might argue, if one is to do the story justice – that Pellington ignored. Elements such as: cattle mutilations, UFO sightings (more than a hundred) and abductions, poltergeist activity in farms, and appearances by the ubiquitous Men in Black. All that besides the seventy or so appearances by Mothman himself.
Pellington offers no sense of the “contagious hysteria” around Point Pleasant during 1968, and because the film is set in the present, he inevitably omits the fascinating predictions that are a key note of the case. As described by Wilson, these include Robert Kennedy being in danger in a hotel kitchen, the Pope being stabbed while visiting the Middle East, and a nationwide power failure on December 24 at noon. We know the veracity of the first one. The Pope wasn’t stabbed in the Middle East, but he was stabbed in Manila a year later. And while the power outage failed to materialise, a bridge collapsed in West Virginia on that same date, killing more than a hundred people.
Keel’s response to the bridge tragedy was “They knew this was going to happen… They just didn’t want me to warn anyone”. He fashioned the non-exclusive term ultraterrestrials for these “malicious and vicious” entities “existing on the borderland between matter and energy, or reality and dream, and regards them as mischievous, deceptive, often dangerous, and likely to produce mental illness in those who insistently try to communicate with them” (as Wilson with Miriam Joan Hill noted in Everything is Under Control). Wilson comments that Keel’s description isn’t so far from the traditional notion of “demons”, while throwing a scrap to the multiverse theory that these entities might have been telling the complete truth, but for a different universe to the one Keel experienced. Keel, meanwhile, very cogently expressed the idea that these ultraterrestrials – he might as aptly have called them Archons – thrive on belief, and the more people who believe in UFOs, the more they “can manipulate people through false illumination”; “This was the feedback, or reflective effect”.
This is, of course, fascinating territory, and not a million miles from Pellington’s stumbling thesis. Wilson further recognises Keel’s point that “major UFO flaps have this penumbra of magick and surrealism about them, usually ignored by both sceptics and ardent believers in the ETH (extraterrestrial theory)”. Whether a coherent movie could be made from such subject matter is debatable, though, as you’re inevitably taking a deep dive into very dense concepts, ones resistant to anything less than an involved seminar or essay. I suggested Lynch, but perhaps prime Olive Stone, in JFK mode, could have pulled it off.
Pellington’s approach offers the title (which likely enabled it to gross as much as it did, but nothing more) but shies away from the meat. Indrid Cold is there, but he isn’t from Lanulos. The investigator becoming the focus for the strange is there, but thanks to Gere’s undiscerning presence, the character entirely lacks edge and drive. The bridge disaster features, and is technically impressive, but it simply serves as a means for heroic Gere to save Linney.
It’s no coincidence that the best parts of The Mothman Prophecies are those featuring Bates and Patton; the proceedings pick up briefly, but unfortunately, not for long enough to build a head of steam. I don’t doubt the project finally got the greenlight off the back of The X-Files’ success, but it arrived at a point when that wave was pretty much done, and could offer nothing to distinguish itself.