As I am sure you are well aware, given the advertising blitz surrounding Mark Pellington’s The Mothman Prophecies, the film purports to be “based on true events.” These “events” are two: the structural collapse of the Silver Bridge connecting Point Pleasant, West Virginia and Gallipolis, Ohio in December of 1967, and the chain of reported sightings of the “mothman,” something looking like a six-foot-plus winged creature, for a year leading up to the disaster that claimed forty-odd lives. The stories of the mothman sightings were something of a national sensation in ’66 and ’67.
After the AP picked up the Point Pleasant Register‘s coverage, thrill seekers from across America showed up in the small town on the Ohio River, and sightings only increased over the next year. It was, one could argue, much more likely an experience of mass hysteria than any prolonged encounter with the supernatural. This influx of tourists also undoubtedly contributed to the disaster. Surely the 40-year-old suspension bridge was taxed by the added presence of rubberneckers and international media crews traversing its span for the year, and which culminated on a December night when, due to some broken traffic lights on the Ohio side, the bridge was jam packed with vehicles in a dead stop on the westbound side of the bridge.
Pellington’s film doesn’t tell this story of the mothman sightings, which is a good thing, for the more likely story as I have sketched it above would make for a far less exciting movie only about mob stupidity. Instead, writer Richard Hatem, who bases his script on the John A. Keel book of the same name, focuses on the supernatural aspects of the story. The film furthers the mothman mystique by connecting the Point Pleasant stories to a folkloric tradition of supernatural encounters with similar figures across time and around the world. The mothman, we are to understand, is just one more unknown.
Pellington and Hatem further update (and change) the original story by moving it into the present, which adds an urgency that retelling the events through survivors or through flashback would have been hard-pressed to achieve. The film also adds a more directly involved (and fictional) character in John Klein (played by Richard Gere, who clearly has made some pact with the devil, as he continues to get better-looking as he ages). In fact, John seems somehow fated to bear witness to the mothman himself.
This fate is instigated by the sudden death of his loving wife Mary (Debra Messing, who has all of twenty minutes of screen time). John and Mary are the perfect couple, until one snowy December evening when Mary suddenly and inexplicably loses control of their car, whacking her head on the driver’s side window in the process. When she wakes up in the hospital, she is dismayed that her husband didn’t see the startling visage of the mothman that caused her to veer off the road. During a routine post-head injury CAT scan, doctors discover a huge cancerous brain tumor that they are unable to remove entirely. Mary then spends what little time is left in her life obsessively drawing pictures of what she saw before the crash.
We jump two years into the future: after Mary’s death, John has become a haunted shell of the man he used to be, though he is a highly respected “star reporter” for the Washington Post. On yet another snowy December evening, he drives from DC to Richmond, to interview the governor the next day. But he ends up, a mere hour and a half later, some four hundred miles west of DC in the little town of Point Pleasant. Thus the real mystery begins. How and why has John ended up here? Somehow, this mothman creature is involved.
The fact that John is a reporter is important. He’s all about facts, after all, and so his inability to explain any of the events that befall him, try though he might, extends an aura of “truth” around his account of the mysteries. He decides to stay in Point Pleasant to solve the mystery of his own arrival there. With the help of police sergeant Connie Parker (Laura Linney), Klein investigates other strange goings-on around town, interviewing some of the many locals who have seen the shadowy mothman. He also has his own visitations that become increasingly threatening; most of these point toward a hinted-at disaster that will occur in Point Pleasant in the near future.
Eventually, as John begins to question his own journalistic rigor and even his sanity, a number of inconsistencies in the stories of the mothman crop up. Several characters allude to the nature of time and the mothman’s presumed ability to move back and forth in it. This, I guess, is how the creature can be privy to information concerning the disasters it warns against. But why does it care to involve itself in human affairs? At one point, the eminently down to earth Connie counsels John that even if the mothman is warning of future disasters, there is nothing we can do about it; things will happen, she tells him, and people we love will die. Against her human fatalism, the mothman’s prophecies are confusing. If it is a harbinger of doom for Point Pleasant, why does it reach out all the way to Washington, DC to bring John Klein into the mix? Why bring him all the way to Point Pleasant?
Whatever, let it go. There is much to enjoy in The Mothman Prophecies, provided you don’t look too closely at such details. There are a number of moments when the film could easily fall into standard horror or psycho thriller fare, but Pellington shows restraint and admirable resistance to generic clichés. The Mothman Prophecies never gives up the ghost, if that is one possibility for what the creature might be. We are never subjected to some creature feature mothman, nor does John or Connie come to any conclusion as to what the mothman is. Alien? Supernatural entity? Who knows? It makes the scary stuff even scarier not to have “the answer,” and makes for an affecting film that leaves you wondering long after the credits roll.