It’s a chilly October night and even chillier in the auditorium. I’m feet from the screen and the seats behind me are crowded and chattery. There is a palpable energy in this crowd. Most are conversing happily and the college students closest to me are talking about being excited to watch a movie they haven’t seen but know only by its legendary reputation: The Mothman Prophecies (2002).
The movie is an adaptation of journalist and Americana mythologist John Keel’s 1975 book that goes by the same title. Although The Mothman Prophecies is based on actual eyewitness accounts from West Virginian Appalachia, the book’s fiction elements earn it a classification as a novel. Between 1966 and 1967, several testimonies of sightings of a cryptid – a winged humanoid creature with red eyes – coincided with the collapse of the Silver Bridge, connecting Point Pleasant, WV, and Gallipolis, OH, over the Ohio River.
The movie starts and the whispering continues well into the opening credits. Once the spectators start to feel the eerie tone of the score, however, they fall to silence. There’s a short and creepy stream-of-consciousness montage, and then cue Richard Gere as Washington Post reporter John Klein, sitting at a desk and getting ready to leave work for a Christmas home-buying outing with his wife. Dark turns are not far away and the eerie tone continues.
And then in the tension something breaks. At moments that are supposed to be heartbreaking or at least serious, the college students are beginning to laugh – first nervously, but soon without shame. Perhaps it is because the movie chooses to include lines like, “You’re lucky that I’m a Christian because I had the right to shoot ya,” or the fact that it names its otherworldly apparition “Indrid Cold,” a name somewhat difficult to take seriously when said out loud. The most likely factor in the disengagement of the younger members of the audience, however, is a lack of connection with the protagonist.
Gere is the kind of classic movie star that begs the audience to accept his heroic traits without question. We are supposed to instantly understand that John Klein is respected by his colleagues, head-over-heels in love with his wife, and a passionate seeker of the truth. The film never allows for his actions or attitude to be critiqued because who could distrust Richard Gere? The problem is that the main plot involves John showing up in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, at a time that happens to coincide with tragedy and the sighting of a mysterious “Mothman.” The locals should at least consider him as a possible suspect.
The person in the best position to question John – town sheriff Connie Mills (Laura Linney) – is at first fittingly skeptical of his interaction with Point Pleasant local Gordon Smallwood (Will Patton). The initial skepticism is soon rather abruptly replaced with trust and friendship and even an implied romantic interest, as this character – who is in a position to represent independent and successful women – takes a back seat to Gere’s machismo and by the end is reduced to the role of damsel in distress. A socially-conscious audience thus faced with an inability to share the protagonists’ emotional journey is bound to disengage and chuckle at the movie’s outlandish elements.
Leaving aside the characterization, there is a lot to like in The Mothman Prophecies. Director Mark Pellington (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) effectively keeps the Mothman as a presence in the mind of the viewer while only ever revealing visual glimpses and allusions. He accomplishes this through drawings, flashes of memory, and everyday objects placed to provoke the eerie characteristics of wings and red eyes that the creature is supposed to possess.
Cinematographer Fred Murphy offers his contribution to the mystique by providing sweeping overhead images of Point Pleasant meant to imply a watcher-in-flight over the town. In this way, the camera becomes the Mothman and the POV of the movie is shared between John Klein and the mysterious creature. All credit to the filmmakers for the ability of the movie to retain its creepy tone throughout.
The Mothman Prophecies is a fitting film to select for The Athena Cinema’s “From the Hills and Hollers” series because of the Mothman legend’s importance to Appalachian culture specifically in West Virginia and south-eastern Ohio. As discussed in the pre-screening presentation by Dr. Tiffany Arnold, the actual historical eyewitness accounts of Mothman sightings from the 1960s offer locals a certain “pride of place” – a mythical manifestation of the mysterious beauty of the mountainous landscape. A Point Pleasant statue, annual festival, and a museum are all evidence of a culture embracing its legendary and fantastical elements. The Mothman – a fallen angel offering warning of impending tragedy – is welcome in the hills and hollers.
This welcome and embracing of an otherworldly (by the appearance of the creature, lower-worldly) and potentially malicious specter is the most fascinating piece of the Mothman legend. Local Point Pleasters and others in Appalachia do not consider this being a threat and do not blame it for tragedy. Rather, they are grateful for it. They believe it was there to warn of danger – to prophecy. Sociologists have postulated their theories of why so many believe in its existence, but far more compelling theories follow why locals think it is a friend. It is this sense of a benevolent spirit watching over Point Pleasant seen through the lens of haunting mystery that the movie so effectively captures.
The Buffed Film Buffs look forward to the next film in the “From the Hills and Hollers” series, We Are Marshall (2006), screening on November 10.