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Moth balls

Mothman Prophecies is for the birds


I predicted that The Mothman Prophecies wouldn't amount to much, and it mostly lived down to low expectations. With "Mothman" in the title, I was half-hoping for something a little different -- say, Richard Gere going on a rampage after being bitten by a radioactive moth. He mercilessly devours all of Laura Linney's wool sweaters, but she turns on the porch light and he helplessly flaps around the bulb until she catches him in a net.

Alas, The Mothman Prophecies isn't that kind of monster movie. Inspired by actual incidents reported in Point Pleasant, W.Va., the film tries to cultivate a chilling atmosphere while keeping its supernatural events enigmatic but plausible, like an A-list version of 1970s' "true" monster stories. But except for a gripping resolution, Mothman seldom rises above the level of a mood piece and never equals "The X-Files" in its heyday.

Washington Post reporter John Klein (Gere) and his wife Mary (Debra Messing of "Will & Grace") have a mysterious car accident one snowy night. Hospitalized, Mary is discovered to have a cerebral tumor. (It should be noted that although Messing's character undergoes head trauma, brain surgery and chemotherapy, she always has great hair.) She eventually dies, but not before she claims to have seen something inexplicable before the crash and leaves drawings of winged figures in a notebook.

Two years later, still-grieving John gets lost while driving from D.C. and experiences a kind of time warp that brings him to Point Pleasant. He encounters a seemingly deranged local (Will Patton), who makes wild claims, and the town peace officer (Laura Linney), who confirms that things have been weird lately. Linney's a fine actress and adds a much-needed note of common sense, at times playing Scully to Gere's Mulder, but she's badly miscast here. You can't help thinking, "She must be a cop, because she's got a big cop hat."

John investigates sightings of a tall, winged figure and other strange goings-on, like eye injuries that don't heal and ominous predictions that come true. Alan Bates plays a squirrelly paranormal writer named Leek, who's probably a fictionalized version of John A. Keel, who did the research that inspired Mothman Prophecies. "Their motivations aren't human, heh," Leek says of the "mothmen," who supposedly have ancient, global renown.

To its credit, the film tries to live up to the tradition of films that imply their horrors, like the superbly scary The Last Wave. It doesn't try to titillate the audience with unnecessary gore or cheap monster effects, with the most eerie scene being Gere's phone conversation with a voice that can seemingly read his thoughts. But too often the film falls in the pitfall of being too vague, and when we get glimpses of the mysterious entity, it looks like a blurry guy in an overcoat instead of a red-eyed winged mutant.

As in his prior film Arlington Road, director Mark Pellington proves to be an eager student of paranoia films like The Parallax View. The cinematography uses a motif of unfocused light to conjure spooky images, like buzzing ceiling fluorescents and a cerebral X-ray that looks like wings. But such touches often seem like a substitute for an underwritten script rather than an enhancement of it. Mothman also goes to extremes in putting weirdness on the soundtrack: Witnesses comment on hearing unknown noises, but during the scenes in question we never know what they're actually hearing.

Richard Hatem wrote Mothman's screenplay, having also penned Steven Seagal's Under Siege 2 ("How do you like Richard's scripts?" "Hate 'em!"). The film turns John's paranormal pursuit into a means of clinging to the memory of his deceased wife, but Gere never generates much interest in John's personal problems. When the film seems to resolve John's emotional arc, don't gather up your coats and candy wrappers: The Mothman Prophecies ends with a disastrous occurrence far more impressive and spectacular than anything that had taken place up until then. In its last 10 minutes, Mothman genuinely jolts awake and would redeem the rest of the film had it not been so drawn-out and repetitious.

Finally, the prologue and main body of The Mothman Prophecies both take place in December, yet no character considers the most obvious theory. You've got a flying entity, active near Christmas, who knows when you are sleeping and knows when you're awake? Mothman sounds like Santa Claus to me.

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