Sony // 2002 // 119 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Kevin Lee (Retired) // June 25th, 2002
What do you see?
Sadly this isn't a good superhero movie. Come to think of it, The Mothman Prophecies isn't a bad superhero movie, either.
If you're a student of cryptozoology (the study of unknown creatures, such as the Loch Ness Monster, bigfoot, or Carrot Top) then you may have heard of the Mothman, a mysterious flying creature that stands about eight feet tall and has hypnotic, glowing red eyes. The Mothman apparently shows up before an impending disaster of some sort, and when he appears people tend to die. Nobody seems to know if the Mothman is a savior or is the inexplicable force behind the disasters, but those who've seen him come away from the experience shaken (not stirred). In 1967, hundreds of Mothman sightings were reported around the small mill town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Point Pleasant rests on the Ohio River, and coincidentally was the site of a bizarre disaster that claimed 46 lives that very year. The Mothman Prophecies is loosely based on these events, and after a disappointing run at the box office, Columbia TriStar has rushed it to DVD.
John Klein (Richard Gere, Pretty Woman, Unfaithful) loses his wife as the result of a tragic car accident, but before she dies she sketches a number of disturbing images of a creature with red eyes she claims she saw right before the crash. Two years pass, and John is having a hard time getting on with his life. He's delved into his job as a star reporter for The Washington Post but hasn't stopped grieving for his wife. Knowing he needs to interview the governor of Virginia in regards to his presidential aspirations, John sets off for Richmond but somehow, inexplicably, his journey ends 400 miles and two hours later near a small town called Point Pleasant. When his car and cell phone both go dead, he ventures to a nearby house where he's attacked by a shotgun-wielding loony who claims John has been to his house the past two nights at the exact same time, which is certainly news to John.
Once he discovers there's nothing wrong with his car, John checks in with the local sheriff (Laura Linney, The House Of Mirth, Congo) who claims that lots of weird things have been happening. People are getting mysterious phone calls and others have sighted a tall being with glowing red eyes, a creature that matches the sketches drawn by John's dead wife. The sheriff, Connie Mills, is skeptical about these strange occurrences, but since she's smitten with John, she takes an interest in them.
Meanwhile, the shotgun-toting whacko, Gordon Smallwood (Will Patton, Armageddon), turns to John for help, because now he's had a one-on-one encounter with a mysterious being with red eyes who calls himself Indrid Cold. What becomes even creepier is that Indrid gave Gordon cryptic information that foretold of a plane crash near Denver that happened less than a day later.
After a prank call from Indrid, John gets a bit freaked out mainly because he bit on the whole "Your refrigerator is running" gag. This prompts John to hop in the Mothmobile™ and drive to Indiana to meet with an expert on mumbling and parapsychology, Alexander Leek (Alan Bates, Gosford Park). Leek warns John to leave Point Pleasant behind, because something horrible is going to happen and lots of people are going to die.
Naturally, John ignores Leek's advice and puts together Indrid's clues to guess that the chemical plant in Point Pleasant is going to explode during a visit by the Virginia governor on a campaign stop. When John decides to warn the governor he's dismissed as a half-mad, raving lunatic, causing John to retreat to the Mothcave™. Will he be able to prevent a terrible disaster for unfolding? Does a moth flapping its wings in Timbuktu have any effect on a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean? These answers next episode on the same Moth Channel at the same Moth Time.
Much like The Others, which had been released the previous summer, The Mothman Prophecies is really a study of mood in film. Filtered lights, lingering camera shots, and eerie music in a full soundfield are used extensively to try to create an unsettling feeling throughout Mothman, and to a slight degree it's successful but falls far short of the impending dread realized in The Others. In fact, these methods to create mood will eventually have the opposite effect on a bored audience. Brief flashes of various images fill the screen while sudden convulsions in the musical score are frequently used in lame attempts to cause unease in the audience. After awhile these attempts to frighten become rather silly and are, at best, amateurish. I bring this up because director Mark Pellington (Arlington Road) has very little directing experience (according to the IMDb) and there are various other points in The Mothman Prophecies where this lack of experience shows through.
Take for example the claim that this film is based on true events, yet they should have mentioned that the film is loosely based on true events. Of course, with such claims, fewer people would have seen it in theaters, but that's beside the point. In this case, we have a film based on events that occur in 1967, yet throughout the film we see cellular phones, digital clocks, computers, and modern cars. Absolutely no attempt was made to replicate the time period. Additionally, I need to point out far too many changes in the facts of the actual incident versus those depicted in the film. In The Mothman Prophecies, the disaster occurs on Christmas Eve as a cheap ploy to heighten the impact of the story, but this is a fabrication. The number of dead was altered for no reason that I can see. And a chiron at the end of the film states that the causes of the disaster have yet to be determined in order to further the overall spookiness of the film, yet this is not true. Now, I know that this is simply a movie and that there are frequently changes made to tell a better story, and blah, blah, blah. But these are pretty blatant alterations. James Cameron may have placed very fictional characters into the story of Titanic, but he paid meticulous attention to historically accurate fact and had his characters within that framework. The Mothman Prophecies simply fictionalizes a true event.
There also seemed to be numerous issues with the lighting throughout the film. Whether it was intentional or not, I'm not entirely sure the cinematographer or the director are entirely familiar with the usage of light filters needed for filming at different times of the day. There are a number of scenes where juxtaposed shots alter from blue tint to yellow tint and then back again to blue. If this was intentional, it was certainly not clever, though it was irritating. If it was unintentional, that brings us back to amateurish and rushed filming.
Amateurish directing also shows during the staging of the film's climax. The disaster is compounded by a huge traffic problem, and while a great number of cars are used, you can see that there are no vehicles on the roads beyond the affected area. A stoplight was out and a member of the constabulary was present, yet clear roads weren't being utilized. It's a curiosity that can also be chalked up to simple laziness.
Another major problem with Mothman is a complete lack of closure to the film. Since it's fictionalized anyway, why not turn it into a real thriller and give the audience some sort of a payoff? The Mothman is actually seen once, and Indrid Cole is seen in shadows at another point in the film, but there is no climax regarding the very phenomenon around which the film is based. This would be the equivalent of watching a Godzilla movie and getting only five minutes of rubbery monster mayhem. Likewise, there are subplots that seemingly go nowhere. There's an obligatory attraction between John and Connie, yet nothing is really developed along these lines. There are scenes where we see after a few days of driving around Point Pleasant together, they're suddenly hugging each other and there's simply no follow-up to this until towards Mothman's conclusion. There is absolutely no heat or chemistry between Gere and Linney at any point during this film, at all, so why even hint at a romance other than to follow a formula?
The final, and probably most significant, problem with The Mothman Prophecies is that it's simply a really boring film. Camera shots linger far too long on insignificant objects, and scenes that should unfold over the course of a few minutes take ten minutes with nothing significant happening. It was like Pellington was aiming to mimic the styles of M. Night Shyamalan, Alejandro Amenabar, and John Carpenter, but not at any point realizing what these directors do to create suspense and horror in their films. The tools are all there for Pellington to use, but he has no idea how to use them. The result is a film that could easily have trimmed 45 minutes of its run time and still had the same effect on the audience. For me the effect was somnambulism.
The acting in The Mothman Prophecies is, at best, mediocre. As I mentioned, there is absolutely no chemistry between Gere and Linney, and I can't really put my finger on the reason for this. It could be the substandard script, or it could be that Gere has all the charm of a dead spider. Sure, he can cry on cue, but so can most people not named Catherine Zeta-Jones. There was not a moment I was convinced that Gere could handle this role, and he felt deftly out of place in a horror film. Carrot Top may have been more out of place in a film like Mothman, but the story would have been much scarier. (Yes! That's two Carrot Top jokes in one review. I'm on a roll!) A special mention needs to be made of Alan Bates, who has the obligatory guy-who-explains-all-the-weird-stuff-in-the-movie role. At least, he tries to explain all the weird stuff in the movie, but he mumbles just about every one of his lines. This got so bad that at one point I was convinced that Pellington also allowed his actors to work with their mouths full of crackers.
The DVD transfer of The Mothman Prophecies is, considering that the film was in theaters less than six months previous to this review, simply pathetic. The image is continuously grainy, especially during nighttime scenes (which is most of the film) and there are numerous problems with pixelation. At one point, it's so bad that an entire wall seems to shimmer across the screen like a tsunami in a satellite video. Artifacting is also problematic, but at least Columbia TriStar has apparently stopped using edge enhancement in their transfers. Hey, you need to take the small victories when you can. The audio mix is also pretty bad. There are moments where the dialogue was simply drowned out by the film score (more on this in a moment). This certainly didn't help when the words were being presented as gibbering exposition at crucial moments in the story. Since The Mothman Prophecies was vastly unprofitable in the theater, I would have to assume that Columbia TriStar used this as an excuse not to place any special features on the DVD. Sure, there's a theatrical trailer (a good one, actually) and a lame music video, but that's it. As bad as this movie was, the subject matter is simply screaming for a documentary and might have made this DVD worthwhile. I can't really fault Columbia TriStar on this point, however; I understand their position fully.
The one and only truly strong point of The Mothman Prophecies is the outstanding musical score by tomandandy (the partnership of Tom Hajdu and Andy Milburn) and Jeff Rona. The work of these three gentlemen is as good as any score in a horror movie or thriller could possibly be. It's suitably eerie, frightening, and utilizes the entire 5.1 channel sound field to the fullest extent, even though it was sloppily mixed with the dialogue track. Unfortunately, the film simply flops as a horror movie or a thriller, but we definitely can't blame the score. It's excellent and might warrant a purchase of the soundtrack.
The subject of the film is admittedly a point of fascination for me. I love reading about all the creepy stuff that's theoretically roaming the world that scientists have yet to discover. As a piece of fiction, The Mothman Prophecies could be said to have Lovecraftian influences running throughout the story. As a tale based on real events, the supernatural aspects of the story become rather jarring. I should point out that the film's official web site (link provided below) is absolutely fascinating. If you have any interest in cryptozoology or parapsychology I'd recommend hitting the link. Before this film, I'd never heard of the Mothman, but after reading the web site, I'll be sleeping with a baseball bat next to my bed or placing a gigantic ten thousand watt bug zapper in my backyard.
The Mothman Prophecies may have had solid potential to make a significant contribution to the horror movie genre, but the ball gets dropped due to shoddy direction. This is a great way to spend two hours unless you have something more important to accomplish, like checking the expiration dates of food in your refrigerator and pantry.
Columbia TriStar is guilty of a sad, sad DVD presentation, and get a solid scolding for moving backwards with the medium. Mark Pellington is found guilty of being not-so-good in the director's chair. I simply can't think of a punishment good enough for this.
Review content copyright © 2002 Kevin Lee; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* "Half Light" Music Video
* Theatrical Trailer
* Official Site