In this tricked-up ghost story, the truth is way out there

Jan 23, 2002 at 4:00 am
Just a few decades ago, the American landscape, particularly the rural American landscape, was a site for huge looming things inducing strange visions in the locals, accompanied by horrifying screeching noises. It was a different world then, and, for lack of a better name, we called these things "drive-ins." Well, the drive-in theater may be dead, but drive-in fare still gets made. Look no further than this week's offering, The Mothman Prophecies.

Just in time to take our tired minds off the twin terrors of Osama and Enron comes this enjoyable, if utterly stupid, upscale entry in the old Amityville Horror genre -- that is, a horror film allegedly based on spooky and inexplicable real-life events. The fashionable sheen is provided mostly by the presence of Richard Gere as the lead character, Washington Post reporter John Klein, who is presumably a stand-in for John A. Keel, the author of the book on which the film is based.

Some sources refer to Keel's book as a work of nonfiction, which would appear to be the same as labeling The X-Files a news program. In brief, the "facts" around the Mothman phenomenon are these: For about a year-and-a-half, from the summer of 1966 to late 1967, various residents around Point Pleasant, W.Va., claimed to have seen a humanoid creature, about 7 feet tall, with red eyes and large wings. He would often contact people while they were in their cars or looking through the windows of their homes; it was claimed his presence could disturb nearby TV reception. An editor at the Associated Press came up with the name Mothman, the catchiness of which assured further publicity for the alleged creature.

Although Mothman's voice was described as a high-pitched squeal, he also supposedly issued warnings about upcoming catastrophes, not all of which panned out. In December 1967, the area was struck by a real catastrophe -- relating the details would spoil the film's ending -- and Mothman either disappeared or greatly curtailed his public appearances afterward. It might be churlish to point out the synchronicity of these events with the rapidly spreading availability of marijuana and various lysergic-acid formulations in the outback during that period -- in other words, to suggest that maybe Mothman wasn't the only one with red eyes.

Director Mark Pellington and screenwriter Richard Hatem have taken great liberties with Keel's book, leaving out the homosexuality and the divorce and the illegitimate child and ... no, wait. That was A Beautiful Mind. Nonetheless, they essentially use Keel's book as little more than a jumping-off point for a feature-length X-Files or Twilight Zone episode. In their version, Klein's involvement starts two years before Mothman first shows up in Point Pleasant, when Mothman has some never exactly defined involvement with the death of Klein's wife (Debra Messing). Understandably, Klein has trouble getting over his loss.

Then, one night, while he's driving to an interview with a presidential hopeful, his car breaks down near Point Pleasant, and strange things begin to happen to him. With the help of comely town cop Connie Parker (Laura Linney), he interviews locals who have suffered through similar weird encounters. He jets off to Chicago to interview Alexander Leek (Alan Bates, seemingly slumming for the bucks), a professor whose career was ruined by his own experiences with Mothman (or some facsimile).

Things escalate, and it increasingly seems there is some big pattern, some purpose, linking the death of Klein's wife and Mothman's warnings and Connie's dreams. At a certain point, you begin to wonder when the hell Scully and Mulder are going to show up.

With the Klein back story, Pellington seems to be going for some deeper psychological resonance here -- something about not letting the ghosts of our past destroy our future, a lovely sentiment doubtless shared by all right-thinking individuals. But by the end, the mechanics of the plot, the sheer accumulation of petty detail and the insertion of elements from at least a half-dozen Twilight Zone classics, defeat any such ambitions.

Pellington's first film was the interesting coming-of-age saga Going All the Way, which was followed by Arlington Road, a film that nullified its best elements with a truly idiotic ending. The Mothman Prophecies has similar problems and virtues: It may be stupid, but it's also effective in many ways. Pellington appears to have studied Twin Peaks, a fine place to start for this sort of material, and his visual style -- lots of trick cutting, off-balance compositions and ominous out-of-body point-of-view shots -- is genuinely creepy. Likewise, Gere is a wise casting choice: He manages to convey utmost sincerity -- not a trace of campiness or irony here -- without making himself look like an idiot, though one particularly over-the-top line may evoke giggles from the audience.

It's hard to know whether Pellington actually thinks this is nutritious food for thought, as the film sometimes seems to suggest, or whether he recognizes it as the fairly tasty, but empty, snack that it is. In either case, viewing should be done with a drive-in state of mind -- or with red eyes.