A tepid horror film that looks for all the world like a badly padded episode of The X Files, The Mothman Prophecies can be given some credit for creating an eerie atmosphere, achieving a nice — if somewhat too clever — look, and containing an entertaining supporting turn by Alan Bates. For that matter, the lead performances are good — and Laura Linney is more than good — but the film simply can’t generate much suspense or tension. The question is why, and the answer isn’t too hard to find. For starters, the film is too set on being “reality-based.” Setting the question of what constitutes reality to one side, this lands the movie squarely within the realm of strained seriousness. The Mothman Prophecies wants us to believe that what we’re seeing — a fictionalized account of a series of possibly paranormal occurrences in Point Pleasant, W.V. that lead to a true real-life tragedy — is gospel truth. Therefore, 90 percent of all the fun of a horror film has been carefully excised. The logic behind this is vague, since the film is structured to show us our one and only glimpse of the “Mothman” (a supernatural harbinger of death and disaster) early on in the picture. What follows this opening is proof that restraint can be carried too far. A full-fledged manifestation of the Mothman would have been a bad idea, but a few more fleeting glimpses would have helped keep the concept a little more to the center of the movie. Instead we get an almost comical barrage of scenes that either open or close, or both, on images that suggest the shape of the Mothman. But then the movie doesn’t seem to quite know what its concept is. The investigation of the strange events in Point Pleasant get derailed part way through when the focus of the film shifts from this to an examination of how reporter John Klein (Gere) deals with the death of his wife (Debra Messing). As a result, the movie flounders about in search of a point, while asking us to accept supernatural manifestations that spend a lot of time making the metaphysical equivalent of prank phone calls. Since these messages are just as likely to spout up out of a sink drain, it’s not very clear why Ma Bell is their chosen long-distance carrier. Then again, they occasionally send notes, too. (I’d love to see just how the Mothman gives the hotel clerk a letter to deliver to Klein, but the film omits that detail.) All of this is designed to lead us to a pretty spectacular set-piece climax (the undeniably real real-life tragedy). It’s spectacular enough, but director Pellington lacks a clear sense of the locations of his main characters during it to such a degree that it’s impossible to tell just how much peril they’re in until the sequence is almost over, thereby blunting a lot of potential suspense. On the plus side, Pellington creates a very good-looking film, though one that ends up being as confusing in terms of the passage of time as the location of his characters in the climax. The film takes place over two Christmas seasons, separated by two years; consequently, it seems to be set in a land of perennial Christmas. That does help the film achieve a distinctive and very attractive look, but it feels all wrong. In the end, The Mothman Prophecies is less a disaster than a missed opportunity. The atmosphere’s there, but what happens just isn’t very thrilling.
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