Re-Claiming the Horror Movie

The Mothman Prophecies

For the past two years, I’ve puzzled over the critical and commercial failure of The Mothman Prophecies. The $42-million movie, directed by Mark Pellington and written by Richard Hatem, came out in January 2002, got mixed reviews, and grossed an anemic $35 million.

Yet it remains one of my favorite movies of last year, still tremendously creepy, unnerving, and satisfying. (On the debit side, it tries a little too hard, over-directed and too aggressive in the soundtrack.)

The movie is vague and enigmatic — the audience never comes close to understanding the ominous forces at work — but that’s the key to its power. The Mothman Prophecies explores the supernatural as a form of communal anxiety rather than a specific, identifiable presence such as a ghost or monster. It’s scary and horrific because it’s so elusive.

I realize now that this quality probably kept the movie from finding its audience.

Richard Gere is Washington Post reporter John Klein, who while driving in Virginia one night is all of a sudden in rural West Virginia. When he knocks on the door of a house near where his car died, the owner pulls a shotgun on him and tells him that this is the third night in a row that he’s come to the house at that exact same time. The chill here stems from disorientation, and from this point on, the audience is as befuddled as Klein as unexplained and unexplainable things happen. One townie starts having premonitions about disasters. Klein gets phone calls from some omniscient being, and then dead people.

The townspeople fear that the strange events — particularly sightings of some giant moth-like creature — are signs of bad juju, and they are, of course, right, as the film turns the screws toward a terrible (and beautifully staged) climax.

The techniques and mood are similar to those in The Ring, but with a crucial difference: While the mechanics of the horror in The Ring could never be understood, the source of the horror is explained (and explained and explained). Mothman offers no such satisfaction.

Certainly, the movie’s commercial failure has something to do with the audience’s desire to feel that it’s at least possible to triumph over the forces working against the characters. The likes of Dracula and Freddy and Jason, while powerful, can be defeated — at least until the next sequel. Movie ghosts generally can be put to rest if the source of their torment is identified/avenged/corrected.

But in The Mothman Prophecies, the supernatural force is ephemeral and diffuse, and it’s not even clear that it’s at all malevolent. (Sure, it’ll chill your blood, but it does seem to be providing warnings.) The characters in the movie face a force far greater than themselves, and they can’t even identify it, let alone defeat it.

For me, this all comes back to the tyranny of the happy ending, in which studios are afraid of downer movies. That, in turn, is a function of the prevalent view that audiences go to movies to escape life, not to have their sorrows, fears, and insecurities reinforced; the messiness and horror of reality aren’t allowed to intrude on our entertainment.

Sadly, I think the view is correct, that studios don’t make black-tinged films because people won’t go to see them. Yet shouldn’t horror films be a refuge for the bleak? They are, after all, metaphors for our deepest fears, and those are not vanquished easily.

The Mothman Prophecies speaks to that buzz in the air just before something terrible happens, or that gnawing, gut-level anxiety that things aren’t right in the world. Of course, we’re powerless and left shaking our heads, wondering, “If only ... .”

The movie takes this to an extreme. It’s about the horror of coming this close to knowing, to identifying. (This is particularly upsetting for Klein, who as a journalist prides himself on his skills of discovery. Of course, if one knows, one can prevent, and that means his failure has life-and-death consequences.)

Mothman also addresses a global issue, one that is — surprisingly — rarely addressed in anything except disaster movies. Shit happens. Bad, strange shit happens. Get used to it. And while this isn’t the most comforting thought, it is reality, and probably more distressing than most moviegoers care to think about.

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