Friday, September 19, 2014

Fear Flashback Friday: The Mothman Prophecies

The Mothman Prophecies

I've always been interested in weird and mysterious things. I'll go ahead and point to In Search Of as one of the primary influences in that regard, but I think I was fascinated by ghosts, pyramids and the Bermuda Triangle even before Leonard Nimoy's dulcet tones started to explain them to me. When I was a kid I read every book I could find about anything remotely strange or out of the ordinary. 

Of course, I've also always been fascinated by science, by facts and observations. I was equally interested in reading Omni and Scientific American as I was in reading Chariots of the Gods or The Philadelphia Experiment. When I first attended college I was majoring in biotechnology - before wandering (stumbling?) pretty far from that path. 

As a result I've maintained an interest and fascination with the weird and strange, despite never quite getting over my skepticism about it. 

At some point during my second run at a college degree (made the finish line that time) I discovered that one of my Documentary Filmmaking instructors was also an authority on Bigfoot. That was Loren Coleman, of The Cryptozoology Museum and Not only that, but he wrote for a magazine that specialized in the weird, the esoteric and the unexplained. The magazine was The Fortean Times, and I picked up a copy at the USM bookstore mostly on a whim. (Plus the cover was about something called a 'Goatsucker' - how could I resist?) I've been picking it up on a semi-regular basis ever since.

Is he going to be this long-winded about everything?

This is a really roundabout way of getting to the movie, but bear with me. Because it was in the pages of The Fortean Times that I first read about the Point Pleasant Mothman - a red-eyed, black winged presence that haunted the small West Virginia town in 1966 and 1967. Honestly, it didn't make that much of an impression, however it lodged in my brain as an interesting story. So when I saw a copy of John Keel's The Mothman Prophecies at a used book sale I decided to pick it up. And I was absolutely fascinated by it. The scientist in me maintains his skeptical distance - where is the proof, after all? - but the wide-eyed kid cannot help but be intrigued (and the horror fan can't help but enjoy being thoroughly creeped out).

The Medium
My copy of the movie is from the initial DVD release in 2003. It's serviceable, but nothing special. It's not a movie that would necessarily benefit from a Bluray release, but I would like to see something with more extras - a commentary track would be particularly welcome. I've heard there was a special edition produced, but I've never seen it.

It looks like this was the last feature film directed by Pellington. He's kept busy directing and producing in both music videos and TV (particularly on the show Cold Case), but as far as I can tell he's not directed another theatrical release.

The Movie
I read John Keel’s book many years ago and it’s still one of the eeriest books I’ve ever read. The movie – by Arlington Road director Mark Pellington - is NOT a faithful adaptation of the book, but it manages to capture that sense of creeping unreality.

John Keel is a reporter for the Washington Post. On their way home from viewing a new house his wife, Mary (Debra Messing) sees… something… on the road and crashes the car avoiding it. Though the accident is minor the aftermath reveals that she has a brain tumor. After her death, John discovers her notebook is full of drawings of some dark, winged creature with bright red eyes.

Two years later he gets lost while driving to interview a governor in Virginia and finds himself instead in West Virginia on the Ohio border – a 5 hour drive that has somehow taken him 2 ½ hours. His car inexplicably loses power and he knocks on the door of the nearest house, looking for help. The owner, Gordon Smallwood (Will Patton), greets him with a shotgun and, once the local police officer Connie (Laura Linney) arrives, accuses John of having appeared on his doorstep for the last few nights.

"I want you to explain Movie 23 to me. RIGHT NOW."

This is John’s introduction to the town of Point Pleasant, a place that is undergoing something strange, some kind of manifestation. And when he learns that many people have seen a dark, winged figure with glowing red eyes his interest quickly become an obsession.

Pellington likes to play with your perception in this movie. He blurs images and fades one scene into the next with changes in film speed and focus. He adds strange pieces of audio under scenes as well and is often misdirecting your attention – I’ve seen the film a couple of times but had never noticed that there’s a discrepancy between John’s actions and those of his reflection in one particular scene because the focus is elsewhere (and because he’s already given us a scene where we EXPECT it to happen, and it doesn’t).

The combination of misdirection, pacing and framing leaves you unsettled. Things might not be what they seem. Are you missing something? Seeing something that isn’t really there? The nature of the film reality is off, so our understanding of it is necessarily compromised.

One of the main foci of the film is on coincidence and how seemingly unrelated elements will turn out to be intertwined and meaningful. There’s a sequence where Gordon, who becomes friendly with John, reveals a dreamlike experience he has had where a voice speaks to him from his bathroom sink. When, later on, there’s a moment where the words and numbers are revealed to have predicted a disaster, I always get a chill – even though I know it’s coming. (When my wife and I first saw the film and came to that scene I heard her say “holy shit” under her breath.) It’s not that these moments of synchronicity are even that surprising or original, but the film gives them such weight and import that you can’t help being caught up in them.

This time around I was particularly aware of the sequence of coincidences and their weighted meaning, so when a scene with a former physicist came along where he showed pictures of butterflies and talked about the Greeks and how the word psyche meant both butterfly and soul I was genuinely disturbed, as I had heard almost the exact same set of words in Phenomena (when the entomologist is talking to Jennifer Connelly’s character). The movie had made me consider the possibility that nothing really is coincidental – that what we think of as coincidence is actually a message, an echo of other events. It made me buy into its reality, which was kind of cool and a little disconcerting.

The Bottom Line
The Mothman Prophecies is not an in-your-face horror film. There’s not much in the way of shocks, no gore, no real violence. What it does is create a mood, a growing sense of unease. It makes you interested in the characters and invested in their fate. And if the end of the film is a little TOO tied up, makes a little too much sense? It’s kind of a relief, or was to me the first time. 

Nothing is quite that cut and dried in the book. Things are weird, there’s a general storyline and then things sort of… peter out. There’s no real ending in the book, things just sort of disengage. More like real life, I guess, despite the outrĂ© subject matter.

I highly recommend this film, if you haven’t seen it. It’s a really good psychological horror film that’s not splashy or even particularly sharp – but it’s creepy and eerie and leaves an impression. And read the book, if you get a chance. It’s a lot weirder (and there’s no romance and a lot more UFOs), but you get that same strange mood from it.

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