Cryptozoology is woefully underexplored in popular culture. Sure, we have a handful of entertaining bigfoot flicks and even Zak Penn and Werner Herzog’s experimental Incident at Loch Ness, but where’s our big budget Jersey Devil thrillers? Or how about some Chupacabra-related mysteries? Having grown up on a steady diet of late-night Discovery Channel and questionable internet forums, I’d argue that this popular pseudoscience is an untapped goldmine of compelling genre stories that deserve more attention.
Fortunately, my personal favorite of these preternatural beings was lucky enough to spawn a surprisingly successful motion picture in the form of Mark Pellington’s The Mothman Prophecies, a 2002 adaptation of John Keel’s homonymous book describing an allegedly true story from 1960s West Virginia. And with the flick celebrating two decades of conspiratorial frights, I think that this is the perfect time to look back on why it’s still the best cryptozoological thriller that flirts with both psychological drama and cosmic horror.
While Keel’s book was originally released back in 1975, the legend of the Mothman really achieved worldwide notoriety with the rise of online paranormal discussion boards in the 90s. With more and more people spreading and adding to the creature’s bizarre history, it was only a matter of time until a studio decided to invest in a spec script based on Keel’s original account, eventually leading to the production of Lakeshore Entertainment’s film.
Unfortunately, the studio was unsure about how general audiences might react to a high-concept cryptid mystery and ended up slashing the original budget just a few days before filming began. This unexpected act of cinematic sabotage came as a shock to Pellington, who had already dealt with similar issues on his previous picture, but these limitations may have led to storytelling concessions that ultimately benefited the picture. Without a massive special effects budget, the titular Mothman became more of a creepy presence than a physical monster, only appearing in near-subliminal visions as the finished film focused more on atmosphere and character work rather than the cryptozoological chills of the original book.
In fact, the director purposely avoided a faithful adaptation of Keel’s account, wanting the film to feel more like a psychological drama instead of an investigative creature feature or traditional sci-fi flick. Ironically, this is more in line with the writer’s overall feelings about UFO phenomena in general, as, despite theorizing that the Mothman was an “ultraterrestrial” visitor, Keel thought that most supernatural incidents could be explained by psychic anomalies rather than otherworldly interference.
This more grounded approach led to quite a few discrepancies between the film and its source material, such as the altered visuals of the Mothman itself and the protagonist’s characterization as a skeptic rather than a paranormal investigator (not to mention the condensing of characters and events in order to better fit a two-hour drama). Despite this, the overall plot remains largely intact, with Richard Gere playing a grieving journalist named John Klein who mysteriously finds himself lost in the Appalachian city of Point Pleasant. He eventually discovers that locals have been dealing with a series of seemingly paranormal occurrences and becomes obsessed with the elusive Mothman, who he believes is involved with a series of prophetic messages warning of impending disasters.
While I would still love to see a more traditional monster flick that explores the bizarre accounts present in the original book, Pellington’s choice to explore the human side of the story makes The Mothman Prophecies a surprisingly somber and existential picture that characterizes the titular monster as an unexplainable force representing a universal fear of the unknown, taking the legend into a more metaphysical direction than most other interpretations.
From the Pazuzu-like flashes of the Mothman during pivotal scenes to subtle scares like Klein’s reflection not quite matching up with his movements, as well as characters being driven to madness and obsession after coming into contact with the red-eyed creature, there are several moments of the picture that would feel right at home in an H.P. Lovecraft yarn. The scenes featuring Indrid Cold’s fatal prophecies (brought to life by Pellington himself) are especially haunting, with these implied offscreen terrors becoming much scarier than any monstrous visuals that a special effects team could have cooked up.
Of course, it’s the emotional core of The Mothman Prophecies that really ties everything together. Pellington grounds these paranormal incidents in tangible emotions like grief, love and existential dread, leading to an eerily believable trek through deeply human fears. Gere is also phenomenal as our leading man, making it easy to root for our haunted protagonist. Honestly, I think it’s a shame that the actor hasn’t shown up in more horror movies, as he excels in this role as a rational man losing his wits once he’s confronted with the unknown.
The Mothman itself is only briefly featured in this subtly scary experience, but the creature’s presence is felt throughout every frame of the picture. It may not be the cryptid creature feature that some were hoping for, but I appreciate this unconventional retelling of a fascinating legend. The film is also responsible for popularizing the Mothman as a cultural icon, with Point Pleasant organizing an official Mothman Festival every year since 2002 as the mysterious winged monster became a staple of American folklore alongside figures like the Jackalope and Sasquatch.
While the film’s claims that it’s based on a true story should be taken with a sizable grain of salt, I think The Mothman Prophecies is still a surprisingly thrilling and highly atmospheric mystery twenty years later. It can get a little slow at times and might irk hardcore cryptozoology enthusiasts with its disregard for Keel’s (admittedly exaggerated) account, but I’d still recommend it to any fan of moody cosmic horror. It’s also the best media featuring West Virginia since John Denver’s Country Roads, and definitely my personal favorite Richard Gere flick.