Under the Radar—Horror Movies You May Have Missed: The Mothman Prophecies

The Mothman Prophecies
The Mothman Prophecies
I love the mainstream, popular, and critically acclaimed films as much as the next person. The last thing I’d consider myself is a cinematic snob. But there are times when a truly amazing movie slips into—and out of—theaters without much buzz before fading into obscurity. So I’d like to bring a few of those gems back into the light and remind you that sometimes the blockbusters aren’t the only films that can give you plenty of bang for your buck.

Released in January of 2002, The Mothman Prophecies was set up for failure from the get go: no one really thinks to go see a horror flick in January. Which is a grave injustice, because the atmosphere of the movie is perfectly suited for grey, stormy winter weather. And let me tell you: if you’re a fan of atmospheric films, they don’t come much spookier than The Mothman Prophecies.

John Klein (Richard Gere) is a reporter for the Washington Post, happily married and on top of the world. But in a single shattering instant, his world is fractured and he finds himself reeling with grief and confusion.

Richard Gere in The Mothman Prophecies
Richard Gere in The Mothman Prophecies
Fast-forward two years, and he sets out late one night to interview a presidential hopeful. When his car inexplicable dies by the side of the road, he treks to the nearest house to call for help. What he finds is a paranoid man with a shotgun, who insists that he’s come to the house two nights before. Only the timely intervention of Officer Connie Mills (Laura Linney) gets him safely out of the bizarre confrontation.

Bewildered and terrified, John finds himself caught up in a supernatural mystery surrounding Point Pleasant, West Virginia. When he discovers that the locals have been seeing a red-eyed winged man—the same moth-like figure his wife had seen two years earlier—he becomes obsessed with uncovering the truth behind the strange lights, premonitions, and encounters plaguing the town.

But where does obsession—and delusion—end and reality begin? Is this a case of mass hysteria and sickness? One man’s desperate need for answers? How can John rationalize what he learns and experiences and still hold onto his sanity?

What makes The Mothman Prophecies such an amazing film is the tone set from the very opening: the disjointed, surreal, fever dream-style unease that only grows as the story unfolds. The music, electronic and pulsing, is eerie. The cinematography is frequently beautiful, frequently disconcerting. Light and color are used brilliantly to ratchet up the tension. The inexplicable nature of the unfolding events and compelling visuals are sure to linger well into the night.

Statue dedicated to the Mothman in Point Pleasant, West Virginia
Statue dedicated to the Mothman in Point Pleasant, West Virginia
With a miniscule budget and very few special effects, the filmmakers leave much to the imagination. We never fully see the titular Mothman—only flashes of light and indistinct outlines—but we hear his voice. Calling himself Indrid Cold, speaking with an electronic rasp, it’s easily one of the more frightening scenes. The monster you see is never as horrifying as the monster you can picture in your head, and the choice to leave the Mothman disembodied was a perfect one.

And as with the best mysteries there is no pat answer, no tidy ending. Plenty is left unresolved by the time the credits roll, though the web the story weaves is satisfying in its complexity. This is a movie that bears repeat viewings, if only to catch all of the hints, foreshadowing, and symbolism rife throughout.

I’m not Richard Gere’s biggest fan, but I have to commend his turn in this. He does a masterful job of playing a man of logic caught in a whirlwind of madness. A competent, successful reporter at the film’s opening, his downward spiral into fire-eaten obsession and consuming grief is riveting.  Laura Linney is charming as the down-to-earth policewoman protective of her town and terrified by the unknown creature plaguing it. And Will Patton, always a stellar character actor, is both tragic and frightening as the destructively passionate Gordon Smallwood.

The opening title card states that this is a story based on true events. That’s, predictably, a bit of a stretch. The actual events that unfolded in Point Pleasant occurred in the late 1960s rather than the early 2000s, and there was never a real world counterpart to John Klein. That said, there are several encounters that were faithfully recreated in the movie: the reports of UFOs and strange lights, sightings of the Mothman himself, and the climactic tragedy that closes out the movie—I’ll say no more on that for fear of spoiling you.

For me, horror is at its best when it can unsettle you on a visceral level. When it lingers, when it strokes some dark bit of your imagination long after the credits have rolled. The best movies (and stories) stick with you. And The Mothman Prophecies certainly fits that bill.

Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”

Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.


  1. Josephine

    Great piece, thank you. Saw this film when it was released and it’s stayed with me ever since.

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