It's clear that Arlington Road didn't exhaust Mark Pellington's fascination with American urban myth. This time, though, he leaves behind legends of white urban bombers and moves off in a paranormal direction, exploring a spooky happening that apparently occurred in a small US town in the late `60s. The town was Point Pleasant, West Virginia, whose inhabitants suffered an epidemic of what can only be described as "visions". They began having premonitions, hearing voices and - most frighteningly of all - seeing a giant winged figure: The Mothman.
Updating events to the present day, scripter Richard Hatem has taken the rough facts and created an effective psycho-thriller. Richard Gere plays John Klein, a Washington Post reporter who becomes entangled in Point Pleasant's nightmarish world when he stumbles upon the town and its weirdo inhabitants. He begins as a skeptical outsider, but then begins to experience the oddness at first hand.
To go into any more detail would run the risk of blunting the film's impact. Eerie, offbeat and genuinely disturbing, the first half of The Mothman Prophecies is a one-way trip to Goosebumps Territory. Pellington plays on uncertainty like a master, spinning an unsettling, spectral atmosphere, as question piles on question and everything edges further and further away from normality. About an hour in, almost anything seems scarily possible. You're not just wondering what's about to come howling round the corner, you're wondering if there's a corner there at all.
The visuals are bleak and grainy but, for once, it's the sound and not the look that creates the atmosphere. Growling, hissing electric sweeps of music are layered over everything as Pellington undercuts even apparently safe everyday scenes with echoes of the bizarre. He may not be big on jumpy, it's-behind-you thrills (though there are one or two clichéd but effective shocks here) but, as the frights and flashes and unexplained phenomena mount up, you'd need titanium-coated nerves not to be twitching in your seat.
The performances, however, are less effective. Sure, Gere's permanent look of befuddled ignorance fits the role of truth-seeking hack perfectly, but he's lost when called upon to display deep emotion. In fact, his village panto-style gurning soon begins to grate, and poor Laura Linney, as the town's sheriff, is dealt far too slight a role to help him out. And so it's down to Will Patton to deliver the acting goods, which he does by offering an astoundingly creepy turn as a troubled local more affected than most by the sight of the big winged fella.
The Mothman Prophecies loses some of its shine as it slips into predictable Hollywood cliché towards the end, but it remains an odd and unsettling achievement. Its strangeness alone is going to spark more than a few nightmares.