Another masterpiece by the late Frank Frazetta (1928-2010), and a classic example of how Hollywood studio thinking — a misguided attempt to reach the widest demographic possible — destroyed the potential of a great property. Frazetta’s cover painting illustrates and was inspired by John A. Keel’s 1975 non-fiction book, The Mothman Prophecies, about a cluster of paranormal events (UFOs, monster sightings, anonymous telephone prophecies, and mysterious appearances by Men in Black) that occurred in Point Pleasant, West Virginia during the years 1966 and 1967, leading up to a major disaster, the collapse of the Silver River Bridge.
As Wikipedia accurately notes:
The book involves Keel as a journalist, direct observer of some events and also presents some fragments of memoir. As such it has been seen as an innovative work of creative nonfiction. The writing style combines reportage and understated humour with fragments of the vivid cinematic approach used by Truman Capote in his work In Cold Blood.
Keel’s book had the potential to become one of the scariest horror/fantasy films ever made. It had everything: a solid narrative arc (a series of events, increasing in oddity, that lead to a spectacular climax), an intriguing central character (the reporter who interviews the various witnesses), and, best of all, in the titular Mothman, one of the most original and terrifying “monsters” ever conceived. Or perhaps one should say “reported,” since numerous reliable witnesses described seeing this thing — a humanoid figure with wings and glowing red eyes — hanging around the West Virginia woods after dark, and drew pictures of it like the one at right. Keel refers to places such as Point Pleasant, locations where paranormal sightings and occurrences are comparatively frequent, as “window areas.” (Cf. Twin Peaks.)
So what does Hollywood do after purchasing the property? It decides to change the story into a romantic fantasy, Ã la Ghost, about a handsome journalist, played by Richard Gere, who misses his recently deceased wife (not in the book) and thinks he can contact her through supernatural means. And to amp up the romance factor, it adds a cute sheriff character played by Laura Linney. (If you can show me a town anywhere in the United States that has a girl sheriff as cute as Laura Linney, I’ll buy you a fancy dinner.) In short, someone at the studio turns a provocative terror tale into a bland date movie. (See DVD box cover, below left.)
Even worse, some studio executive or filmmaker decides it would be a good idea to never even show the monster. Of course, anyone familiar with horror movies knows that it’s sometimes a good idea to withhold the appearance of the monster, or to show it only in glimpses, until the film’s final act — the idea being that what is barely seen or merely suggested is often more frightening than something we can see clearly. Ridley Scott’s Alien is a good example, a film with a terrifically designed monster that is not clearly shown until the film’s final third. However, when you have a monster as original and archetypically terrifying as the Mothman — in a movie entitled The Mothman Prophecies, no less — and you decide not to depict it at all (except through verbal descriptions and the illustrations of the witnesses), you are not only cheating horror fans, but shooting yourself and your project in the foot.
It’s not as if the Mothman couldn’t have been convincingly shown. Assuming the CGI of 2002 wasn’t up to the task, stop-motion animation would have been more than adequate and would have given the movement of the character the unearthly quality it needed. Even a well-designed and properly photographed man-in-suit might have been viable — as Alien proved. The fact that witnesses gave slightly differing descriptions of the monster could have been used to advantage. The monster could have been shown a little differently each time it appeared, just as in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1932 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where Hyde’s makeup was slightly altered from scene to scene (made more horrifying) so audiences never had a chance to get used to it.
The difference between Frazetta’s illustration and the wretched movie that was based on the book shows the difference between inspiration and the complete absence thereof. Frazetta’s cover painting is a brilliant combination of hyperrealism (the anatomy of the human characters), the fantastic (Mothman and UFOs), and the abstract (the way the tree’s leaves are depicted frame right, the colorful patterns of the Mothman’s wings).
Someone (in an ideal world, me) should be given the chance to remake this project. And do it right.