You probably won’t find The Mothman Prophecies (2002) on too many of those click-bait “Best Horror Movies of the 21st Century” listicles. The movie seems to have drifted out of the horror fandom’s collective subconscious. In some ways, The Mothman Prophecies was doomed to become forgettable. The movie’s muddled marketing couldn’t decide how to sell the movie to the public. It was either a pseudo-documentary about cryptid hunting or a romance where widower Richard Gere falls in love with a small-town lady police officer. Fine arguments can be made that The Mothman Prophecies isn’t a horror film at all, but a subdued mashup of drama and supernatural mystery thrillers.
Say what you will (and you will) about The Mothman Prophecies. Buried beneath the mediocre reviews and lack of proper hype lies a movie that contains one of the scariest scariest sequences ever committed to film.
Obviously, spoilers lie ahead.
Sightings of the Mothman, a mythic black winged figure with glowing red eyes, have been said to presage disasters in the areas in which it appears. The alleged presence of the Mothman draws reporter John Klein (Gere) to the small town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Klein has his own Mothman mystery to solve as his wife had been scrawling pictures of the creature in her journal before she died. Klein’s presence in the small town causes some disruption before he begins to forge relationships with some of the citizens, including police officer Connie Mills (Laura Linney).
Everything culminates on Christmas Eve as traffic builds up on the Silver Bridge that connects West Virginia and Ohio across the Ohio River. Holiday travelers, cars filled with wrapped presents, are at a standstill. Through various means of communication, including a couple of unsettling telephone calls, the Mothman has warned Klein about an upcoming tragedy on the river. Klein realizes something terrible is going to happen on the Silver Bridge where Officer Mills, whom Klein is beginning to develop feelings for, is trapped.
Klein’s attempts to get passengers to leave their vehicles and get off the bridge are fruitless. All around him, cables are snapping with high-pitched metallic whines. Asphalt begins to crack and buckle. With no viable means of quick escape, those trapped begin to panic. Inevitably, the bridge collapses sending people and vehicles into the cold Ohio River.
Director Mark Pellington, who may be best known for directing Pearl Jam’s chilling “Jeremy” video in 1992, uses ominous sounds and a dark color palette to screw the tension on like a C-clamp on a walnut. Headlights shine up through the black water as cars fall into the river. The metal cables holding the bridge snap and whip through the soundstage like severed strands of a demonic web. When Officer Mills’s car finally succumbs to gravity, Pellington’s camera does not flinch. The audience is not spared. We see it all. In the middle of the chaos stands Klein, his foreknowledge of the event inadequate to prevent the bridge from falling. At that moment, Gere as Klein becomes the embodiment of hopelessness, helplessness and shock.
It is a stunning and terrifying sequence, almost unbearable in its depiction of fright. Klein sees people that he has met in Point Pleasant, people whose names he knows, refuse to listen to his warning. Soon enough, Klein has to watch them plunge into the freezing cold waters of the Ohio.
Not only is the collapse of the Silver Bridge shocking in its massive scope, but Pellington’s small visual touches keep the sequence grounded in humanity. Faces peer out of car windows. Christmas presents float in the water. It is a masterpiece of grim realization and inescapable doom.
And it scares the blistering shit out of me.
If you have a phobia of driving over bridges, as I do, The Mothman Prophecies isn’t going to help you get over that. Knowing that this sequence is based on a real event doesn’t settle one’s nerves. On December 15, 1967, the Silver Bridge between Ohio and West Virginia collapsed during rush hour, sending 46 people to their deaths. There may not be another movie that drives home the importance of maintaining national infrastructure as strongly as The Mothman Prophecies.
It’s hard to recommend The Mothman Prophecies as a prime choice for family movie night. Personally, I only put my copy of it in the DVD player every few years. It’s a great movie, in my opinion, but I can’t watch it without knowing that the Silver Bridge is going to collapse and all those people are going to die. It is the focal point and horrifying culmination of the film’s events. As a human who enjoys having a certain amount of sway over situations, The Mothman Prophecies is a stinging and ultimately terrifying reminder that control is an illusion.
Also: bridges are friggin’ scary.