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Voice Mail from Hell

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The Mothman Prophecies

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Mark Pellington

Written by Richard Hatem

With Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Will Patton, Debra Messing, Lucinda Jenney, and Alan Bates.

The sublimely weird montage of electromagnetic motifs that opens Mark Pellington's supernatural thriller The Mothman Prophecies reminded me of the first line from William Gibson's Neuromancer: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." A high-altitude shot of Washington, D.C., decomposes into a pointillistic canvas resembling a TV screen, which is then subsumed by a blinding whiteness. Shot with a slow shutter speed, city streetlights dance in nervous ciphers like EEG tracings. Inside an office, fluorescent lights glow against a jet black ceiling, the minute hand of a wall clock spins wildly, and multicolored telephone wires pulse. John Klein (Richard Gere), a political reporter for the Washington Post, recoils from his phone in pain as a monstrous shriek breaks into his connection. The most frightening films tend to prey on our fear of the unseen; The Mothman Prophecies is even more disturbing because it reminds us how much we've entrusted ourselves to the unseen energies of the electronic age.

The film is based on John A. Keel's 1975 book of the same title, about nocturnal sightings of a winged, red-eyed, humanoid being in the vicinity of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, that began November 15, 1966, and ended after the town's Silver Bridge collapsed into the Ohio River, killing 46 people, on December 15, 1967. Sightings of the "Mothman" coincided with UFO reports and electrical anomalies, one of them on a Mason County sheriff's radio. Occult theories abound: One Web page insists that the being was the ghost of Cornstalk, chief of the Shawnee Indians, who died in 1777. The Omega Group, a team of devout Christians who conduct parateleological research on the caves of Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia, blame a multigenerational witch coven (their Web page plays the eerie theme music from Fox TV's Millennium). But apparently the townspeople have overcome their dread: on the day the film opened, West Virginia's secretary of state announced that Point Pleasant's old KFC will be converted into a Mothman-themed visitors' center, and the local paper reported progress on a 20-foot Mothman sculpture being constructed by students at a local career center.

After Klein's earsplitting telephone call, he and his wife (Debra Messing) are driving home when a dark figure swoops out of the night sky toward their windshield. In fright she crashes the car, and before she dies--of a brain tumor--she fills her bedside notebook with nightmarish sketches of the red-eyed, mothlike being. "She knew," an orderly tells Klein. "She was drawing angels." Two years later Klein is driving to Richmond when his car's electrical system dies, inexplicably leaving him 400 miles off course, near Point Pleasant. When he knocks at a door, asking to use the phone, Gordon Smallwood (Will Patton), a local chemical worker, holds him at gunpoint, insisting that Klein has come to his door three nights in a row. Before long both Klein and Smallwood are receiving cryptic prophecies on the telephone.

"If we make this movie and never see the Mothman, I'd be happy," Pellington has told one reporter, and like the Rorschach-style moth on the film's poster ("What do you see?"), the nature of his beast remains highly elusive. After our fleeting glimpse early in the film, the Mothman flickers at the edge of perception, described by witnesses whose encounters have left them with bleeding eyes and ears. Numerous aerial and high-angle shots suggest a watchful entity, and the ambient score, by techno composers Tomandandy, is spiked with static. What Pellington calls the film's "naturally surreal overtones" may be the work of avant-garde animator Lewis Klahr, who helped revise the screenplay.

But Pellington's masterstroke is locating the Mothman in the electromagnetic environment of telephones, televisions, tape recorders, power lines, and brain scans. Pellington started out in music video, devising on-air promotions for MTV; after directing the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy's 1991 video for "Television, the Drug of the Nation," he collaborated with Bono and Brian Eno to design the wall of video screens in U2's "Zoo TV" stage show, which bombarded the audience with conflicting orders like BELIEVE EVERYTHING, WATCH MORE TV, and EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG. Though both projects were aimed at demystifying media, The Mothman Prophecies exploits our free-floating anxiety over the tidal wave of messages rushing at us through TV, radio, cell phones, fax machines, and the Internet. Many of us have no idea how these things even work, let alone how to gauge their impact on our psyches.

The film's brand of scientific spiritualism actually dates back to the 1770s, when German physician Franz Anton Mesmer posited magnetism as a vital force. Journals like the Phreno-Magnetic touted the psychic potential of our "magnetic fluids." When Samuel Morse inaugurated the telegraph on May 24, 1844, his first message was "What hath God wrought?" The new technology was embraced as a metaphor by spiritualists in books like The Celestial Telegraph, a French volume translated and published here in 1851. "When God speaks to man He speaks electrically, that is, by His Spirit," claimed John Thomas, discoursing on "Theological Mesmerism" the following year. "Sometimes He communicates His mind by making direct spectral impressions on the magnetic mirror of the brain." Magazines such as the Univercoelum and Spiritual Telegraph claimed that the dead could now communicate through modern instruments instead of human mediums.

New inventions prompt new mysticisms. There's a loose network of people who dial their radios to static and leave their tape recorders on, hoping to hear the dead speak; CDs of these "electronic voice phenomena" are available from the Parapsychic Acoustic Research Cooperative. In Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (2000), film professor Jeffrey Sconce cites "the recent emergence of transcendental cyberspace mythologies" as the latest in "a long series of occult fantasies inspired by electronic media." Mark H. Macy, author of Miracles in the Storm: Talking to the Other Side With the New Technology of Spiritual Contact (2001), reports on alleged communications from Thomas Edison, George Cukor, Olof Palme, and even some departed pets through everyday electronic appliances. In 1991 he founded the International Network for Instrumental Transcommunication to unite believers: "Imagine the beauty that would unfold around the globe like a rose if the Michelangelos and Monets of all eras could send artistic masterpieces across our televisions. Imagine the crimes that could be prevented if all potential criminals realized that their actions were observed by invisible eyes and could be reported immediately to authorities."

Pellington's vision in The Mothman Prophecies is considerably less utopian. The film is haunted by small red lights that evoke the Mothman's omniscient gaze: taillights, Christmas tree lights, road construction flashers, LEDs on a portable tape recorder, the message light on a hotel telephone--even the pair of red beacons atop the Washington Monument. Sights that might have been comforting before suddenly seem strange and menacing, and the technological landscape we depend on for our survival becomes the mise-en-scene of a horror film, where a quicksilver force emits mesmerizing signals.

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