"The Mothman Prophecies" tries to scare us but ends up a lengthy "X-Files" episode, minus the humor and satisfaction. 

Truth Is Waaaaay Out There

When dealing with things that go bump in the night and those who unswervingly believe in them, it's always prudent to start with what you know. In the case of "The Mothman Prophecies," that would be the movie's near-ubiquitous trailer now airing on a television screen near you.

In that trailer, a tense Richard Gere (we recognize the intensity because he's sporting that stock expression known in acting circles as "Hamlet with a headache") asks someone — or some thing — on the other end of the phone just what he's holding in his hand.

"Chapstick," the altered, inhuman voice responds. Then whoa! Gere opens his fingers to reveal a tube of every skier's best friend — yes, Chapstick! Quick cut to Gere's pained, confused, frightened and furrowed brow.

If only he'd popped the top and lubed up, then this horror-slash-paranormal thriller might have kept me involved. Although director Mark Pellington ("Arlington Road") and screenwriter Richard Hatem do manage some hair-raising, goose-bumpy shocks and thrills in "The Mothman Prophecies," they take themselves too seriously. A little wink to the audience or a carefully timed knowing elbow poke in the ribs would have helped.

I mean really: Can Gere and his new wife ("Will & Grace's" Debra Messing) be that deliriously in love? Can everyone in the beleaguered town of Point Pleasant, W. Va., truly be that dour?

Hatem's script is loosely based on John Keel's 1975 book about alleged paranormal sightings during a 13-month period before a 1967 tragedy in Point Pleasant. And as the movie begins, we see Gere as present-day star reporter for the Washington Post, John Klein. He's so totally in love with Messing that it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out something bad's gonna happen; somebody's gotta go. Basking in the excitement of buying their first home together, the preternaturally blissful couple has no idea what the road ahead holds for them. Messing, who's driving, suddenly swerves their car off the road. Injured terribly, she lives long enough to ask her husband if he, too, saw "it."

Klein doesn't know what she's talking about. But then he finds a sketchbook of hers filled with Rorschachlike smears. On closer inspection, he seems to find a man's visage in the inky black blob that abstractly resembles the shape of a moth. He is deeply puzzled.

Two years go, and now we see Gere heading out for a late-night drive. Inexplicably, he finds himself in Point Pleasant, where he quickly learns his late wife wasn't the only one making/seeing those "mothman" ink smears. Some locals go so far as to tell him what's on the smears is real, a red-eyed, winged creature. At the forefront of these testifying townies is shotgun-toting Will Patton. He knows all about the mothman because a voice in his sink named Indrid Cold gives him cryptic warnings about disasters that do come true.

"Things have been a little strange around here lately," opines a Point Pleasant cop (Laura Linney), who ends up as Klein's ally. And, of course, things get even stranger as the two-hour movie unreels.

Klein becomes more and more obsessed as the mystery sucks him in and Pellington and Hatem start the suspense escalating. Unfortunately, they seem to have only a few tricks up their sleeves, giving us endless voyeuristic point-of-view camera shots and literally dread-full music. As I said before, all of this is played grimly straight, with nary a wink or a knowing nudge-nudge. But all that spooky teasing they're subjecting us to means there'd better be one heck of a payoff.

There isn't.

Unfortunately, Pellington doesn't know when to stop the foreplay and give the audience its much-needed release. His restraint ends up chipping away at our goodwill and patience, and keeps "The Mothman Prophecies" a solid near


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