Here’s a minor example of why contemporary movies may be better than you think. In 1973, the director Nicolas Roeg made a splash – to some, a classic – with ”Don’t Look Now,” a lavish paranormal thriller that employed languor-ous images and shock cuts to suggest a shadow world invading our own. The material was hokum; the power of the film lay in Roeg’s nearly tactile sense of mystical decay. Now, nearly 30 years later, here we are in January, the proverbial dumping ground for bad studio films, and along comes The Mothman Prophecies, a modestly budgeted paranormal thriller – it stars Richard Gere and Laura Linney – directed by Mark Pellington (”Arlington Road”) with a creepy, hushed subtlety that, I kid you not, invites comparison to Roeg’s celebrated chiller psych-out. The new film isn’t nearly as original, but it’s made with deftly unsettling genre flair.
This is one of those movies in which a car crash gets staged with apocalyptic, you-are-there import, as if the disaster were channeling a disturbance in the universe. Gere, as a Washington Post reporter and TV pundit, is in the car, but his wife (Debra Messing) is at the wheel, and the moment before the crash, she sees…something. A short while later, Gere, driving on the highway alone, is led without quite knowing how to the town of Point Pleasant, W. Va., where other people have also seen… something. They have visions of an ominous, mothlike creature; other portents are more free-floating still. Alan Bates, as a paranoid mystic investigator, waxes hauntedly about the astral world that underlies our own, and whether or not one believes in this sort of thing, Pellington, with his quietly off-kilter compositions and hairpin-turn editing, makes even a midnight phone call feel like a message from beyond. ”The Mothman Prophecies” is really just classy trash, but let me offer a prophecy of my own: One day, maybe soon, Mark Pellington is going to make a film that grips the imagination of audiences everywhere.