How many degrees can a movie separate itself from reality and still claim that it is "based on true events?" The answer skulks somewhere in "The Mothman Prophecies," a drawn-out chiller inspired by eerie occurrences that allegedly befell the town of Point Pleasant, W. Va., in the 1960s -- or, rather, by the admittedly subjective account of those occurrences that author John A. Keel brought to book stores in 1975. If this circuitous cycle from folklore to Barnes & Noble to box office meets your criteria for "truth," then I have some Enron stock to sell you.
The film transports the paranormal doings into the present day and makes a fictitious *Washington Post* reporter named John Klein (Richard Gere) our human window into the unknown. After suffering the untimely death of his wife (Debra Messing, whose tenure in the movie is shorter than an episode of "Will & Grace"), Klein finds himself inexplicably drawn to Point Pleasant, a town some 400 miles away from his DC beat. Upon arrival, he learns that the place is undergoing some unnatural upheavals of its own, with residents reporting visions of a red-eyed, winged apparition tagged the Mothman. Some of them also receive ominous but ambiguous warnings from the spirit world, as delivered into their homes via good old Ma Bell. (And you thought your long-distance carrier kicked ass.)
Gere makes an effective conduit for this dopiness, and the movie gets off one good scare at his expense. Without saying too much, it has to do with the questionable wisdom of knocking on strangers' doors late at night. To believe anything that follows, however, one has to buy the idea that a backward little burg would spill its sanity-threatening traumas to a big-city newspaperman who first appears to them as a trespasser and potential stalker. It helps that Klein swiftly earns the trust of the local police sergeant, Connie Parker (Laura Linney, doing the best she can in the clichéd role of a small-town peace officer who is also -- gasp! -- a woman).
The "real" weirdness in Point Pleasant included UFO sightings, but the movie's focus is less extraterrestrial than supernatural. "The Mothman Prophecies" plumbs that trusty school of campfire tales (done to death on TV programs like "One Step Beyond") in which kind souls reach out from beyond the grave to warn their loved ones against booking passage on the Titanic or the Hindenburg. Director Mark Pellington expects us to go slack-jawed anew over such developments, and to sit patiently while he uses every visual effect he can think of to pad one hour's worth of script into a two-hour feature. That's a heckuva long time to wait for a phone call, especially when we already know what the basic message is.