The Broad Theater is currently screening a series of films programmed by Damien Echols, a formerly incarcerated member of the West Memphis Three (who were famously misconvicted of murder as teenagers at the tail end of the Satanic Panic era). Echols kicked off the series with the early-aughts supernatural thriller The Mothman Prophecies, which he watched dozens of times while incarcerated, since it was among his wrongful prison’s severely limited media library. It was Echols’s first time watching the film projected in a proper theater, and it was my first time watching it in any setting (besides catching out-of-context clips while flipping channels on broadcast TV). Only one of us had a clear vision of what we were doing there. Since his release from Death Row, Echols has pivoted into full-time promotion of ceremonial magick, a one-man religious crusade that has apparently expanded from books & blog posts to theatrical programming. To him, The Mothman Prophecies is a spiritually significant work of populist art that uncovers some hidden truth about real-world magick, transcending the film’s more obvious commercial concerns. In my jaded, agnostic eyes, it’s a well-made but largely unremarkable example of mainstream horror filmmaking in its era. Seeing this anonymous PG-13 Studio Horror for the first time in such a reverent, religious context was (third) eye-opening, but less in the way it specifically reveals something about the mechanics of the universe than in the way Echols’s personal enthusiasm for it reveals the spiritual power of movies that happen to hit the right audiences at the right time.
There’s nothing specific to The Mothman Prophecies that you can’t find echoed elsewhere in mainstream cinema, so it’s tempting to discuss it entirely in terms of comparisons. The most charitable comparison would be to call it The Sixth Sense meets The Empty Man, but given how generic it can feel from minute to minute, the more truthful one is Stir of Echoes meets The Bye Bye Man – those films’ Great Value equivalents. Music video director Mark Pellington livens up the assembly line proceedings with some spooky excitement in the scene-to-scene transitions and titular Mothman visions, but his quick-edit visual style is so typical to 2000s studio filmmaking that his efforts just emphasize the movie’s overall anonymity. There’s also something warmly nostalgic about its grand finale—a widespread disaster set piece in which a metal bridge collapses into the Ohio River—being staged through miniature modeling and other practical effects, since its modern equivalent would certainly be simulated in rushed-to-market CGI. Even so, that says more about the time when it was made than it does about this movie specifically. Every commendable detail of The Mothman Prophecies is a result of its effectiveness as an aughts era time capsule: its reliance on the star power of Hollywood hunk Richard Gere; its casual inclusion of tender sex scenes; its pre-torture porn tendencies towards subtlety, sincerity, and restraint. The only context where the film should be cited as anything special is when padding out one of those “Christmas Movies That Aren’t Really Christmas Movies” lists that auto-populate every December to juice up the streaming numbers for Die Hard.
That is, unless you’re Damien Echols, who has obviously found much deeper spiritual meaning in his record-setting repeat viewings of the film. Echols explained that the characters’ visions of a winged “mothman” foretelling future disasters resonated with him as someone who has had similar visions of angels visiting his prison cell. The Mothman figure is even described as an angel in his initial introduction, where illustrations of him are feverishly scribbled into a hospital patient’s bedside notebook in the exact art style you’d imagine in a mainstream horror of the era. When Debra Messing is introduced as said hospital patient and—more significantly—Richard Gere’s wife, you instantly assume she will be fridged, because you have seen a movie before. The Mothman Prophecies quickly obliges, freeing Gere to travel the country in search of the mythical Mothman who visited his wife in her final days. Two years later, Gere inexplicably finds himself in small-town West Virginia while traveling elsewhere on assignment for his newspaper job, where he discovers that locals have been suffering the same Mothman phenomena that haunted Messing’s hospital room. Even to the audience, the Mothman only appears as quick, hallucinatory visions, recalling Pellington’s music video background instead of a Roger Corman creature feature. He’s more symbol than monster, and his appearance is merely an omen of impending natural & manmade disasters that Gere is helpless to prevent. There’s a distinct terror in not knowing the whats, the whens, and the wheres of those disasters until it’s too late, and in having your vague Mothman-inspired warnings dismissed as lunatic rants, but that does little to compensate for how indistinct the film can feel elsewhere.
Hearing Echols describe The Mothman Prophecies‘s accuracy to the magick of tuning in to the world beyond our material one was interesting, but I think it says more about how limited media access can add personal significance to all generic pop culture ephemera than it says about this movie in particular. Practically every title that The Mothman Prophecies recalled to me in the moment—the supernatural visions of The Sixth Sense, the inescapable doom of Final Destination, the hallucinatory pavement lines of Lost Highway—were all released when Echols was incarcerated, making it unlikely that of all the movies in the world, those were the few he could’ve accessed in prison. The other two selections in this ceremonial magick series at The Broad were produced after his release in 2011: the low-budget occultist horror A Dark Song and the ludicrous sci-fi novelty Lucy. Since I’ve already seen those films, I believe my personal magick journey ends here. In fact, I left early during Mothman‘s increasingly abstract, philosophical Q&A so I could catch the most convenient bus home. Still, I appreciate the narrative progression that Echols has sketched out in this short program – from the initial inkling that there’s a world beyond this one in The Mothman Prophecies to the ritualistic magick practices of A Dark Song to the unlocked, all-powerful mental magick of Lucy. In my mind, this series opener was the most unexpected, idiosyncratic choice of the three. It has endless competition that covers the same subject, so in a way it’s the most personal to the programmer behind it; there’s no other reason to single it out. It was also just nice to see local goths out & about having a good time, as the audience appeared to be more fans of Echols’s brand of magick spiritualism than they were diehard Mothheads. Others may have had a richer experience at that screening, but my biggest takeaway was that no one in the world is a bigger fan of The Mothman Prophecies than Damien Echols, since the circumstances of his fandom are so personally specific and the movie itself is so broadly generic.
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