Dir: Mark Pellington. US 2001. 119mins.

In promoting its cliche-ridden sci-fi-horror-supernatural The Mothman Prophecies, Sony is using the tag line "based on true events", as if the "factuality" of the source material was a badge of honour and necessary condition for taking more seriously a decidedly schlocky and dismissable feature. Loosely inspired by events in Mount Pleasant, West Virginia, in 1966, Richard Hatem's inept screenplay, which moves the story to the present, centres on a Washington Post ace reporter (well played by Richard Gere) who first becomes involved, then obsessed to the point of lunacy, with a mysterious creature - labelled the Mothman - which local residents claim to have seen. The picture, which was produced by Screen Gems and poorly directed by Mark Pellington, confirms Hollywood's long-held truism that January may be the worst month in terms of low-quality films being released. Basically a one-week movie, with stronger prospects in ancillary markets, The Mothman Prophecies yielded a mediocre $12m in its opening weekend.

One of the negative effects of the bonanza success of M Night Shyamalan's Oscar-nominated The Sixth Sense is the numerous imitators and spin-offs, of which The Mothman Prophecies is clearly a low-level species.

As is the case with most Hollywood science-fiction thrillers, The Mothman Prophecies begins well, benefiting from a captivating set-up. John Klein (Gere) and his beautiful wife Mary (Messing) are about to purchase a Georgetown mansion, which excites them so much that they find themselves making love in the empty closet area. Driving back, Mary is distracted by the image of a giant creature that causes an accident and lands her in hospital, where she dies a few days later, much to the chagrin and shock of her husband. The only "evidence" left by Mary's cryptic turmoil is a sketchbook with frightening drawings of a huge bird that seems half-bestial, half-human.

Jumping ahead two years, the story finds Klein still grieving over the loss of his wife. Late one night, restless and perpetually anxious, he hits the road, but his car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Klein heads for a nearby house to make a phone call, only for the upset owner, Gordon (Patton), to claim that Klein has been invading his space on three consecutive nights, something the journalist vehemently denies. It takes the interference of police officer Connie (a miscast Linney) to bring some order, although she herself utters the film's first cliche when she admits that "things have been strange around here lately."

What seems at first an intriguing story for an investigative journalist soon escalates into a personal and obsessive enquiry. Following in the path of ambitiously driven, all-consumed American cop-anti-heroes (most recently embodied by Jack Nicholson's in Sean Penn's The Pledge), Klein soon forgets about his job and his life, immersing himself completely in the case, which also includes getting to know Connie more intimately.

From that point on, the story assumes the shape of a third-rate horror-disaster film. Claiming that all the weird signs are warnings that the town is headed toward a major calamity, Gordon introduces Klein to a variety of residents. Each gives his or her own version of an encounter with the forceful beast, which is given the name Indrid Cold and leaves scary messages on answering machines. Some residents report to have been chased by the creature, while others point to their bleeding eyes as evidence of having seen it.

Just as the tension begins to build the story goes downhill, when a new character, retired professor Alexander Leek (an embarrassing Alan Bates) is introduced, and the audience moves indoors to libraries and clippings about the Mothman. Screenwriter Hatem (who previously wrote action feature Under Siege 2: Dark Territory) has decided to create two characters based on Keel's real-life figure: Gere plays the younger, cockier journalist, whereas Bates is cast as the older, wiser, and spooked professor, who at one time also witnessed the paranormal event.

Pellington and his team must have studied every convention and image of the horror genre for they don't miss any opportunity to insert them. Out of desperation, since the story is inexplicably dull, Pellington resorts to creepy special effects, distorted camera angles and perspective, weirdly surreal images and so on, but to no avail.

Pellington, who previously made the little seen Sundance entry Going All the Way, which featured Ben Affleck in his first starring role, and the severely flawed thriller Arlington Road, is a pretentious director who lacks the basic skills to make a workmanlike horror picture. In the production notes, he asserts that he was not interested in making a "monster movie," but one about the "psychology of belief," and how "modern society is ill at ease dealing with the unexplained."

This is the second pairing of Gere and Linney (the first was in the terrific thriller Primal Fear), but there's not much chemistry between them, and the characters they play seem to belong to different pictures. Although a gifted actress, Linney is wrong for the part: here she sports her long, sexy blonde hair under a cap (a la Frances McDormand in Fargo). Appearing in almost every scene, the still underrated Gere, brings to the film a semblance of order and intelligence. Underacting has served Gere well during his lengthy career: realising early on that his range is limited, he has been careful in selecting roles. At this point, to cast Will Patton as a pervert or madman is a cliche in its own right, which is perhaps befitting a cliche-ridden, both over-baked and under-baked, film.

Prod cos: Screen Gems, Lakeshore Entertainment
US dist: Screen Gems
Int'l dist: Lakeshore International
Exec prods: Ted Tannenbaum, Richard S Wright, Terry A McKay
Prods: Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi, Gary Goldstein
Scr: Richard Hatem, based on the book by John A Keel
Cinematography: Fred Murphy
Prod de: Richard Hoover
Ed: Brian Berdan
Music: Tomandandy
Main cast: Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Will Patton, Debra Messing, Alan Bates