Having grown up in the 1970s I was exposed to many documentaries on subject matter that could be termed supernatural or paranormal. Back in those pre-VHS days, these sorts of films actually got fairly widespread releases into secondary theatres, and often ran for a year or two before hitting local television stations. If over the age of forty you surely must recall these films, which usually were on such topics as UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, Bigfoot, Erich Von Daniken's Ancient Astronauts, the Loch Ness monster, or other such ‘mysteries.' Its television equivalent was Leonard Nimoy’s In Search Of… series. These films all had cheesy production values and narrators who intoned doom at least once a minute, as well as asking silly rhetorical questions that made whatever outrageous subject matter they were focused on seem plausible.
It was with this background that I cautiously turned on Netflix and watched Matthew J. Pellowski’s Eyes Of The Mothman, a film, from Virgil Films and Red Line Studios, that seems to have been completed and given a limited release in 2007, but only hit DVD and Netflix this year. To my surprise, this was not a documentary that focused on clearly deranged people, it did not make the Mothman the center of the film, but rather comprehensively investigated the goings on in a certain West Virginia area, in 1966 and 1967, and looked at the whole history of the area. In short, it was not a paranormal documentary, but a historical documentary that touched upon the paranormal. And this unique, and rather PBS-like, attempt at true journalism is what makes this a great documentary, period. Its very thoroughness and seriousness is what makes the film clock in at 155 minutes, yet it is so well made and compelling it ‘feels’ like your typical 90 minute documentary. And, in truth, a film with this many variables could not be done in your typical hour long documentary. Its length is what helps the film stay memorable.
The film is told in 8 parts, each featuring an epigraph on eyes or sight. Many of them are rather weak, and seem the type of quote uttered just to get a piece in Bartlett’s and not to say anything of depth. Nonetheless, the technique works, as does the narration by Richard Pait, a theatrical actor with a resonant voice and empathetic enunciation that can make even the outrageous portions of the film believable. After a brief recounting of the Mothman legend, the film enters its first part, a historical survey of the Legend Of Chief Cornstalk, a Shawnee chief, during the Revolutionary War days, who sided with the British, and was betrayed by whites when, on a peace mission, he was captured and executed. It is claimed that as he died he cursed the land around Point Pleasant for two centuries, and this segment features deft reenactments, as well as knowledgeable talking heads, from historical societies, government posts, and universities, that lay the foundation of the subsequent legendry, as almost all the later things of a negative nature, in town, get blamed upon the curse.
The second part of the film is about an abandoned munitions dumps (called igloos) constructed in World War Two, to store TNT and other chemicals. After a few decades, the chemicals leaked into the ponds and water table and mutant fish were discovered in what was now called the McClintic Preserve. The worst area was Pond 13, which was filled with TNT laced red water, which looked like Kool-Aid. This is one of the aspects of the Mothman legend that this film proves its value with because, prior to this film, I’d known much of the Mothman mythos, but this aspect was wholly new. Kudos to this film for actually doing real investigative journalism. Then we get into the well documented Mothman sightings, Part Three, which inspired a 2002 Richard Gere film, as well as one of my best poems. Basically, a large entity with wings and glowing red eyes (possibly radioactive and causing radiation burns and pinkeye amongst its percipients) was reported hundreds of time between November 15th, 1966 and December 15th, 1967. The thing reputedly attacked cars and pets, and was, once, even seen peering in to a window of a home. The consensus skeptical opinion was that the beast was a sandhill crane, but that was dismissed by locals as condescending. The film then compares the Mothman to other legendary creatures, like the Thunderbird, the Jersey Devil, and I would even liken it to the Dover Demon and Spring Heeled Jack. But, then the film makes an interesting observation; that while the skeptical theory was not, at first believed, now, with the knowledge of the toxic dump area that the TNT site became (it was a priority for EPA cleanups in the 1980s and 1990s) it becomes far more plausible that, like the fish and small wildlife that was shown to mutate, a sandhill crane could have grown in size, and its red marks deepen in color.
The fourth, fifth, and sixth sections deal with aspects of the same phenomenon: UFO sightings (which outnumbered those of the Mothman), Men In Black terrorizing local witnesses to the Mothman and UFOs, and the Parkersburg encounter of one Woody Derenberger with a MIB-like alien entity called Indrid Cold (a spin on the old Grinning Man legendry, albeit endowed with telepathy) While all of this has some interest, it’s probably the least interesting part of the film, although skillful reenactments help move the tale along. The film reaches its climax in part seven, the collapse of the Silver Bridge, linking Point Pleasant with Ohio, on December 15th, 1967. 46 people were killed, 9 severely injured, and 5 people were rescued from the frigid waters in what was then the worst bridge disaster in U.S. history. The fact that the collapse of the bridge occurred 13 months to the day after the first Mothman sighting is, naturally, deemed significant. It also marked the end of all the ‘silliness’ of the Mothman, the UFOs, and the MIBs, save for the fact that residents claimed the bridge made an eerie sound, and, prior to the collapse, some claimed they saw the Mothman and/or MIBs sabotaging the bridge. Thus, despite reports from the Army Corps Of Engineers, which pinpointed the problem to too much rust on a section of the suspension bridge (an eye bar) that caused a cascade effect, due to the excessive Christmas traffic stuck on the bridge because of a failed red light, the true believers feel that the bridge’s collapse was connected to all the prior silliness. The only debate, for them, was whether or not the Mothman and UFOs were out to warn of the collapse or cause it. The film, thankfully, buys in to none of it, for it takes a more scientific and anthropological view on things, rather than falling for the gullible folklore aspect of things. Still, it never condescends nor endorses.
The film’s final segment wraps everything up, and one senses that Point Pleasant is as proud of, and fascinated with, its Mothman mythos as Roswell, New Mexico is with its crashed UFO mythos (it has its annual Mothman festival). The film is not only well directed, scripted, and produced by Pellowski, but it is well shot, by cinematographer Neil Stephens, and its reenactments are first rate- be they of the historical Chief Cornstalk, or of the supernatural claims. Also well done is the musical scoring, by Bruce Hathaway and Alan Zapata. Another great contributor to the film’s overall success is, as mentioned, the deep, resonant narration of Richard Pait. There are some niggling points against the film, such as most of the interviewees being second or third hand witnesses. Only a few people who actually claim to have seen the UFOs or Mothman are shown, but this may have been a budget limitation. After all, four decades is not that long that all the witnesses would be dead. Also, there are a pair of psi investigators repeatedly interviewed, and one of them is shot with the camera virtually looking up the nostrils of his pug nose- an odd technique, to say the least. Also, a few people claim the UFOs, MIBS, Indrid Cold, and Mothman, reside in different dimensions that intersect with ours, clearly showing that they have literally no idea what a dimension is. It would be another extension of our reality, not some alternate universe. People who use dimension and universe interchangeably show their utter lack of intellect. Finally, one of the weakest aspects of the whole Point Pleasant experience was that, despite all the supposed witnesses, hysteria, and good old boy hunters for the creature and UFOs, not a single person seems to have even thought of taking along a camera, much less shooting a photo.
Nonetheless, Eyes Of The Mothman succeeds magnificently as a work of investigative reporting and a speculative docudrama. Prior to this film, the most interesting take on the whole Mothman mythos was by the late psi writer, John Keel, whose book, The Mothman Prophecies, was the basis for the Gere film. But this film is far more detailed and comprehensive, and roundly debunks some of the longstanding claims made in Keel’s book, as Keel was seemingly hoaxed on multiple occasions, and his book riddled with other inconsistencies. This film will likely become the definitive resource on the Mothman legend for the foreseeable future, for it does not condescend, claim to know what was real and what was not, and has no agenda- political, spiritual, philosophic, nor otherwise: it does not push the psi aspects of the legendry, nor does it ignore them. This is, easily, the finest piece of journalism I have ever read or seen, as it pertains to things deemed paranormal, for it eschews the classic Von Danikenism of earlier psi documentaries, and focuses on history, people, and how they were affected by the oddities, rather than just focusing on the oddities. In this way, Eyes Of The Mothman is not only a great documentary film, but an innovative one. Let’s hope its style and execution are embraced, whether or not you believe in the Mothman and company.