In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — seven from 1992 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column) and six from 2002. The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.

“The universe just points at you and says, ‘Ah … there you are.’ ”

John Klein has no time for the Washington Post holiday party. He gives them enough cachet as the Beltway’s foremost forecaster of political headwinds. That’s enough, especially when John’s loving wife, Mary, awaits to view another potential new house for the two of them to call home. It’s a great place. Big closets. Large enough to fool around in, even after the Realtor catches them. This life they share. Why, it’s almost a dream come true, as Mary muses moments before a horrifying vision of … something that flies at their windshield and sends the car into a chaotic spin she can’t control.

In the passenger seat, John is fine. Physics draws up a malevolent equation for Mary. Her head strikes the driver’s window so forcefully it cracks. She lives, though. John should be thankful. But it’s almost worse. Through clogged tear ducts and clumpy mascara, Mary rambles about the evil winged creature she saw before the accident. Its piercing red eyes? Those were just blinking red construction-barricade lamps on the street. That talon-shaped scratch on the grill? That could have been any number of items with which the car collided. Any creature is almost certainly a construct of the glioblastoma doctors have discovered greedily feasting on Mary’s brain — a 1 in 600,000 kind of tumor that finds its one ten-thousandth of a chance in her body.

And it’s only a matter of time. When the time arrives, an orderly attempts to ease John’s sorrow. He insists Mary knew the end was near because she was drawing angels. The comfort couldn’t be colder. John does find wings in Mary’s sketchbook … attached to apocalyptic scrawls of a pitch-black winged creature rising from a hollow void and swirled with John’s screaming face.

This life they shared. Ah, there it is. The past tense now forever appended. John can’t move on, so he distracts himself by moving forward. After all, there will always be facts for this reporter to ferret out — like the political viability of a governor seeking reelection in Virginia, where John is headed for a story two years after Mary’s death. 

John is on TV all the time. Even small-town folks in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, recognize him after he turns up on a millworker’s doorstep in the middle of the night, seeking assistance after his car mysteriously breaks down. But what is John doing there, exactly? He’s several hundred miles west of his destination. Why is this the third straight night he’s woken up poor Gordon and his wife, Denise? That’s preposterous. John has never seen them before. Furthermore, if John left Washington, D.C. at 1 a.m., how could he possibly have traveled 400 miles in 90 minutes? 

This life for John Klein. It’s like a truth come dream, a sleepwalking slog that hardly feels worth the trouble unless he can extract the unique truth behind his own individual suffering. Why has this terrible thing happened to him and why has John been subconsciously drawn to this foreboding slice of death-belch coal country? Can the answers be found amid the increasing reports from “good, God-fearing people” that they, too, have seen a creature like the one Mary described? A half-man, half-moth that towers over puny humans? That permanently scorches the eyes of those who meet its gaze for too long? Whose appearances are followed by phone calls from a man named Indrid Cold and cryptically grim predictions of forthcoming tragedies?

Even back in 2002 (and amid its era-specific stylistic bleakness), The Mothman Prophecies felt beamed in from a bygone era of prolific paranoiac cinema. It could also be said of director Mark Pellington’s preceding movie, 1999’s Arlington Road, with which Mothman shares a near-sadistic sense of patient storytelling, visual claustrophobia and slow-burn insistence that doom and disaster generally lurks unstoppable by human heroics.

A major distinction is that there’s nothing political whatsoever about Mothman’s infectiously jittery vibe. In a genre where light often offers respite from terror, Pellington fiendishly exploits illumination as a false sense of security — presenting fiery visions of both the Mothman and Indrid Cold as though they are seared into the subconscious of those seeing them with the heat of a foundry, like an entwinement of effigy, entropy and emotional enervation. (Part of you wishes that the deep, inky blacks of Fred Murphy’s cinematography could get a proper 4K remastering, but the other appreciates how the ancient DVD’s grubbiness and desaturation work toward its aesthetic as a taboo artifact of sorts.) Richard Hatem’s screenplay is also rooted in powerful and personal notions of angst that tend to power such eloquently eerie chillers. Our susceptibility to supernatural suggestion is only possible thanks to our quite natural negative inclinations and immolating self-doubt. At one point, John is asked what’s of greater importance to him: proof that this creepy cryptid and / or his telephonic emissary actually exist … or being alive. John’s wrenching journey to the answer he chooses drives Mothman to something far beyond the standard-issue X-Files knockoffs of its day. 

The film is based on the 1975 book of the same name by parapsychologist John Keel, who’s known for popularizing the term “men in black” to describe government officials who harass everyday folks to silence stories of extraterrestrial life. It was Keel’s account of his investigation into alleged sightings of a huge, winged creature known as the Mothman in and around Point Pleasant in the late 1960s — combined with an outbreak of strange phone calls, discoveries of mutilated pets, and, eventually, the winter 1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge into the Ohio River. 

Keel knew what would sell. It wasn’t perfectly reasonable explanations like large red-eyed sandhill cranes or barn owls for the Mothman, bored kids for the phone calls, workaday violent impulses for pet murders, or faulty infrastructure for the bridge collapse (which claimed 46 lives). What did sell (and eventually got optioned to Hollywood) was Keel’s fusion of cryptozoology, American-backwater exoticism and du-jour doomsaying on Watergate’s coattails. Pellington reportedly rejected numerous screenplay drafts that took Keel’s book more literally. As it lands for the finished film, Hatem’s adaptation wisely avoids celebrating Keel’s feverish fabulism in favor of mining grief and mental anguish, for which there is never any surefire balm.

There is no cool creature design over which to marvel; the Mothman is depicted as a being without physical form, its “visibility” a representation of natural electricity in the air. Could this be a casualty of reported $2 million budget cuts days before shooting began? Possibly, but Pellington definitely embraced any scarcity of resources. The filmmaker added his voice beneath the dialogue of characters who speak on the phone with John to create the sensation that Indrid Cold — who eventually turns his omniscient menace on John — could be any one of them just messing with this outsider in their town … or perhaps that the whole situation and all of these people, are merely in John’s head. (Unlike the Mothman or Indrid Cold, Pellington does appear physically, cameoing as a bartender who pours John a drink after a particularly fateful run-in with the gubernatorial candidate he’s still supposed to be covering.)

In Richard Gere, Pellington also cast the perfect actor to knock John back on his heels from a position of practiced confidence. 2002 became a late-career comeback campaign for Gere, emphasizing emotional vulnerability here and in Unfaithful, as well as his retained razzle-dazzle in Chicago. The actor’s silver-fox suavity had suffered in recent years leading up to Mothman, most egregiously in the execrable dead-woman-walking romance of 2000’s Autumn in New York. 

The sensation that something is more deeply wrong with you than any professional could possibly diagnose is difficult to dramatize, but Gere conveys the glacial pace at which grief can erode our capacity to cope. Indeed, like John, we may not even notice the damage done until it’s irreversible. The crescendo of John’s capitulation to compulsion and obsession stops at him tossing around a few phones in frustration with Cold’s incessant calling; the moment where they first “speak” on a hotel phone shoots ice through the veins, like a rift in the world ripped even wider. Pellington gradually ramps up the visual disorientation around John, too, to a point where it feels like he, and we, have been shoved into an endlessly elongating world with no discernible boundaries. But what transpires never feels like a cheat, trick or exploitation of John’s unreliable narration. Even that description isn’t entirely accurate. Grief is nothing if not reliable, sometimes perilously so. This is the hell that plays with John more deeply than any sort of 12-foot menace or terse Nostradamus. 

Gere is complemented by That Guy emeritus Will Patton as Gordon, the gun-toting blue-collar everyman with whom John develops a surprising kinship. Soon enough, Cold starts calling Gordon, too, allegedly giving him names and numbers that align with a crashed commercial flight. A longtime master at embracing everyday anxiety, Patton underlines the stigma of admitting mental anguish — withdrawing into annihilative isolation rather than reaching out to his wife or friends as the Cold calls chip away at his well-being. Gordon’s path presages John’s own possible demise, to which John is blinded by his own myopic pursuit for proof of the paranormal as a way to justify the wrongs inflicted on him by the universe.

But local police officer Connie Mills (Laura Linney) sees it plainly and does her best to help. Connie can’t wrap her own mind around the mounting reports of the Mothman around the town she’s called home for years. In retaliation, she invokes the strongest weapons she has: compassion and community. Convinced that Cold will call his D.C. home at noon on Christmas Eve and let him speak to the long-dead Mary (whose likeness has been seen around Point Pleasant), John becomes a statue by the phone. It rings at 11:55 a.m. … and it’s Connie, asking for 10 or 15 minutes of John’s time. This will, of course, overlap with the stated time of Cold’s call, but John stays on the line with her. Although lauded of late for her ice-queen turn on Netflix’s Ozark, Linney embraced an everyday warmth in earlier roles that rarely felt more luminous than in her plea for John to join her crew that night in celebration of the holiday.

Connie’s pitch radiates empathy: “Right now, you’re alone, John. And alone is just no way to be. We have dinner at six. We open presents at eight. And we hope to see you.” She’s seen countless sufferers of PTSD deny themselves the safety net of community out of a commitment to stubbornness, riding it out, going it alone. Connie may not succeed this time, either, but at least she will have made the effort from a place of genuine concern. The world is a frightening place no matter what. It’s a little less frightening standing beside someone who cares about you.

That’s the emotional underpinning to the atypically thunderous ending of Mothman, which admittedly has to do something with all of Cold’s talk about “great tragedy on the river Ohio.” It’s a callback to the Silver Bridge collapse at the center of Keel’s book, depicted with furious verisimilitude and horrifying helplessness. The energy of the event almost seems antithetical to the chilled stillness of so much that has come before. But what is tragedy if not a sudden tear in the fabric of what’s familiar? The climax’s explosive catharsis comes not in a cavalcade of cars thrown into the Ohio River but John and Connie’s reconnection amid the chaos. It plays like a dialogue exchange of cognitive processing therapy. John realizes Connie did call him, Connie realizes John is really there, both pushed to their limits but at least shoved there together.

Unsolved paranormal mysteries often entertain because they’re impersonal — folkloric fragments passed down over flickering flames that scare without scarring. It can be fun to let the blood run cold over a campfire story that couldn’t happen to us. But what about the people who swear they were neither high nor hysterical in the presence of something they can’t explain — people to whom something happened even if the stories are exaggerated? The Mothman Prophecies explodes those frayed feelings into a compelling compendium of grief’s effects on someone. The more it accelerates its anxieties, the greater it gets, and the embers of this campfire-ready chiller will glow in your subconscious long after it’s over.