Monday, November 30, 2009

"The Chapstick Prophecies" or "The Mothman Slummeth"

A recent Twitter conversation reminded me that it’s lip balm season in the upper Midwest, which naturally got me thinking about one of the great moments of unintentional movie comedy in the past decade. The Mothman Prophecies is a justly forgotten 2002 supernatural thriller based on the allegedly true story of a small town plagued by a flying, fuzzy humanoid with a knack for predicting the future. It stars Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Will Patton and, uh, Debra Messing. Dang, how was this thing not a hit?

Anyway, the titular Mothman starts cluing in some of the locals on various upcoming tragedies, giving Gere’s reporter a chance to indulge the standard jaded-journalist-turns-wild-eyed-believer shtick, Patton's off-balance townie a chance to get all spooky and Messing's irksome wife to die. To be fair, it isn’t a terrible movie, just not an especially engaging one. But it does pull off one moment of truly transcendent awfulness. Watch the trailer below and wait for the 1:37 minute mark.

Let me get this straight: the screenwriters knew they were pitching a moody, atmospheric thriller. Presumably they went through multiple drafts of their screenplay, trying to capture just the right tone and select the absolute perfect words. Yet somehow, when tasked with giving the creature a single, chilling word that would underline just what kind of powerful force was at work here, they couldn’t come up with anything scarier than “Chapstick”? (Or, more accurately, “Chap! Stick!") And not only did the filmmakers keep that scene in the movie, they even considered it hook-y enough to include in the trailer!

For years now, I’ve been working this scene around in my head, and I have come to the conclusion that there is no conceivable context in which “Chapstick” could be a scary word. No matter what your inflection, accent or intent, the effect of “Chapstick” ranges from banal to laughable. The best-case scenario I can think of for the use of “Chapstick” in a horror context would be for a character to offer a tube to someone who’d recently had his lips removed, but even there it would be more sadistically ironic than scary.

So how does something this silly make it onto the big screen? Was it product placement arranged by Chapstick executives looking to corner a share of the lucrative “lipless, clairvoyant, otherworldly being” demographic? Was it intentional tinkering by some in-studio Gere-hater, perhaps a Robert Altman acolyte still bearing the scars of Dr. T and the Women? I know The Mothman Prophecies is based on a supposedly non-fiction book, so perhaps “Chapstick” is a direct quote from what “actually” happened. But my lord – Hollywood bends the facts to suit its needs all the damn time. If they can make a murderous wretch like Robert Stroud into a noble-minded peacemaker or turn the bombing of Pearl Harbor into a romance for the ages, they can put something less ridiculous inside Richard Gere’s hand. Any of the following items would have been at least as scary as Chap! Stick!

- A stick of chewing gum (“Big! Red!")
- A different brand of lip balm (“Burt's! Bees!”)
- A creepy religious pamphlet (“Jack! Chick!")
- A video of another Richard Gere flop (“First! Knight!")
- An Eric B. and Rakim reference (“Nothing! But sweat!”)

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