by Ed Symkus

The creepiest movie to come down the pike since Seven is pretty much as effective a shudder-fest as you can get. Based on events that took place in the town of Point Pleasant, W.V. (and chronicled in the 1975 book of the same title), it's the story of Washington Post reporter John Klein (Richard Gere), whose happy life is shattered after a car accident. A few years later, he finds himself involved in an escalating series of paranormal events.

Klein, not still fully recovered from the loss of his wife (Debra Messing, from Will & amp; Grace) in that accident, nods off one night during a long drive to a scheduled interview, comes around to both car trouble and a sense of not knowing where he is, and knocks on the first door he finds, hoping to use the phone. But it's definitely the wrong door at the wrong time. He's greeted by shotgun-toting Will Patton, who accuses him not only of visiting before, but also of stalking him. Klein has no idea what this stranger is talking about, and that's what he tells the cop called to the scene, Sgt. Connie Parker (Laura Linney).

Things are eventually straightened out, except for the part about Klein being in Point Pleasant, when he's supposed to be many miles in a different direction, and the fact that he has no recollection of driving there. And, star reporter that he is, it's not long before he's questioning the cop -- wasn't it just the other way around? -- about odd occurrences in the little town, about sightings local folks have had of a strange creature with glowing eyes and maybe even wings. Soon Klein is out there talking to the people himself, hearing stories of seeing an eight-foot-tall flying something-or-other, and seeing the remnants of burn marks around some people's eyes.

And then the puzzle pieces really start to fall, but not necessarily in place. Klein is familiar with images like the ones described to him. His wife, withering away in a hospital bed after a post-accident tumor was discovered, started drawing pictures just like the ones he's now hearing about and seeing.

Ahh, but this is no rip-off of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This stuff supposedly did happen. Add to the present-day situation a series of weird phone calls with howling noises at the other end of the line. And when Klein finally grips his reporter cap and pulls it on tight, he tracks down a fellow known for research into similar phenomena, but gets the cold shoulder from the obviously spooked man when he asks him what he thinks is going on.

What's going on, he learns, is that Point Pleasant is one of a series of locales around the world that has been visited by this thing. But every time its presence has been felt or seen, tragedy has followed, always in the form of some kind of disaster and many deaths.

What's going to happen in Point Pleasant? No one knows. And worse, the idea is so far-fetched, nobody, our friendly cop included, is giving it any credence.

What eventually develops in the film is a deep-rooted fear of what's waiting around the corner. But this is no standard psychological horror film. Neither is it the kind of mystery that movie audiences are accustomed to. Gere's approach to his part is to play it low-key until it's time not to play it low-key anymore, when he's so unnerved by the events around him he can't take it. Linney, however -- an actress who more and more makes herself right at home in each part she plays -- keeps herself in a concerned-but-relaxed mode. She's the cop who's convinced there is indeed a solution to everything.

The film is given heightened intensity by generous use of a hand-held camera, which makes it all just a bit more jittery. Washed-out colors, bizarre camera angles and a soundtrack that's equally as creepy as the goings-on are added into the mix, but are never used in an exploitative manner.

All of this is fun -- if this is your idea of fun -- while it's being watched. But for anyone thinking about it afterward, the film becomes a big target full of plot holes. For instance, the whole introduction about the death of Klein's wife just doesn't fit in with the rest of it, and could easily have been written out, having the film begin with his arrival in town. Even the business of him not knowing how he got there doesn't have much to do with anything that follows. But once past that, there's no reason to believe that the events portrayed here won't grab you by the throat. And when they do, they don't let go until the gripping, stunningly shot finale has finally flickered away.

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