Stir of Echoes (1999)
Directed by David Koepp
Cast: Kevin Bacon, Kathryn Erbe, Zachary David Cope, Illeana Douglas, Jenny Morrison, Kevin Dunn, Liza Weil.
1999 99 minutes
Rated: (for violence, profanity, sex, and an attempted rape).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 11, 1999.
It's terribly unfortunate that "Stir of Echoes," tautly written and directed by David Koepp (who made one of 1996's unsung treasures, "The Trigger Effect"), should be released little more than a month after "The Sixth Sense," which is still going strong at the box office. These two films are undoubtedly going to be compared (judging from practically all of my fellow audience members last night), and although they have eerily similar storylines, "Stir of Echoes" is more of a straightforward psychological horror film, while "The Sixth Sense" is closer to a psychological drama. Additionally, while "The Sixth Sense" had a shocker of an ending that undoubtedly has been one of the major factors in its recent repeat business, "Stir of Echoes" is more conventional and predictable in its final twist. And where "The Sixth Sense" was disturbing, "Stir of Echoes" is just plain scary. I have a feeling most viewers are going to come away unimpressed because of the unavoidable similarities, and will foolishly forget to judge this film on its own respectable merits.
Adapted from a novel by Richard Matheson that was written some forty years ago, "Stir of Echoes" opens with a cute six-year-old boy named Jake (Zachary David Cope) who is taking a bath. He is speaking directly at the screen, but we immediately have a feeling someone else is there. Finally, he asks, "Does it hurt to be dead?" Apparently Jake sees the ghosts of dead people, but unlike "The Sixth Sense," this young child isn't the focus of the picture. Instead, Tom Witzy (Kevin Bacon), a Chicago lineman, is our protagonist. Jake is his son, and Maggie (Kathryn Erbe), whom has just discovered she is six weeks pregnant, is his hard-working wife. One night while at a party with their closest friends, Tom convinces Maggie's New-Age sister, Lisa (Illena Douglas), to try and hypnotize him. It unexpectedly works, and before long, Tom is seeing things he wouldn't normally see, including a deceased teenage girl (Jenny Morrison) in his house who happens to have been missing for the last six months. Seeking help from Lisa, she tells him that, while he was under hypnosis, she told him that after he awoke, his mind will remain clear and free, like an opened door. She didn't expect it to work, but it did, and the only way to stop it is for Tom to somehow find a way to help this girl he sees.
"Stir of Echoes" isn't a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, but in the thick, atmospheric mood it conjures up, it is a terrifically eerie domestic horror-drama, and is not only effective on a technical level, but is impressive in its portrayal of a struggling working-class family. Kevin Bacon and, especially, Kathryn Erbe (1997's "Dream With the Fishes"), are top-notch and exceedingly believable as a loving married couple who nonetheless have their fair share of problems. After Tom is hypnotized and starts seeing ghastly visions, he is completely taken over by his desire to solve this mystery of the disappearing girl whom he has seen lurking in his house, and instead of Maggie not being understanding, she instead believes what Tom says, and aside from being a little worried by what he is going through, does not try to stop his pursuit. Bacon and Erbe are not traditional Hollywood stars like Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts, and therefore, are easier to relate to and always plausible as a struggling couple who have to work overtime at their jobs just to make ends meet.
In a masterfully-done, entrancing sequence, Tom is hypnotized by Lisa, but instead of watching him, we instead see what he sees, starting from his view as he closes his eyes into darkness. Lisa tells him to visualize being in an empty movie theater, and so, we, as audience members, are watching a movie screen from inside a theater, which is also showing a movie screen in a theater. Telling him to move closer and closer to the screen as a fuzzy word in black letters pops up on the screen, we begin to float closer and closer to the front of the theater until we see that the word is "sleep." Never before have I seen a hypnotism scene as mesmerizing and brilliantly-construed as this one. Truthfully, this set-piece, and another in which Tom wakes up from a nightmarish dream only to quickly discover he is reliving what he has just dreamt, are worth the full price of admission alone, just to see them on the big screen.
Having loads of fun with her small role as Maggie's sister, Lisa, Illeana Douglas (1995's "To Die For," her last great character) is a delight, but rarely used to her full advantage in feature films. Funny and enjoyably offbeat, Douglas gets to utter the best line in the film: While talking to Maggie about Tom's visions of the girl, she remarks, "I wouldn't be worried about him seeing another girl, although the fact that she's dead gives one pause." Also of note are Jenny Morrison (1994's "Intersection"), who is truly poignant in the last half of the film when we flash back to see what really happened to her missing character, and Liza Weil, remarkable in 1998's "Whatever," as Morrison's grieving teenage sister, Debbie.
If the resolution of "Stir of Echoes" does not live up to its obviously frightful full potential (and it doesn't), what comes before is both involving and appropriately gritty. The music score, by James Newton Howard, and unsettling use of whispers and ghostly sound effects, successfully compliment and foreshadow the off-kilter frame-of-mind that Tom is put into, and director David Koepp proves once again that he is a director with a knack for creating almost unbearably tense situations that revolve around realistically-written characters. "Stir of Echoes" isn't as good as "The Sixth Sense," but why should it need to be? Both films are fully capable of standing on their own two feet, and "Stir of Echoes" really is a spinetinglingly good horror film.
©1999 by Dustin Putman