Does it hurt when you're dead?
On the surface, "Stir of Echoes" sounds a lot like "The Sixth Sense", the Bruce Willis supernatural thriller that has managed to stay in the number one position at the box office for the past five weeks. The ghost story basis of the film's plot, a young boy who sees 'dead people', and an atmosphere of unrelenting creepiness will certainly create a sense of cinematic déja-vu for moviegoers. Fortunately, writer/director David Koepp ("The Trigger Effect") has taken these familiar elements in a new and different direction. And though the payoff is nowhere near as gripping as the big reveal in "The Sixth Sense", "Stir of Echoes" has a number of elements working in its favor to merit a look.
Are you alright?
What did she do to me?
Tom (Kevin Bacon of "Wild Things") is a run-of-the-mill telephone lineman living a quiet life with his son Jake (Zachary David Cope) and expectant wife Maggie (Kathryn Erbe, seen recently on HBO's "Oz") in a Chicago working class neighborhood. With their combined salaries, they manage to stay ahead of the bill collectors, but it is a far cry from Tom's faded dreams of rock 'n roll fame and fortune. However, all that changes one night at a neighbor's party after Tom's skepticism gets the better of him. When Maggie's new age spouting sister Lisa (Illeana Douglas of "Message in a Bottle") claims that she is 'practically' a licensed hypnotherapist, Tom volunteers to be put under.
The man's switch got flipped... he's a 'receiver' now. He can't stop it, he can't slow it down... he can't even figure it out.
Unfortunately, Tom's brief foray into the mysteries of hypnosis has some frighteningly unexpected after-effects. Pretty soon, Tom's middling lifestyle is turned upside down when he begins experiencing disturbing and sometimes prophetic hallucinations, in addition to the apparition of a teenage girl (Jenny Morrison) on his living room couch, two phenomena which are somehow tied to a buried secret within the house he is living. In addition, Tom learns that he is not the only one who is attuned to the unexplained happenings in the house-- his son Jake has been having conversations with 'Samantha'. As the supernatural visions gradually reveal the dark secrets of his home, Tom becomes consumed with trying to contact Samantha and find out what happened to her, even at the risk of losing his job, his friends, and his family.
Whatever door you opened in my mind, I want you to shut it... now!
Like "The Sixth Sense", "Stir of Echoes" is not a horror film that relies on excessive gore, cheap scares, or axe-wielding psychopaths to scare the audience. Instead, suspense is built with the use of a compelling narrative, a creepy atmosphere, and engaging characters. Tom, Maggie, and Jake are three individuals firmly grounded in reality, due in part to some solid scripting, as well as the earnest performances turned in by Bacon and Erbe, who effectively convey the overwhelming sense of desperation and helplessness gripping their characters. As a result, it is very easy to become caught up in their workaday lives and feel sympathy for their plight as their home is turned upside down by Tom's supernatural revelations.
The film also tells a compelling story, dropping clues at regular intervals that whet the curiosity of its audience without revealing too much too quickly. At first, the visions that Tom experiences are brief and indistinct, but as the story moves forward, patterns of consistency begin to emerge, as do the reasons why Tom sees what he does. Koepp deliberately allows the story to simmer to a slow boil, creating an atmosphere that elevates the level of suspense ever so slightly. The longer the build-up, the bigger the pay-off-- almost.
Unfortunately, "Stir of Echoes" does stumble in one major area-- its resolution. In contrast to the narrative slam dunk executed by "The Sixth Sense" in its final fifteen minutes, the final fifteen minutes of "Stir of Echoes" is slightly disappointing in light of the attention paid to story and atmosphere up to that point. Though the film's big reveal is somewhat satisfying, it ends up relying on traditional thriller plot mechanics, which some audience members will find predictable and cliché-- an ending hardly worthy of what came before it.
1999 has seen a big return to the good old-fashioned ghost story, some good (including "The Blair Witch Project") and some bad ("The Haunting" comes to mind). Despite some flaws in its final fifteen minutes, there is enough story, character, and suspense to place "Stir of Echoes" in the former. If you enjoyed "The Sixth Sense", this is another take on the ghost story genre that should not be missed.