Stir of Echoes (1999)

D: David Koepp
S: Kevin Bacon, Kathryn Erbe

Effective, old-fashioned ghost story from the novel by vintage genre writer Richard Matheson (I Am Legend). Working class stiff Kevin Bacon is hypnotised by sister-in-law Illeana Douglas after a party. Next day he wakes up with the ability to perceive the world beyond our own, but only in fleeting glimpses. He begins to experience visions of a girl who has recently disappeared, and finds himself driven to uncover the mystery of her whereabouts regardless of the cost to his personal relationships. Director David Koepp is himself best known as a writer (screenwriter of Carlito's Way, Jurassic Park, and Snake Eyes, among other things) and as such is familiar enough with the dynamics of storytelling. This updated version of Matheson's novel works well in a 90s setting with some nice wrinkles in characterisation. Though characters talk about traditional values (waxing lyrical on the quiet neighbourhood where they live, etc.), and reinforce conventional notions of family and country expected of a much older breed of horror movie, this is seen as (ultimately hypocritical) nostalgia rather than an implicit ideological assertion of dominant ideals, which are, of course, finally subverted anyway. There are even some genuinely creepy scenes, and the film is buoyed by good performances from all concerned. There is a persistent feeling that this is nonetheless not a contemporary tale. The central character's motivation for pursuing his goal results from boredom with his routine life rather than more deep-seated psychological anguish (in contrast with The Sixth Sense, where the core was very much the emotions, not the 'twist' which received all the press). The final revelations, though well handled, are predictable, and the dramatic resolution lacks a deeper level of meaning or catharsis. The film on the whole is not as rich on a sub-textual level as Shyamalan's film, to which it has inevitably been compared given the proximity of their release. Still, Stir of Echoes is possibly scarier given its classical simplicity (it's not far off a good episode of The Twilight Zone), and it is a perfectly successful film which provides the entertainment it promises.

In the central role, Bacon does a nice job of portraying the quiet madness of his character. Though obsessive, he is not completely insane, and the actor handles the subtlety of this mental distress very well. Kathryn Erbe is good in support as his wife. Again, the character has been adjusted to suit the setting, and the relationship between husband and wife is credibly egalitarian with believable ups and downs. Support from a variety of others including Douglas and Kevin Dunn is also good, with the ensemble playing tending towards the naturalistic (apart from an intriguing sub-plot involving Eddie Bo Smith Jr. as a cop who shares the gift of second sight which seems about to turn into something out of The Shining, but doesn't). There is also a touch of The Sixth Sense in the initial prominence given to the couple's son (who also has the gift), played by Zachary David Cope, but his role in the narrative is more catalytic than Haley Joel Osment's in the former film. This does provide the movie with a chilling opening scene though, misleading as it is as to the centrality of the child in the remainder. Jenny Morrison is effective as the spectral presence which is at the centre of the story, and Liza Weil is gifted with the only genuinely emotional moment in the film as a (possibly sinister) babysitter.

Comparisons with The Sixth Sense will inevitably prove a bit of a chicken-and-egg debate given that Matheson's novel was written first and Shyamalan's film took definite inspiration from the Twilight Zone type material which Matheson was best known for (an amusing in-joke as Weil seen reading a copy of his novel The Shrinking Man filmed famously by Jack Arnold. Yet The Sixth Sense beat Stir of Echoes to the cinema here in Ireland by some months, and reactions to the latter will therefore inevitably be coloured by reactions to the former. They are similar films, yet completely different. In the end, The Sixth Sense operates on a different level from Stir of Echoes and both are worth seeing but offer the viewer different rewards. Stir of Echoes is a solid chiller, and should fill an evening quite nicely for genre fans. It is not as rich and touching as The Sixth Sense, but it has some memorable scenes, a definite style of its own, and tells a good old yarn quite well.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.