Stir of Echoes (1999)
This film was based on the novel A Stir of Echoes by Richard Matheson, and David Koepp, the screenwriter and director, made a hell of solid and smart thriller out of it. Koepp has plenty of fine credits to his name ranging from generally good to great films. While there are a few black marks on his filmography, he showcases a vast amount of solid talent with this nicely crafted supernatural thriller that is Stir of Echoes.
Tom Witzy (Kevin Bacon) lives with his wife Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) and his son Jake (Zachary David Cope) in Chicago. They live in a neighborhood with a good reputation, but at a party with a bunch of his neighbors, the narrow-minded Tom dares his open-minded sister-in-law, Lisa (Illeana Douglas), to hypnotize him. She does, but when she implants a post-hypnotic suggestion for him to ‘open his mind’, he begins to see disturbing and confusing visions. His son has an imaginary friend called Samantha (Jennifer Morrison), but Tom soon realizes that she is not imaginary. She is the ghost of a young girl that is now terrifying and driving Tom towards strange ends. As the horrific visions intensify, Tom realizes they are pieces of a puzzle, echoes of a crime calling out to be solved, but when his other-worldly nightmares begin coming true, Tom wants out. He desperately tries to rid himself of his eerie, unwanted powers – only to be seized by an irresistible compulsion to dig deeper and deeper into the mystery that is consuming his life.
Kevin Bacon absolutely does an incredible job in this role. He really absorbed himself into it adopting a subtle Chicago accent and a textured blue collar working man appearance. His physicality is very raw, and it helps that he seemed to be in excellent, lean shape for this film. He pushes the performance through every fiber of his body with a powerful nervous energy and charisma that is electrifying. Bacon portrays the increasing obsession and near psychotic behavior amazingly well. His manic intensity becomes scary like he is going off the deep end, which is quite the truth. On the flip side, he shows the heart of Tom Witzy with a lot of genuine depth. Beneath this crazed obsession, he is a deeply caring husband and father with a touching levity of heart. It’s good to see the real man before this psychic awakening occurs, and thus, we get full context on how drastically he changes and what he’s jeopardizing with his crazed behavior. There’s ultimately a lot of compassion and humanity in this man who starts out with a bit of an abrasive attitude.
Playing perfectly off of Kevin Bacon is Kathryn Erbe. She also shows a strong range from loving, bright wife and mother to woman of fire and conviction when Tom goes further out of control. Erbe and Bacon have very honest and heart-filled chemistry which is a main strength of the movie. Zachary David Cope was a fine young actor here. While he has an appropriate innocence and cuteness, he proves to have a mindful intelligence to portray the nuances of the role. Acting opposite thin air to an unseen ghost is definitely a challenge, but Cope really showed a lot of promise here. Sadly, it was only second and last film acting role. The remainder of the cast does equally fine jobs building up a realistic community of dimension characters that ground the film very firmly.
Stir of Echoes is definitely a spooky and startling film with a tight pace. It keeps a nice unsettling atmosphere going as Tom is very unnerved following his hypnotic awakening. As the visions begin inflicting more graphic images upon Tom, the more freaked out he gets, and the more the tension of the film rises. It’s an entertaining and fascinating descent into manic hysteria which just drives the film’s suspense and danger to a more chilling height. When the film hits those peaks, it gets the heart pounding very strongly. It winds itself up to a frightening full head of steam once the third act slams itself upon the audience. While it’s not a rousing climax that is practically horror-based, it definitely resolves itself properly. It builds upon the more underlying qualities of the film, namely the characters and the community they inhabit.
Thus, I really like the character driven strength of this supernatural thriller. It’s a ghost story that doesn’t boil down to defeating an evil specter, but instead, helping find justice for an innocent soul. Showing the quality of this seemingly tight knit Chicago neighborhood plays an important role in the story, and it’s nicely developed and demonstrated to ultimately explore the heart and soul of these people, no matter where they might lie.
Admirably, this film boasts some very good visual effects. From the ghoulish effects to make Samantha a frightening apparition to the hypnosis sequence in the theatre, these are all consistently top notch effects. The ghostly make-up effects work done on actress Jennifer Morrison are very haunting and unsettling. She did a fine job in that aspect as well as the living Samantha in the flashbacks late in the film. She was a very sweet, shy young woman that is a worthy of the sympathy and tragic value put on the character. While the “shot in reverse” movement is a clichéd trick to give a creepy quality to her ghost, it is still very effective.
Now, I also have to admit I find a bit of pleasing notoriety from the theatre scenes when Lisa hypnotizes Tom. They were shot at the Rialto Theatre in Joliet, Illinois where my high school graduation was held the year before this film’s release. I really love that the filmmakers shot on location throughout the Chicago area bringing a real authentic feel to the neighborhood and other locations. There’s one shot where Tom’s up on a telephone pole making a call to Lisa, and it pulls back to reveal the Chicago River and Metra trains rolling by. It’s a location I am very familiar with, and it just creates an honest sensibility that I commend. Chicago really is a diverse and beautiful city that deserves to be shown off more prominently in film and television, and this is a small gem that takes pleasant, if small advantage of that.
While David Koepp is the sole on-screen credit for the screenplay, there was some work on it done by Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en). So, I would like to share my praise for the quality of the script with them both. I’ve never read Richard Matheson’s novel that this was based on, but Koepp and Walker clearly had an intelligent foundation to build upon. The story never goes for cheap clichés of the genre, and instead, stays focused on its smart supernatural thriller path. The film makes it a point that it is very focused on Tom Witzy from early on, and the script follows that path very steadily. It keeps the audience in tune with what he’s experiencing, and we are able to relate to him even when he becomes more irrational and brazen. He’s intensely driven to uncover whatever it is he needs to in order to shut these psychics visions down. He himself becomes connected with Samantha, even if he doesn’t entirely know what his purpose in all this is. So, we follow him on this haunting journey that is exceptionally well executed by David Koepp. It surely helps this film that there was a highly effective score put together by the immensely talented James Newton Howard.
While this turned out to be a bit shorter review than I usually post, I think the quality of Stir of Echoes has been well conveyed. It’s not a very complex story, but it lacks no depth of character or scares. It won’t slam bang you with horror, but it has a solid atmosphere, some startling, graphic imagery, and air of compelling supernatural mystery that is very satisfying. Seeing the film is worthwhile for Kevin Bacon’s exceptional and amazing performance alone. He really showed a very wide breadth of talent and commitment here that I find incredible. The only iffy aspect is that I’m sure the climax would feel stronger if there was an actual supernatural element added into it instead of a straight physical confrontation. However, I’ll say again that it suits the more character based sensibility of the story, which is somewhat refreshing to see, and does support the idea of needing a living person to resolve things instead of a vengeful spirit stalking and killing people. So, I certainly do not knock the climax one bit, but an audience could feel like a little extra punch was desired after all the spooky paranormal happenings throughout the film. There’s just not much of a climactic pay-off for the scary elements in the film. Overall, I do highly recommend Stir of Echoes as a smart and suspenseful film that has some refreshing turns on the old ghost stories premise.