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November 26, 2010

Midnight Movie of the Week #47 - Stir of Echoes

I recently pointed out that I take this film for granted, and I'm totally making up for lost time here.  Lost in the shadows of that other "I see dead people" film of 1999, David Koepp's adaptation of Richard Matheson's Stir of Echoes is one of the creepiest films of the last twenty years.
Kevin Bacon stars as an average fellow named Tom, living an average life with his wife Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) and son Jake (Zachary David Cope).  But an experiment with hypnosis at the hands of Maggie's sister (Illeana Douglas) leaves Tom with a more receptive mind - which means the pale spirit of a dark-haired young woman is now visible to him.  Jake, who was born receptive, also has contact with the girl, who's named Samantha and played by future House M.D. co-star Jennifer Morrison.  In the first minutes of the film Jake looks at the screen and asks her (and us) "Does it hurt to be dead?"  We don't know her response - heck, we don't even know she exists at that moment - but this small moment seems to set the tone for the rest of the film perfectly.
 That tone is key to Koepp's film, because a large amount of the film's haunting power comes from the moments when the receptive men in the family are seeing or hearing things and have lost control of the world around them.  There are unnerving surprises throughout the film, and Samantha and other dangers appear to the characters in a unique series of twists and turns.  At times it feels a little like the filmmakers were having too much fun in the editing room as the visions look like a video tape skipping or someone hitting the invert color button on their digital camera, but the story is interesting enough that these slips are easily overcome.  The result is a film that includes several haunting moments of supernatural tension.
I've always been a bit of a fan of Koepp, who was one of the darling blockbuster screenwriters of the '90s and '00s, working on films like Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Men in Black, Spider-Man and War of the Worlds.  His filmography as a director is much smaller, but The Trigger Effect has long been a personal favorite and his haunted rom-com Ghost Town was surprisingly fun.  Like most successful studio screenwriters, Koepp knows what to offer a mainstream audience, yet his directorial efforts do their best to pull them from this comfort zone.  Stir of Echoes is probably his greatest achievement in this regard; a film that skips the cheap shocks that were prevalent in horror of the late '90s and lets the story unravel in front of us.  Much of this is surely owed to Matheson's story - the author had a keen ability to connect hauntings to human sins (for another example, see/read The Legend of Hell House) - but Koepp seems to know that his story should come first.  (Unfortunately, Koepp couldn't replicate this success with his second horror outing, the Stephen King adaptation Secret Window.)
Bacon's lead performance is crucial to the film, and he doesn't disappoint.  The script mostly requests that he react appropriately to the phenomena around him, and his fear and frustration seems genuine throughout the film.  Cope is also a key cog in telling Matheson's story, and the young actor is very good when it matters.  I mentioned that the film's opening scene sets the tone, and the final scene of the film bookends this perfectly; leaving me wondering about what the future holds for these characters.  Also shining in a supporting role is veteran character actor Kevin Dunn (last seen in Unstoppable, most known from the Transformers films).  Though he appears in only a few scenes, he's given plenty of chances to flex his dramatic muscle, and does so effectively.
Stir of Echoes packs plenty of intrigue and chills as the story unfolds in a manner that's similar to the traditional haunted house film.  There are some great stylistic touches, particularly in Bacon's visions, but Koepp maintains a matter-of-fact approach throughout the film, letting the lead character unravel the mysterious happenings around him.  This is a story over style affair, and it's good enough in that regard - but the great visual moments make the film even more memorable to me.  The total product is a great horror tale that becomes a great horror film.

(One last thing: I need to mention how much I love that title screen that's posted above.  It's so simple, yet so effective.  The house looks ominous, the sky is dark, but the light is brightly shining, as if to say that this house - like the minds of the males who live within - is open for business.  Like I said, the tone is everything to this film, and it's set even then.  Love it.)


Hey! Look Behind You! said...

It kinda sucked that this movie came out around the time of The Sixth Sense and hence why I think it fell unappreciated by some people. I glad you gave it another go. It's a great story that didn't need the "WHAT A TWIST!" ending.

: said...

Yeah, STIR OF ECHOES is soooo criminally underrated. I think this one might just be my favorite Kevin Bacon performance, as Bacon plays a decent man who is on the verge of going of mad as he tries to understand what is happening to him. He and Kathryn Erbe have such a wonderful chemistry, and are totally believable as a couple who love one another even as they deal with their middle-class troubles. So likeable.

It's sacrilege, I know, but this is one of those very rare occasions where I like the film more than the book it's based on (sorry, Mr. Matheson -- R.I.P.). Then again, the film really isn't a faithful adaptation and all, so it's like comparing apples to oranges.

Other than the cop character who basically was just there to be "Mr. Exposition", I consider STIR OF ECHOES to be just about perfect.