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Stir of Echoes (1999)

February 27th, 2008 · 7 Comments

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Synopsis
Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon) – ignoring the peculiarity of his 5-year-old son Jake (Zachary David Cope), who talks to empty space and asks it questions like “Does it hurt to be dead?” – goes downstairs in his Chicago brownstone, where he learns that his wife Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) is pregnant. He first hears the news from his sister-in-law Lisa (Illeana Douglas), who knew by just looking at his wife. Tom is a telephone lineman and upon hearing he’s about to be a father again, expresses regret that his life turned out so “ordinary.”

At a party, Tom gets into an argument with Lisa – “a practically licensed hypno-therapist” – about the legitimacy of her tradecraft. He challenges Lisa to hypnotize him. While under his sister-in-law’s spell, Tom has a violent hallucination. Returning home, his visions intensify: a cracked tooth, broken fingernail and a young girl being attacked. Going to his living room, he’s confronted by the spectral figure of the girl sitting on his sofa. His son takes notice of this. “You’re awake now, Daddy.”

When Tom asks Lisa what she did to him, she tells him that she suggested he open his mind up. This manifests in Tom seeing flashes of red when he meets a babysitter (Liza Weil) whose sister recently disappeared from the neighborhood. Jake possesses the same vision his father now does, but doesn’t want to talk about it because it scares his mother. Tom asks around about the missing girl, and receives a premonition of his neighbor (Kevin Dunn) warning him “They’re gonna kill you, Tom. You and Maggie both.”

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Strolling through a cemetery, Maggie and Jake are approached by a police officer (Eddie Bo Smith Jr.) who recognizes Jake’s ability to see the dead. He later tells her that her husband is a receiver as well. He asks what the ghost in their house has asked Tom to do. “She’s asked for something, and now she’s waiting, getting more and more pissed off that he’s not doing it.” Tom demands his sister-in-law close whatever door she opened in his mind, but instead of getting rid of the visions, he receives a message: “Dig.”

Production history
In 1997, screenwriter and director David Koepp was looking to make a spooky movie and was searching for a story. He was in a used bookstore in Brentwood and found a 1958 novel by one of his favorite authors – Richard Matheson – titled A Stir of Echoes. The movies that scared Koepp most were ones he felt created a believable domestic situation, like The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby. Matheson’s novel did as well and Koepp’s manager Gavin Polone purchased the screen rights.

In adapting the novel to screenplay, Koepp updated the setting from a tract housing development in Southern California to a blue collar neighborhood in Chicago, where Koepp’s mother had grown up and he had spent time as a child. After Andrew Kevin Walker was brought in to give Koepp’s script a bit more of an edge, the project was greenlit by Artisan Entertainment at a budget of $12 million. Stir of Echoes was shot on location in Chicago over 39 days.

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Screened before test audiences, Stir of Echoes played through the roof. Focus groups enthusiastically compared it to The Shining. But Disney had their own movie set for release about a boy who could see ghosts. It was called The Sixth Sense. Wary of their competition, the studio moved their film up from October to August. M. Night Shyamalan’s chiller became a critical and commercial sensation. Opening a month later, Stir of Echoes was regarded by many critics as a pale imitation. Audiences ignored it.

Opinion
If Stir of Echoes had been released earlier, today we might be saying “M. Night who?” By the time critics and audiences got a look at it, Stir of Echoes was sharing theaters with The Haunting and The Blair Witch Project as well. Of all those movies, Stir of Echoes is the best. Koepp borrows from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Poltergeist – without Steven Spielberg’s visual panache or emotional wallop – but does plant the film firmly in reality, resulting in an experience both believable and scary.

By investing care in its characters and environment, and engineering suspense around those characters and environment, Stir of Echoes feels far more primal than most thrillers. Though never quite unsettling, the film is intensely creepy throughout. The hypnosis sequences and premonitions are very imaginatively visualized, while the casting of Kevin Bacon, Kathryn Erbe and Illeana Douglas – all great character actors, and great characters in this script – make the mystery that much more rewarding.

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Michael Scrutchin at Flipside Movie Emporium writes, “As a horror-thriller, Stir of Echoes delivers the goods for the most part. It kept me jittery and on edge most of way through, and even delivered some nervous laughs … You might figure out the answer to the mystery 20 minutes before Tom does, but the climax is still exciting, if not over too quick.”

“Fast on the heels of the 1998 Matheson-based debacle What Dreams May Come, the excellent Stir of Echoes deftly pays justice to the novel of the same name. It also stands as one of the most impressive horror films of the year, an engrossing, creatively directed ghost story full of terrific performances,” writes Sarah Kendzior at The 11th Hour.

Angus Wolfe Murray at Eye For Film writes, “The flaw in David Koepp’s film is that it tries to do too much. A little bit of weirdness goes a long way. Piling it on is an acceptable part of the Hellraiser genre, but this is neither camp nor hilarious. Rosemary’s Baby had one central terror. It was more than enough. Stir Of Echoes has many, one of them being Zachary David Cope, who plays Jake with such chilling conviction there is a suspicion of alien possession.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on novel · Bathtub scene · Brother/sister relationship · Dreams and visions · Father/son relationship · Midlife crisis · Mother/son relationship · Paranoia

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Burbanked // Feb 28, 2008 at 6:38 am

    GREAT post, Joe – I love this movie!

    I think I’ve featured your site before in my “From the brains of other bloggers” box; this is a bit in which I choose a particularly good sentence or two and link it – wildly removed from its context – back to your post, which I’ve done with your article today.

  • 2 Marilyn // Feb 28, 2008 at 8:45 am

    Joe, great review of an unfairly overlooked film. I saw this several months after viewing The Sixth Sense (whose secret I guessed in the first 10 minutes), and thought it was far superior (even factoring out my prejudice in favor of any Chicago-based movie that feels like Chicago to me and includes an Chicago actor [Erbe]). Kevin Bacon is one of my favorite actors, able to perform balancing acts of great daring without a net (see The Woodsman). I hope your readers will seek this film out. Thanks for highlighting it.

  • 3 Shawna // Mar 1, 2008 at 7:28 am

    How did I miss this one?? You know how much I love this genre of movie…It sounds wonderfully scary…but not enough to make me pee my pants….LOL I’m going to rent it tonight….Thanks for profiling it….

  • 4 Chuck // Mar 3, 2008 at 7:19 am

    Agree that this picture ages better than any of the movies that were around at that time. Kevin Bacon is a frequently terrific, overlooked actor, and brings believability to even the most absurd of prospects (check out DEATH SENTENCE for proof of this).

    I am also a Richard Matheson fan, and I’ve read the source material, though I can’t remember it too well. I think the book and the movie are fairly similar though.

  • 5 Dave // Mar 4, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    Joe –

    It is great to hear someone mention Stir of Echoes in a good light. I have heard too many bad things about it even though I quite enjoyed it. I think part of the problem for most is Kevin Bacon (some have a hard time taking him seriously). I for one really think Kevin Bacon is great. Stir of Echoes deserved a better applause than it recieved for sure. Great site by the way!

  • 6 Joe Valdez // Mar 4, 2008 at 3:26 pm

    Alan: I was surprised to find so many lukewarm to hostile reviews written for Stir of Echoes when it was released. Almost all the critics mentioned how much better The Sixth Sense was, but I could not disagree more. Thanks for your enthusiastic comment and for adding me to your site’s honor roll.

    Marilyn: I was wondering what a woman who calls the Windy City home would have to say about this movie. I think it’s great how much alcohol is consumed by Tom’s neighbors. If this movie had been set in California, you would have seen an intervention of some sort being arranged. As for Kathryn Erbe, I didn’t realize she was from Chicago. Now I have yet another reason to like her. Thanks for the recommendation of The Woodsman.

    Shawna: I don’t know why we never saw this one together. Oh yeah! I probably didn’t want bruises on my arm. Thanks for commenting!

    Chuck: There aren’t many actors you could assemble a more impressive montage of career moments for than Kevin Bacon. For me, the job he really nailed out of the park was Apollo 13. As for Richard Matheson, I’ve never read any of his books, but you and the rest of Hollywood have me curious. You don’t see many 50 year old novels being made into big budget movies like I Am Legend.

    Dave: I really can’t have a conversation with people who get so hung up on actors they think they like or don’t like that they let that factor into whether they see a particular movie. I have watched movies featuring performers who irritate me – like Melanie Griffith – that were great. My only concern is whether it’s a good film and I should really cut this short because I appear to be preaching to the choir. Thanks for commenting and for “keepin it real!” at Dave’s Movie Reviews.

  • 7 AR // Mar 10, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    For some reason I’ve avoided seeing this film, but having heard/read some good reviews like this one since its release, I’m thinking maybe I should finally make an effort to see it.

    And I agree with everyone who says Kevin Bacon is underrated.

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