Stir of Echoes (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Stir of Echoes belongs to one of the oldest genres of horror films: the ghost story. And, unlike a multitude of subpar entries that have borne this appellation over the years, it's mostly effective. Like all good ghost stories, it understands that the intent is to build suspense through atmosphere and a strong narrative, not through a barrage of sudden shocks and copious gore. In fact, ghost stories are often at their strongest when they remain low key, trying to develop a vague sense of disquiet rather than striving for bone-chilling scares. The reason is quite simple - most movies that attempt the latter approach fail miserably at it, and end up looking campy, overwrought, or downright silly.

The main characters are both normal, likable people (the best sorts to base a story about the supernatural around) - husband and wife Tom (Kevin Bacon) and Maggie (Kathryn Erbe). Both are hard workers, and, with their combined incomes, they can just about make ends meet for their family, which includes a five year-old boy named Jake (Zachary David Cope) and another baby on the way. One night, at a party, Tom allows himself to be hypnotized by Maggie's new-agey sister, Lisa (Illeana Douglas). While she's in his mind, she leaves a suggestion for him to "open up." This results in Tom beginning to experience paranormal experiences, including seeing the ghost of a teenage girl (Jenny Morrison) in his living room. He becomes obsessed with initiating a second contact with the ghost, losing his job and neglecting his friends and family in the process. Only his son understands - because, like Tom, Jake also has strange visions of dead people.

As in his previous directorial effort, The Trigger Effect, director David Koepp does an excellent job of creating atmosphere. Stir of Echoes is an eerie movie; Koepp gets us into Tom's unstable mindset through a series of tight closeups and distorted point-of-view shots. As a study of obsession, the film is first-rate. Tom's tunnel vision focuses on the ghost to the virtual exclusion of all else. Maggie desperately wants to support him, but, not being able to share the experience with him, she is unable to understand the forces that are driving him.

The two main characters (Tom and Maggie) are nicely developed. There's a believability about them that's often absent from protagonists in this kind of movie; it's easy to relate to them and they react in credible ways. The presence of a ghost frightens and unsettles them, and Stir of Echoes concentrates a great deal of its attention on the pressures that Tom's vision places upon their formerly rock-solid marriage. Actors Kevin Bacon and Kathryn Erbe (Dream with the Fishes) do solid jobs bringing their characters to life. Bacon is effective as a man withdrawing into himself and Erbe conveys Maggie's growing desperation at her husband's strange behavior.

In its tone, although not in plot details or character specifics, Stir of Echoes recalls a small 1996 British horror film called Haunted. Both films concentrate on building a strong atmosphere and centering the story on character development. Some will also see similarities to M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense. Koepp eschews the guerilla tactics employed by most horror directors to generate a momentary scare; instead, he allows the tension to grow at a slow, gradual rate. In a way, the climax is disappointing, because it goes against the grain of this philosophy and relies on a common (and unsatisfying) plot device to wrap things up. The last ten-to-fifteen minutes of Stir of Echoes represents its weakest segment.

Stir of Echoes' box office success will almost certainly be determined in large part by word-of-mouth. It doesn't have the big name stars or directorial pedigree to automatically attract a crowd. The film is intelligent, but not so talky or esoteric that it could be labeled as an art house attraction. And, while Stir of Echoes isn't as downright disturbing as another Artisan release, The Blair Witch Project, it's still the kind of film that may give you pause the next time you walk into a dark room by yourself.

Stir of Echoes (United States, 1999)

Director: David Koepp
Cast: Kevin Bacon, Kathryn Erbe, Illeana Douglas, Kevin Dunn, Zachary David Cope
Screenplay: David Koepp based on the novel by Richard Matheson
Cinematography: Fred Murphy
Music: James Newton Howard
U.S. Distributor: Artisan Entertainment
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 1999-09-10
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1