Stir of Echoes (1999)

3 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Stir of Echoes” is a terrific supernatural thriller that uses the horror subgenre, the “ghost story,” and manages to tell a truly original story with intelligent writing, while remembering that the best ghost stories have to do with atmosphere, solid narrative, and character development. And while it does have its jump-scares, it’s not filled with them to attempt more shocks from its audience. Most of it is low-key and the writer-director, David Koepp (best known for his Hollywood screenplays such as “Jurassic Park” and “Death Becomes Her,” among many others), just focuses on telling the story with a quiet approach in order to increase the tension level. As a result, it’s a strong, well-executed, and quite unnerving thriller.

Based on the novel by Richard Matheson, the story involves a husband and wife—Tom and Maggie Witzky (Kevin Bacon and Kathryn Erbe); regular people with normal everyday lives. They live in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago. They’re hard workers. They go out with friends. They have a little son, Jake (Zachary David Cope). And they’re able to make ends meet. They’re very real, and quite likeable as a result.

Tom and Maggie are at a party with Maggie’s sister Lisa (Illeana Douglas) claims she can hypnotize people. Tom states that he believes he can’t be hypnotized, and so he challenges Lisa to attempt it. Lisa manages to put Tom under a deep trance. But when he comes to, he starts to see distorted, fragmented visions of a violent event, as well as the ghost of a teenage girl who seems to be haunting his house.

Who is this ghost? Why is she haunting this house? Why is Tom’s son able to see her too? Can these visions be controlled? How do all these visions fit into what happened (or what will happen)?

It’s obvious these visions are never going to stop, and Tom tries to find answers to all these new questions, as his search to piece together the puzzle leads to obsession. He finds himself neglecting his wife and friends, and even losing his job as well. He becomes so obsessed to solve everything that’s being thrown at him that when he advised, in another hypnosis attempt, to “dig,” he digs up the entire backyard before moving on to the cellar with a jackhammer.

How Koepp is able to show us Tom’s obsession is an example of masterful filmmaking. He actually lets us into Tom’s unhinged mentality (with indistinct point-of-view shots and slick camera movements) so we can be as confused as he is, and therefore can figure things out along with him. Tom is obsessed to the point where he doesn’t care all that much for everything and everyone else around him. And Maggie tries to support him, but this is all becoming too much for her to handle. She’s genuinely worried about her husband, worried that he has lost his mind. Only their son is able to understand, because he has the gift of talking with the ghost girl; while Tom turns to him, Maggie is mostly left in the dark, unable to understand what’s happening. “Stir of Echoes” tells a very effective obsession study in that sense.

Everything in the story builds and builds with new developments regarding the mystery of the plot. It’s interesting how everything seems to fit; you have to watch this movie a second time in order to go back and fully recognize an element you may not have noticed before. I love films that do that. The only thing I wished I could have seen more of is a subplot involving a group of gifted people who share Tom and Jake’s gift of “Receiving.” Maggie has one intriguing scene with a “Receiver,” who is also a cop, and nothing else is made of it, except we know that Tom and Jake have the ability to see the supernatural. I personally would have liked to see more of that group that this guy is in, but oh well—you go with what you got.

The characterization is nicely-handled, as it is always refreshing to find believable protagonists to follow in ghost stories such as this; that’s what helps make them all the more effective aside from the eeriness that is offered. The acting is top-notch. Kevin Bacon, in my opinion, delivers his very best performance as Tom—he’s very believable as a conflicted everyman with a supernatural element that leads him to obsession. Kathryn Erbe does solid work as well, strongly conveying Maggie’s nervousness to aid her husband. I also really liked Illeana Douglas as Maggie’s new-age sister Lisa.

“Stir of Echoes” is a strong, eerie, intelligent, well-acted, very well-done supernatural thriller. It’s smarter than most films of its kind, and manages to keep viewers invested in solving an intriguing mystery along with the characters. It’s a skillful thriller.

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