Sceptical Tom Witzky allows his sister-in-law to hypnotise him at a party because he doesn’t believe she can do it and takes her up on a dare. She manages to but shortly afterwards Tom begins to hallucinate and has visions of a dead girl around his house. It seems as though something in his mind has been unlocked and he has become a receptor of supernatural forces. He begins a quest to find out what happened to the girl and why she is haunting his dreams and his house in order to put a stop to them.
Stir of Echoes had no chance to succeed at the box office because it was inevitably going to be compared to The Sixth Sense. Supernatural horror-thrillers had seen little mainstream success over the years and it was a relatively untapped genre. So when a couple of similar films came along at once, the later one was always going to be labelled as a clone or knock-off, even though Stir of Echoes was out the same year and thus went into development at the same time. Released at the wrong time in 1999 by coming hot on the heels of The Sixth Sense, audiences already had their supernatural thrill with M. Night Shyamalan’s overrated hit and thus Stir of Echoes only managed to gross in its entire run not even as much as the The Sixth Sense had grossed in its opening weekend alone. It’s a pity because Stir of Echoes is by far the better of the two in my eyes as it’s a more satisfying whole and more even film, constantly producing the goods instead of relying on one over-exposed twist.
I’ll go on record and state that ghost stories have never been my favourite sub-genre – see how few films I’ve reviewed from this sub-genre as proof. I tend to find their approaches to be somewhat slow and plodding and I really need to be in the right mood to watch one. They’re not exactly full of memorable moments as their effectiveness usually relies upon an assured build, cranking tension and atmosphere up as the film goes on. I’m a simply man of simple pleasures and prefer to see people ripped apart by monsters or psychos so patience sometimes is not my virtue when confronted with ghostly goings-on. However I must say that Stir of Echoes had been hooked all the way through.
The underlying story is predictable and Stir of Echoes proceeds along the lines of a typical murder-mystery, with various cryptic clues scattered around to assist Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon) in solving the crime. The major problem here is with the finale and it was always going to be a let-down as we can see it coming a mile away courtesy of the familiar build-up. But thankfully the film has done a great job of keeping things flowing quickly that your interest will remain right until the last frame. A number of great scares are strewn throughout the film with the ghostly figure of the little girl popping up on a number of occasions in surprising locations. Never outright nasty, the film at least manages to keep a rather menacing tone going meaning you’re never sure whether the film is about to hit you with a brutal sucker punch or not.
The more effective scenes are those which involve little in the way of ‘boo’ scares and more in the way of eerie build-up. Bacon’s character, Tom Witky, begins having premonition dreams which leads to a number of creepy moments, in particular an effective sequence involving his neighbour, his son and a loaded gun which is a dream to begin with but then Witzky starts to notice all the details from the dream are happening in real life. The audience is on edge having already seen the outcome of the dream – will it occur in the real world in the same manner? The hypnosis scenes also draw the audience into the film. They are filmed as if we are present at the event, the camera acting as Witzky’s POV – as he closes his eyes, the screen goes blank and we can only hear what is going on. It’s a great scene and one which is made all the better for the actor behind Tom Witzky.
There are a bunch of actors in Hollywood that I can guarantee are value for money in their films. They may not be the biggest paid names, and rarely headline their own big budget films, but they’re good quality supporting actors who are grossly underrated and really get into their roles, especially when they’re given the starring role of a smaller film like Stir of Echoes. Kevin Bacon is one such actor. He’s always worth a watch in whatever he’s in (OK so maybe the new ads he’s starring in on UK TV are a bit annoying) and Stir of Echoes is no exception. He channels the intensity, paranoia, frustration, confusion and near insanity of his character down to a tee. There are elements of Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining here and Bacon does well to keep things on the ground without coming off as too over-the-top. Kathryn Erbe, who plays his wife in the film, is an excellent foil for him. The two have a good chemistry and create a believable and workable view of marriage and family life in which to unleash this ghostly menace. No pretentious teenager leads here. No caricatures. Just honest, hard-working family people we can associate with which really hammers home the horror of their situation when it all goes pear-shaped – just the way horror films should be.
Stir of Echoes is not appreciated enough and I wonder if that’s down to The Sixth Sense effect. Who knows what would have happened had the film releases been swapped around. Whilst this may not contain the shocking twist ending of its counterpart, it does a better all-round job of delivering the supernatural scares. The finale lets Stir of Echoes down but the rest of the film is chilling stuff.