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STIR OF ECHOES

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Kevin Bacon, Kathryn Erbe, Illeana Douglas, Kevin Dunn
Director:  David Koepp
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Artisan
Features:  See Review
Length:  94 Minutes
Release Date:  February 1, 2000

Film ***1/2

One of the main “rules” in both theatrical and filmed entertainment is the observation of the so-called “fourth wall”—in other words, the players on stage or on screen should not make direct contact with the audience.  The idea is, such an act shatters the illusion of separation between the entertainment and the entertained, an effect that is often considered unsettling or being too personal.  But like most rules, it’s one that’s made to be broken.  Early on in this film, we watch a little boy playing in a tub, speaking out loud to what seems to be no one.  But take another look, and he’s gazing directly at us, and speaking to us.  It’s innocent enough at first, until he peers right into our eyes and queries, “Does it hurt to be dead?”  And suddenly, we’re looking around for that fourth wall to give us back our security.

After finally seeing Stir of Echoes, I’m convinced this picture would have been a huge hit for Artisan any other year except ones with The Sixth Sense.  The latter film was so popular and so well received that by the time Artisan’s equally good film hit the screens, it was completely blacked out by the shadow of the juggernaut. 

The comparisons are inevitable, so let’s just get them right out of the way up front.  Don’t think of this movie as “I see more dead people”.  Instead, think of it as a smart, suspenseful mix of elements from The Shining, The Dead Zone, even a little Close Encounters.  The film is about more than just seeing ghosts, in other words.  It’s about waking up that dormant part of our mind that can perceive things beyond our normal scope.

Tom (Bacon) is a typical blue collar man with a family in the suburbs.  He leads a very normal life (“ordinary”, by his own words), until he volunteers to be the subject of hypnosis by his sister in law (Douglas).  There is a long running theory some psychologists hold that we humans use only about 10% of our brain, and that it is possible in some cases through hypnosis or some kind of mental shock to awaken the extra sensory part of our minds.  In any case, that’s what’s happens to Tom.

His world is turned upside down, as he is haunted by images and visions that spring from nowhere, often leaving him scared, suffering from headaches, and losing sleep.  He has become a “receiver”, but he’s not yet got the hang of it enough to sort out all of the new stimuli that bombard him.  Like a true medium, he sometimes senses events before they happen, or even traces of ones that happened long ago.  He is particularly haunted by one particular ghost named Samantha, one that his little boy seems to have been communicating with for some time.  Samantha obviously wants something…the question is if Tom’s perceptions are strong enough to unravel the puzzle, or if he will even remain sound enough to do so.

Tom’s nightmare, over the course of the film, even begins to take its toll on his marriage, as his wife Maggie (Erbe) doesn’t share the same “gift” as her husband and son.  At any rate, Tom’s obsession seems to be growing worse and more self destructive, and every family has a breaking point.

Basically, the style of the film is to wrap a rather intriguing, suspenseful mystery thriller in the package of a supernatural scare flick.  Overall, this picture probably has more satisfying chills than The Sixth Sense (that comparison again), though it might lack a bit of the dramatic solidity.  Screenwriter/director David Koepp has created a rather spooky manner in which to tell his tale.  You never really know what’s coming, or when it’s coming.  There might be a scare with a topper or two thrown immediately onto the fire, then again, the picture might linger safely for many minutes.  He keeps you quite poised on the edge of your seat, and while you wait with anticipation and apprehension for what happens next, he has you in exactly the frame of mind he wants you in to tell his story.  I’ve never read the book by Richard Matheson, but my initial impression is that it must have been quite a cinematic book, filled with the potential for memorable and startling visual images.

Kudos to Kevin Bacon, often an under-appreciated actor, who turns in a terrific performance here as a normal man slowly unraveling from external pressures…the best such acting job I’ve seen since Stellan Skarsgard in Insomnia.

And there is a kind of smartness inherent in the picture that I think most fans will appreciate.  There are little subtleties along the way that imbed themselves in your memory to be recalled at just the right moments later on.  And the further you progress into the film, the more you will appreciate the fact that though it sometimes seem chaotic, it’s a carefully controlled chaos, and under strong, sane leadership the whole way.  The overall result is a satisfying, intriguing, unsettling cinematic experience that makes for great entertainment.

Disc Quality ***

Artisan’s anamorphic transfer is, for the most part, a commendable effort.  There are a few low lighting sequences—mostly near the beginning—where images are rendered a bit softly, and with a touch of bleeding and unnatural tones in the coloring, but apart from those, the rest of the transfer is quite enjoyable, with no visible grain or compression and stronger, more crisply drawn images. 

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 soundtrack is remarkable; dynamic and busy.  Ambient and creepy sound effects emanate from all corners of your room, adding that extra unnerving touch to the experience.  Given the nature of the film, the audio certainly contributes to the overall fright factor.

Features ***

The disc contains a trailer and some TV spots, a music video, a commentary track by David Koepp, cast and crew info, production notes, a promotional featurette and a rather poor “behind the scenes” segment, that lasts about five minutes and consists of home-movie style clips that start and stop with no organization and no coherency.

Summary:

Stir of Echoes may have gotten knocked out in the first round at the box office by a heavyweight champion of a film that did the same thing to many other competitors, but that certainly doesn’t mean it isn’t a quality movie in its own right.  Fans of that other film are bound to find an equally intense, suspenseful, scary and satisfying thrill ride here, and one that’s smartly conceived and expertly crafted to boot.