STIR OF ECHOES. Solid R-rated horror movie with excellent Kevin Bacon
… and just a month after the huge success of the surprising The Sixth Sense. Although the film by Koepp, a well-known screenwriter responsible for works like Jurassic Park or, staying on topic, The Mummy, managed to almost double its modest $12 million budget based on the popularity of horror cinema at that time (the Scream series was still triumphant), the formidable competition ultimately prevented it from spreading its wings and naturally becoming a modern classic (although it has achieved cult status).
Moreover, not only the genre but also the themes that Stir of Echoes shares with M. Night Shyamalan’s film. In both productions, we have a child who can communicate with ghosts; in both, a crime must be solved, while simultaneously, it seems to guide the older mentor (here the father) back on the right path. Koepp’s project, which also had Andrew Kevin Walker, the co-creator of the cult classic Se7en, involved, does not place the weight of its plot on constantly surprising the viewer. In comparison to the mentioned films, it comes across as quite conventional. While there are twists, it is, in many ways, a typical horror movie set in an American suburb among a typical working-class family.
Specifically, the setting of Stir of Echoes is Chicago (where the entire film was also shot, with Fred Murphy, a good friend of Kevin Bacon from Murder in the First and later the cinematographer for The Mothman Prophecies with Richard Gere, handling the cinematography). There, in what the residents describe as a respectable neighborhood, recently moved the Witzky family: Tom (Bacon), Maggie (Kathryn Erbe), and young Jake (Zachary David Cope). Initially, no one pays much attention to the fact that Jake is talking to some invisible friend. However, during one of the parties, when Tom undergoes hypnosis performed by Maggie’s friend Lisa (the distinct Illeana Douglas), the idyllic life takes a turn.
Tom starts experiencing incredibly realistic nightmares – both in his dreams and in reality. In these nightmares, he encounters a peculiar figure of a girl who clearly wants to convey something to him. At first, Tom begins to lose his grip on reality (and if there’s one thing Bacon can do exceptionally well, it’s losing his mind), then he tries to get rid of this newly acquired skill, which operates independently of his will. Finally, deciphering the message becomes his obsession, something no one understands, and it pushes the family to the brink of mental health. Only Jake, with his disarming sincerity, asserts that there’s nothing to be afraid of…
The plot of Stir of Echoes could be further deliberated upon without revealing too much. As I mentioned earlier, this film is capable of surprises, but it does so exceptionally subtly, almost naturally. Subsequent revelations are just logical extensions of the story, which we can only applaud for the well-executed work, without being left with our jaws on the floor due to earth-shattering truths that even the Spanish Inquisition wouldn’t have expected. Much like in The Sixth Sense, the foundation here is a poignant drama, shrouded in a dense atmosphere of impenetrable mystery and contrasted with supernatural circumstances. Moreover, it’s filled with directorial tricks. If Stir of Echoes was known for something around its premiere, it was the original visual sphere.
More precisely, it was the scenes with a ghost that moves in a truly bizarre way, reminiscent of some of David Lynch’s visions. Interestingly, this effect was achieved with equally low-budget and equally amusingly simple methods. Fortunately, it’s not the only asset of the entire film. The other audio-visual tricks, including the never-released classical horror music by James Newton Howard (along with the hit Paint it Black), can be counted as a solid craft, creating a decently eerie atmosphere. The rest of the elements of this production also perform adequately, starting with the colorful supporting cast, featuring seasoned actors like Kevin Dunn, as well as others including Mary Kay Cook, Jennifer Morrison, and the Slavic-heritage-infused Lusia Strus.
Of course, none of this would have a chance if it weren’t for the well-handled family subplots and Kevin Bacon, who shines in them. He not only creates excellent chemistry with his screen wife and child but even manages to establish a compelling relationship with a piece of land and a shovel. His presence is electrifying from the very first scenes. This is definitely his show, and he’s worth more than one viewing. The distinctive and likable actor captivates with his charisma. Although he doesn’t exactly elevate Stir of Echoes to a higher level, he delivers an excellent performance, considered one of the best in his career, according to the late Roger Ebert.
Abstracting, however, from the likable character of Tom and the powerhouse that is Kevin, the film itself also generally received good reviews, which is not difficult to understand. This slightly less than two-hour tale has everything one might expect from a good horror movie: tension, action, blood, violence, mystery, sex, a touch of madness hidden in the frames, expertly escalating uncertainty, a bit of fear, and a hint of enjoyable humor for relaxation – all in the right doses, of high quality, and with the highly desirable R rating.
The only thing it might have lacked is a somewhat less stereotypical resolution, which strikes with its circumstances, literalness, and simplicity. It’s also a bit of a shame that some of the potential of the world presented in the film went unexplored. The sudden, strongly reminiscent of The Shining introduction of another character into the plot – interestingly, also a bald African American – with supernatural abilities, along with the accompanying user manual, and the equally swift abandonment of this character, makes it abundantly clear that the creators were aiming for (perhaps not just one) a sequel.
This sequel ultimately arrived in the form of a stretched TV production from 2007, with a typically VHS-sounding title, Stir of Echoes: The Homecoming. Originally named The Dead Speak, it doesn’t have much in common with the original, referring to it practically only through the distant background character of Jake – portrayed by a different actor, as Zachary David Cope didn’t try to follow in the footsteps of Haley Joel Osment, and Stir of Echoes remains his only film credit (okay, the keen eye might also spot him in a scene from the comedy Wedding Daze, a year older, but it’s hardly considered a role).
What it couldn’t achieve in theaters, Stir of Echoes made up for in the home video market, eventually gaining a dedicated fan base and a status that’s not so much a cult classic as one of the best horror films of the 1990s. But even if we look beyond that magical period, this nearly twenty-year-old film stands out as exceptionally well-crafted among most contemporary horror films. You might disagree with this, of course, but it truly has something that makes it impossible to look away from…