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November 1, 2011

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DVD of the Week – Review of Stir of Echoes (1999)

by NIR SHALEV

Just one month after M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999) came out, Stir of Echoes was released in the theaters and no one went to see it. As a matter of fact, even until today many people haven’t heard of it. That’s too bad because it’s a terrific film and one that I prefer to The Sixth Sense. This film has a greater imagination, a greater sense of danger, and is composed of a mixture of good ‘ol fashion ghost storytelling and film noir. If ever there was a film that had combined those two genres, it was this film.

Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon) is a utility linesman who lives in a Chicago neighborhood with his wife Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) and five year old son Jake (Zachary David Cope). They are surrounded by college football, street parties, booze parties, and a very friendly and lively neighborhood.

One evening, while slightly intoxicated, Tom overhears Maggie’s sister Lisa (Illeana Douglas) talking about hypnosis and he’s intrigued. He’s a complete skeptic but convinces her to hypnotize him. Tom is put under hypnosis and eventually awakens to a great thirst. He is told by the other party members that while he was under he had a needle stuck into his hand and that he was telling stories of when he used to get beat up by a bully as a teenager. He remembers nothing of what had apparently transpired and that night, he has a terrible series of visions.

Tom hallucinates that a dead girl is sitting in his living room and is trying to communicate with him, and he feels the visions he had earlier are connected to her death. He begins to ask around the neighborhood about a missing girl who may be the girl that he’s hallucinated about, but finds only dead ends.

Tom and Maggie’s son Jake speaks to ghosts. From the first shot of the film we see him talking to someone who isn’t there and as the film progresses we become aware that Jake is gifted. But now, so is Tom and he wants the doorway that was opened in his mind to be shut for good because he is beginning to feel what the dead girl feels (a great and constant thirst, headaches). And Maggie begins to believe that Tom is losing his mind. Well, he just might be.

This film is based on a novel written by Richard Matheson. Yes, THE Richard Matheson, who wrote the first season of the original Twilight Zone series and the masterful novel I Am Legend. Not having read the novel I can’t detail whether the film resembles it in any way but one thing’s for sure, the film definitely feels like a Matheson story.

Kevin Bacon is a good actor. He hasn’t shown it a lot in his career but he does so in this film. It’s one of the great reasons to watch it. The atmosphere is creepy because the locale is a familiar suburban setting, and yet the visions and hallucinations that Tom suffers draw the audience towards enjoying a good horror film. The sequence in which Tom is put under hypnosis is one of the best sequences in the film; it uses a good amount of practical special effects and takes place within the psyche.

There is a good mystery here and it’s told with convincing performances. Aside from the ghost aspect, it’s a relatively plausible concept. The fact that the film takes a film noir approach reminds me of exactly what made Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow a masterful film: that behind the most heinous crimes, instances, and creatures exist stories that make sense. They may be a tad complex but they’re always easy to understand once the mystery is solved.

This film’s director and screenwriter David Koepp had worked on several screenplays for Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, David Fincher, and even Sam Raimi. With Stir of Echoes he utilizes its 99 minute running time to tell an entire story without leaving any loose ends or having any superfluous shots or sequences. This was early in his directorial career so I hope that he can repeat the success. Regardless, this gem should not be missed. It’s creepy, well acted, well paced, and tells a good story.

What’s better than watching a good horror film in honor of Halloween? A good horror film that you haven’t seen before. This is that movie.

Stir of Echoes is available on DVD and Blu-ray. Extras on the “special edition” DVD release (and presumably the Blu-ray, although I wasn’t able to find product info to confirm) are several behind-the-scenes short features on the making of the film, screen test clips, and deleted scenes.

New releases this week: Crazy Stupid Love, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Water for Elephants


4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nov 1 2011

    Hey, a few of us saw it in the theater. :-) Great pick for a DVD recommendation. It was filmed on-location in an old Chicago working class neighborhood, and that and the performances give it a down to earth feel that heightens the supernatural horror of the ghost story.

  2. Nov 1 2011

    I’m glad that you liked it, also. It really is little known because of The Sixth Sense, which can’t be wacthed more than once (personally).

    Richard, if you hadn’t seen it, do so. :O)

  3. Richard Winters
    Nov 2 2011

    Okay, I will. However, I was never a big fan of ‘The Sixth Sense’. It seemed kind of one-dimensional to me and I didn’t like all that shadowy lighting. Also, I figured out that ‘twist’ ending looooooooong before the ending even came about.

  4. Nov 2 2011

    Great thing about Stir of Echoes is that it’s not reliant on a twist ending but rather just a good, traditional mystery. Plus, its protagonist is going through some seriously psychologically trippy stuff. :O)

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