Across the board, the year 1999 was a great one for movies. Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, Toy Story 2, Magnolia, 10 Things I Hate About You, The Matrix – all movies that still hold up today. And for horror fans, The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project – both genre classics – hit theatres within a month of one another. Not surprisingly then, some good movies fell under the radar. When Artisan Entertainment released Stir of Echoes in September 1999, The Sixth Sense was still spooking the box office. Despite Kevin Bacon’s presence and author Richard Matheson’s source material, Stir of Echoes was only a minor box office success. It may have been overshadowed in 1999, but does this supernatural thriller merit re-visiting?
Blue-collar man Tom Witzky lives a simple life in Chicago with his pregnant wife, Maggie, and son, Jake. Though Jake believes he can talk to a ghost in their house, Tom has no time for what he considers nonsense. But Tom’s sister-in-law, Lisa, believes in the paranormal. At a party, Tom goads Lisa into hypnotizing him as a joke. Not only does Lisa slip Tom into a hypnotic state, she also plants a post-hypnotic suggestion urging her brother-in-law to be “more open-minded”. Now Tom keeps seeing haunting images of a teenaged girl in his house. Later he learns this girl was in fact very real – she once lived in his house before going missing. As he searches for the truth, Tom slowly loses his rip on reality.
Stir of Echoes a Straightforward But Engaging Paranormal Thriller
Writer and director David Koepp has a long track record in Hollywood. Though he has limited background behind the camera, Koepp has penned screenplays for some big movies including Jurassic Park and Spider-Man. For his adaptation of Matheson’s novel, Koepp plays it relatively safe with the material. In many ways, Stir of Echoes plays out like many 90’s and early 2000’s horror thriller like What Lies Beneath. Several of the movie’s elements – the skeptical protagonist, the past unresolved tragedy – were tried and true narrative elements by 1999. At times, Stir of Echoes feels somewhat cliched in its inclusion of supernatural elements. There’s definitely a “been there, done that” feel to some of the movie. Most viewers will piece together the mystery before the movie’s climax.
If Stir of Echoes plays it a little safe with the material, it never feels tonally inconsistent with the story, which really doesn’t require shock value.
However, this isn’t necessarily a criticism. Stir of Echoes often feels like “horror comfort mood” and Koepp’s decision to focus heavily on Tom Witzky’s psychological breakdown helps the movie stand out. Even if the movie’s mystery tips its hand, Koepp streamlines the story to keep it thoroughly engaging. If Stir of Echoes plays it a little safe with the material, it never feels tonally inconsistent with the story, which really doesn’t require shock value. Perhaps Stir of Echoes biggest story-telling problem is its tendency to introduce certain tangential story threads that never link back up with the main story. Stir of Echoes introduces other “paranormal-sensitive” characters, but it’s an idea largely left unexplored.
Stir of Echoes “Stirs” Up Enough Scares Under Koepp’s Steady Hand
While Koepp had limited directorial experience, he clearly knows his way around a camera. Much like its story, Stir of Echoes delivers its scares in a rather straightforward manner. Additionally, Stir of Echoes almost feels old-fashioned, largely avoiding gruesomeness or explicit gore in spite of its subject matter. In many ways, Koepp’s approach distinguishes his movie from the slasher-lite renaissance of the late 90s and the “Torture Porn” era that was on its way. Most of the suspense is intertwined with Tom Witzky’s increasingly fragile mental state. But thanks to some tight pacing and a handful of well-executed jump scares, Stir of Echoes is a surprisingly effective supernatural thriller. An unexpected visitor on the Witzky couch still packs a punch even after repeated viewings.
Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon
Since debuting in National Lampoon’s Animal House, Kevin Bacon has amassed an impressive list of film credits. Yet in spite of starring in some high-pedigree movies, Bacon has never turned his nose up to returning to the horror genre since his supporting role in Friday the 13th. Bacon has starred in cult-classic Tremors, Flatliners, and Hollow Man. If Stir of Echoes’ felt a little pedestrian, Bacon’s performance goes a long way towards elevating the material.
…Bacon exudes a natural, likeable charisma, which makes his increasing obsession all the more compelling.
And it’s a good thing because Bacon is in the majority of scenes. Matheson and Koepp’s story needs the audience to identify with Bacon’s “everyman” character and Bacon obliges. As Tom Witzky, Bacon exudes a natural, likeable charisma, which makes his increasing obsession all the more compelling. In fact, much of the movie’s tension comes from your fear for Tom’s sanity. Everyone else is quite good, particularly Ileana Douglas, but it’s Bacon’s movie.
Stir of Echoes “Sees Dead People”, Too
Timing is everything. And unfortunately for Stir of Echoes, both its subject-matter and release date overlapped too much with The Sixth Sense. In the summer of 1999, movies like The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense were genre game-changers. In contrast, Stir of Echoes was a rather straightforward supernatural thriller. Nevertheless, this Kevin Bacon paranormal vehicle is still a fun, suspenseful ride with more than enough scares to satisfy horror fans. Bacon’s performance is a top-notch reminder of his talent, while Koepp’s handle of the supernatural material is strong. You made have skipped Stir of Echoes in 1999, but it’s certainly worth your attention.