Stir of Echoes (1999) **Ĺ
The great horror movie boom of 1999 booms on. Stir of Echoes will probably not be remembered as said boomís high-water mark, but it is based on a novel by Richard Matheson, and thatís nothing to take lightly. By Richard Matheson, I of course mean Richard ďI Am LegendĒ Matheson, Richard ďThe Shrinking ManĒ Matheson. His works will never be required reading in any high school English class, but he knows how to tell a good no-bullshit horror story. You could do much worse than to take one of his books as the starting point for your movie.
The story is a bit difficult to synopsize; most of the material that actually advances the plot is incidental to the scenes in which it appears. In all honesty, I think thatís the main strength of the movie. Life works the same way-- its net vector is never apparent except in retrospect-- and grounding the assorted weirdness so firmly in the day-to-day existence of the characters does much to compensate for the filmís numerous weaknesses. Basically, Stir of Echoes is about Tom (the apparently ubiquitous Kevin Bacon) and Maggie (Kathryn Erbe), a young working-class couple whose prosaic, hardscrabble lives are intruded upon by the paranormal, partly as the result of a seemingly innocent party trick.
The first scene has their young son, Jake (Zachary David Cope-- not much of an actor, but a genuinely creepy little kid) conversing in the darkened living room with an unseen presence of some sort. Then the credits roll, and the subject is dropped in favor of something much more familiar. Maggie has just learned that she is pregnant again. This isnít exactly good news. Neither she nor Tom brings home much money, and itís hard enough to make ends meet with one kid in the house. But these are the sort of people who go through life with an attitude of ďwell, weíll do what we have to do,Ē and it isnít long before Tom is talking about abandoning his bandís projected tour and arranging to work massive overtime at his phone company job. In fact, the person who seems most troubled by the whole situation is Maggieís rather flaky sister, Lisa (Cape Fearís Illeana Douglas), who has always thought of Tom as a no-account jerk, mainly, it seems, because she considers him to be unimaginative and narrow-minded. Itís too bad for Tom, too, because his basically adversarial relationship with his sister-in-law is about to bite him on the ass big time.
One of the flakier things that Lisa does is study hypnotism. One night, when she, Tom, and Maggie are all at a neighborhood party, the subject comes up in conversation and Tom, ever the skeptic, essentially dares Lisa to hypnotize him. After much initial resistance-- probably because she doesnít really think it will work on someone as hard-boiled as Tom, and sheíd rather not look like an ass in front of the whole neighborhood-- she relents and puts Tom under. We donít get to see what Tom does under hypnosis, but itís apparently pretty funny and sort of disturbing at the same time. Instead (and this is one of the movieís neater tricks), we see the scene from Tomís perspective. The screen shows us what Lisa tells Tom to picture as he goes under, and what he sees in his mind while heís there. What he sees is some pretty alarming stuff-- something about a teenage girl in a seemingly abandoned house, something about someone being attacked, something about breaking teeth and fingernails. The whole business frightens Tom clear out of his hypnosis, and he regains consciousness to see everybody in the room staring at him with awe thatís about to turn into fear. Tom tells Maggie he feels sort of sick now, and they both go home.
That night, Tom is plagued by nightmares and hallucinations. When at last he gives up on sleeping and goes downstairs to the living room, he has the creepiest of them all. Sitting on his couch is a young girl, whom he has never seen before, but who seems at the same time strangely familiar. And this, as far as everyone else in the movie is concerned, is when Tom begins to lose it. The first thing to go is his work ethic. He never goes in to work anymore, because he spends all his time waiting around the house for the girl-- who Tom believes to be a ghost-- to appear again. Heís certain she will, too, because he has learned that his son has been in communication with her for months at least. The next development is the heightened intuition. Tom always seems to know whatís about to happen, or what is currently happening somewhere beyond the range of his senses. Sometimes this comes in handy, like the time the babysitter tries to kidnap Jake (the girl hears him talking to the ghost-- who turns out to have been her long-missing sister-- and assumes that Tom and Maggie have her locked somewhere in the house), but mostly itís just disturbing, and Tom wants it to stop.
He makes the connection between the onset of his apparent psychic abilities and the time he was hypnotized by his sister-in-law. This is an astute conclusion, as it turns out that she planted a post-hypnotic suggestion that he henceforth be more open-minded. Well, heís certainly that, alright. The doors to Tomís mind have been flung open, and now all manner of weirdness is coming in. Tom convinces Lisa to hypnotize him again in order to remove the suggestion, but all does not go according to plan. While Tom is under, the ghost plants a suggestion-- or rather, an order-- of her own: Dig. Where? For what? Nevermind-- just dig. At about this point in the movie, there is a throwaway subplot in which Maggie comes into contact with a policeman who shares the same psychic gift as Jake and Tom. He too sees ghosts, and he informs Maggie that the ghost wants Tom to do things for him, and that not complying with her wishes could be very dangerous for him and those he cares about. Apparently, nobody in this movie saw The Sixth Sense two weeks back, or theyíd have known that already.
So Tom digs. Actually ďdiggingĒ doesnít quite do justice to what he does. Better to say that he embarks on a Close Encounters of the Third Kind-style obsessive campaign of excavation, turning his entire backyard into a vast mud pit, much to his wifeís chagrin. Their relationship has already been under quite a strain lately, and it looks like this may be the last straw. But then the phone rings. Tom already knows this, but itís Maggieís mother, calling to tell her that her father has just died. She tells Maggie the date of the funeral, and asks her to come as soon as she can. Now, as bad as the news is, in some sense, it could have been a minor godsend for Maggie. After all, going to the funeral would provide an excuse for Tom to stop doing the Richard Dreyfus thing, get away from his mining operation, and engage in some normal human behavior. Heís not having it, though. As Tom sees it, this mission from the ghost is about the most important thing heís ever been called upon to do with his largely meaningless life, and if the ghost wants him to dig, then heís going to keep digging until she tells him he can stop. Maggie gives up and heads off to the funeral with Jake, leaving Tom to his pickaxe.
And so the stage is set for the denouement, in which the best ten minutes of the film are followed by its most serious missteps. Tom attempts to sound sane on the phone with Maggie, all the while making an ever-larger production of digging. (Nothing in the yard-- okay, letís try under the house...) You donít need me to tell you that he eventually digs something up, and you probably donít need me to tell you what it is, either. Unfortunately, the ramifications of success are such as to totally derail the mood of the film. Exit atmospheric little ghost story, enter a climactic scene that plays like it was spliced in from the final reel of some low-grade detective movie. Suffice it to say the neighbors are not the sort of people we thought they were, Jakeís psychic talent saves the day, and a seemingly inexplicable prophetic dream from earlier in the movie is explained.
Honestly, I had a difficult time being fair to this movie. I had high expectations because of the Richard Matheson angle, and I left the theater pretty disappointed. Stir of Echoes has some major flaws any way you look at it, what with the clumsy ending and the distracting subplot about the psychic cop and his psychic buddies (who the hell ever heard of introducing an entire stable of characters into an otherwise self-sufficient cast and then doing nothing at all with them?!), but in retrospect, I donít think it was nearly as bad as I believed on first impression. Really, I think it suffered the most from hitting the theaters mere weeks after the superficially similar and markedly superior The Sixth Sense. That the little boy in Stir of Echoes is the first character to see the ghost is all but irrelevant to the story, but it serves to make an already natural comparison between the two movies inevitable, and such a comparison will just as inevitably be an unflattering one for Stir of Echoes. The fact that both stories hinge on the notion that ghosts want something from the people who see them is another obvious link, but in all fairness, the idea is scarcely original to either film-- itís a long-standing element of the ghost story as a genre, and should not be used as evidence to the effect that Stir of Echoes rips off The Sixth Sense. So Iím going to go against my gut feeling that this is a two-star movie, and give it the benefit of the doubt for two and a half, on the grounds that I think I will like it better the next time I see it.