In every mind there is a door that has never been opened.
Stir Of Echoes — the other “I see dead people” movie of the summer of 1999.
The Witzky family lives on a close-knit block in suburban Chicago. When we first meet the Witzkys, five-year-old Jake (Zachary David Cope) is talking to an unseen person while taking a bath. His parents Tom (Kevin Bacon) and Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) are expecting another child (but forget about that — it doesn’t really figure into the plot). They leave Jake asleep while they go across the street to a party. At the party, Tom is hypnotized by Maggie’s sister Lisa (Illeana Douglas). (They may or may not have had a brother named Bart.) The simple parlor trick unlocks something in Tom’s brain. He has frightful visions that he cannot identify.
Later that night, Tom begins to hallucinate. In his living room he encounters the spirit of a young girl, but she is gone in an instant. The next day he tries to come to grips with what he saw. When a girl shows up at their house to baby-sit Jake, Tom’s mind goes haywire. As he and Maggie go to a high school football game, Tom has a premonition that something has happened to Jake. He runs home, only to find that his son and the babysitter are gone. Again acting on feelings, he follows them to a bus station, where he discovers that the babysitter is the sister of the girl he saw in his vision. The revelation starts him on a quest to find out what happened to the girl and why she is haunting their house.
It certainly wasn’t the first time in movie history that two movies with similar themes came out in close proximity of each other. Stir Of Echoes had the misfortune of being released as the word-of-mouth juggernaut behind The Sixth Sense hit full stride. How many movies about guys seeing dead people can one summer accept? Unfortunately, only one — Stir Of Echoes made as much in its entire theatrical run as The Sixth Sense made in its opening weekend. In many ways, I prefer Stir Of Echoes. For one thing, it’s a bona fide horror movie rather than a supernatural thriller. It’s also violent and creepy and scary — everything a movie about dead people should be.
For a guy who got his start doing stuff like Friday the 13th, Kevin Bacon is one heck of an actor, as he has also demonstrated in movies such as A Few Good Men and Wild Things. Bacon loses himself into the character of Tom Witzky, with a Midwestern twang and a desperate look in his eyes. Alternately he is the possessed man, the loving husband, and the concerned father, and never does he slip from blue-collar telephone linesman to Hollywood movie star. It’s an impressive performance.
Equally stellar are the three other main actors. Kathryn Erbe brings spunk and strength to the mother and wife who must cope with her husband and son’s visions. Erbe and Bacon have considerable and believable chemistry as a married couple — not an easy task for actors who barely know each other. Erbe’s short résumé belies her talents. Her only other notable roles were in What About Bob? and Kiss Of Death. (Side note: Kiss Of Death, like Stir Of Echoes, was a very underrated movie. I hope it’s released on DVD soon.) Illeana Douglas brings acerbic wit to Lisa, the casual hypnotist who unleashes the string of events. Douglas is one of my favorite “indie” actresses. She was the best thing about Fox’s mercifully short-lived sitcom “Action,” and has also appeared in GoodFellas and To Die For. I’ve saved the best for last. Zachary David Cope made his film debut as the young boy who talks to ghosts. I don’t mean to steal any sunshine from Haley Joel Osment’s fantastic work in The Sixth Sense, but it’s a shame that this boy didn’t get more of the press spotlight for the realistic and amazing job he did in this movie. It’s just creepy how blissfully unaware the boy is of the unusualness of speaking with ghosts, and how he possesses beyond-his-age understanding. Especially chilling is the scene, late at night, when Tom first sees the dead girl on their couch. As he returns to his upstairs bedroom, Jake is standing at the head of the stairs. “You’re awake now, Daddy,” he says cheerfully in a line heavy with double meaning. It’s equally chilling when he asks his dad if he’s okay, and then tells him, “Don’t be afraid of it Daddy” before he scampers off to bed. The scene puts shivers down my spine every time I see it.
Stir Of Echoes was based on a novel written in 1958 by Richard Matheson. It was adapted to the screen and directed by David Koepp. Koepp is an accomplished screenwriter, but this is only the second feature film he directed. Koepp worked on the scripts for three Brian DePalma films (Carlito’s Way, Mission: Impossible, and Snake Eyes) and two Steven Spielberg films (the two Jurassic Park movies) among many others. His other directorial effort was The Trigger Effect. Koepp eschews modern quick-cut editing in favor of a more deliberate pacing. Other than a handful of scenes, the effects were deliberately low-key so they would not distract from the story. The result is a serious movie that is frightening, not because it’s gruesome and graphic, but because it draws you into extraordinary circumstances happening to (what feel like) real people. After a friend saw The Sixth Sense, she told me that it creeped her out to be in the old house she lives in. I told her that if The Sixth Sense gave her that feeling, she’d never be able to go home after seeing Stir Of Echoes.
Artisan delivers a quality product with the Stir Of Echoes DVD. The movie is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. It’s free of digital artifacts. The black level is deep and dark without sacrificing detail. I can’t quite put my finger on how to describe it, but the picture throughout the movie has a hard-edged look to it…almost like it’s grainy but not that pronounced, like the good horror movies of the 1970s: Carrie, The Exorcist, Jaws, et cetera. It looks just like I remember it from the theatre, so I’m quite sure it’s inherent to the source material. Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, and is an awesome track. Other than the haunting scenes, the movie is mostly talking. The “haunting scenes,” however, put sounds all around you, adding significantly to the creepy atmosphere. James Newton Howard’s score is spatially integrated, and never overpowers the vocals or sound effects. Dialogue sounds clear and natural.
I’m tempted to complain about the extras. There’s an impressive list of goodies: cast bios, theatrical trailer, four television spots, a music video, a making-of featurette, behind the scenes footage, and a commentary track. However, most of the extras aren’t all that special. The cast information is extensive and is laid out in an accessible manner. The trailer is full-frame and has stereo sound. It’s interesting to see the different spins the TV spots give the movie, but they basically retread the same footage. The music video is of “Breathe” by Moist. It’s also full-frame with stereo sound. The video cleverly inserts footage of the band into footage from the movie, but is hardly a groundbreaking video or even creative compared to some of the videos in rotation on MTV. The featurette is a scant two minutes twenty seconds. The commentary track makes up for the deficiencies of the other extras. Koepp is pleasant to listen to, and gives insightful comments into the creative process and the filming of the movie (done entirely on location in Chicago). Unlike some other commentaries, I felt I actually learned about the movie, and developed a deeper appreciation for it.
Artisan committed two major gaffes with this release. One, they chose a confusing way of identifying the movie’s aspect ratio: “16:9 fullscreen version” and “Fullscreen version: Formatted from its original version to fit your screen. Enhanced for 16:9 television.” Now, for the five or six people who own 16:9 televisions, it makes no difference. For everyone else, it’s confusing. Most online retailers refer to it as full-frame, when in reality it is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio. Have no fear, black bar lovers, you’re getting a widescreen presentation. The second gaffe may not bother others, but it annoys me: there are no English subtitles. Most movies (and this one is no exception) have the dialogue mixed at a much lower volume than the score and sound effects. I live in an apartment, and to watch movies late at night I have to keep the volume down to a level that I can hear everything clearly except the dialogue. I have to either constantly jockey the remote, or turn on the subtitles. It’s so annoying when I hit the subtitle button only to see “No subtitles recorded. Switching impossible.”
If you missed Stir Of Echoes on the silver screen, it would be well worth watching at home. Minor annoyances aside, I consider it a must-buy disc.