Stir Of Echoes

Stir Of Echoes (1999)
Artisan Entertainment
Cast: Kevin Bacon, Kathryn Erbe, Illeana Douglas, Kevin Dunn
Extras: Audio Commentary, Featurette, Behind the Scenes, Trailers and TV Spots, Music Video and more...

Due to the cannibalistic nature of the Hollywood system, there have been several instances over the past decade where two films with very similar storylines have been released in a short span of time. We’ve had "Volcano" vs. "Dante’s Peak", "ANTZ" vs. "A Bug’s Life", "Armageddon" vs. "Deep Impact", "Showgirls" vs. "Striptease". In all of these cases, there was always one film that outperformed the other, both financially and critically, though it could be argued whether either party – critics and moviegoers alike – had really picked the better film. This past fall, we had another competition between similar films. "The Sixth Sense" was released in August, and "Stir of Echoes" followed in early September. As we all know, "The Sixth Sense" was the overwhelming winner of this battle, outgrossing "Stir of Echoes" by some $256 million domestically, and winning favor with many critics. But, I am here today to offer another perspective. While "The Sixth Sense" packed them into the theaters, I think that the newly released "Stir of Echoes" DVD will help more people to realize that perhaps "The Sixth Sense" is not the better film of the two.

"Stir of Echoes" is based on a novel by author Richard Matheson. Other films based on Matheson’s work include, "The Incredible Shrinking Man", "The Last Man on Earth" (which was also filmed as "Omega Man"), "Somewhere in Time", and "What Dreams May Come". He also wrote the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s "Duel". While Matheson obviously tackles many subjects within the sci-fi/fantasy/horror realm, "Stir of Echoes" is truly a tale of the supernatural and writer/director David Koepp has built upon the source novel to create a truly creepy film.
"Stir of Echoes" focuses on Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon). Witzky, along with his wife Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) and son Jake (Zachary David Cope), have recently moved into a house in urban Chicago. Tom works as a telephone lineman and Maggie is a nurse. They play with their son and go to parties with their friends. They appear to have a very normal life, except for the fact that Jake has a habit of talking to invisible people.

Then, at a party, Maggie’s sister Lisa (Illeana Douglas), who is into new-age living, begins to espouse her beliefs in hypnotism. Tom asks to be hypnotized, which Lisa reluctantly does. Tom is hypnotized and wakes up disoriented and very thirsty. After that, Tom begins to have bizarre visions of a girl in his house and of a violent attack. It seems that the hypnosis has somehow unlocked a latent psychic ability in Tom, similar to the one that Jake has. Tom begins to understand that his visions are a message leading him to solve a crime from the past. Unfortunately, the visions are also slowly driving him mad and he withdraws from Maggie and Jake. Once Tom fully understands the mystery that the visions have led him into, he finds not only his sanity at stake, but the lives of his family as well.

The similarities between "Stir of Echoes" and "The Sixth Sense" are very obvious, especially the shared plot point of a young boy who can communicate with ghosts. (Artisan wisely kept this fact out of the ads for the film and focused solely on Bacon’s character. Still, it didn’t help with the box office totals.) While the stories have some similarities, the way in which they are told is different. "The Sixth Sense" is a very subtle and deliberate film, and as I had the ending figured out before I saw it, I always felt that I was waiting for something to happen. This isn’t the case with "Stir of Echoes", which offers the hypnosis scene within the first 10 minutes of the film and I was hooked from there.

Writer/director David Koepp starts things off slowly, by only offering us a glimpse of Tom’s visions at the beginning. But, as Tom’s visions become more powerful, we get to see more and more of them. And as Tom has gained some abilities to foresee the future, there are some nice scenes that play with both time and space. Whereas "The Sixth Sense" had one big question which was answered at the end, "Stir of Echoes" has the viewer questioning the reality of what Tom is experiencing throughout the film, creating a sense of tension which builds with each scene.

One of the factors that makes "Stir of Echoes" effective is the believability of the characters. As with the Freelings in "Poltergeist", the Witzkys are an ordinary family who have been placed in an extraordinary situation. While he is establishing the supernatural plot, Koepp also lets us know that Tom and Maggie truly love each other and want to do what is right, despite their personal problems. When Tom’s visions begin, this adds a new weight to their marriage that suddenly supersedes their financial and career goal problems. Even the character of Lisa, who borders on being a stereotype of new-age followers, comes across as genuine due to her sense of humor and candidness about her skills as a hypnotist. We buy the fact that Tom’s new ability makes him incredibly thirsty. No scientific explanation is given for this in the film, but it just seems to fit.

Koepp has worked with the likes of Spielberg and DePalma, and has obviously paid close attention to these masters, as he gives "Stir of Echoes" a very nice look. The film is dark (see technical details below), with many shadows and Koepp uses a lot of blues and reds, but not overly so, ala Joel Schumacher. He mixes up his shooting style, offering long takes during dialogue scenes and juxtaposing these with the rapid-fire cutting used during Tom’s visions. The stylistic choices in the film only add to the overall sense of tension and creepiness.

"Stir of Echoes" also benefits from some fine performances. The usually bland Bacon comes across as sincere and believable here, with his Chicagoan accent adding a nice touch. As he is asked to display a full range of emotions, Bacon pulls off this demanding role. Kathryn Erbe (she played Anna in "What About Bob?" I knew I’d seen her before, but I didn’t recognize her without Richard Dreyfuss shoving a puppet in her face!) is equally good as Maggie, who must witness the demise of her husband. However, the standout in the film is 6 year old Zachary David Cope. He is excellent in the role of Jake, and brings an understated maturity to the role that makes the fact that this boy is talking to ghosts even more disturbing.

Apparently Artisan Entertainment saw the potential in "Stir of Echoes" as they have given us a feature-laden DVD. The film is presented in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>, which is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1. Note that the DVD itself is labeled "16×9 <$PS,Fullscreen>", but rest assured that it is <$PS,letterboxed>. The image is very clear and the source print is free from any obvious defects. The picture shows no artifacting. I mentioned earlier that the film is very dark. You may need to adjust the brightness setting on your monitor before viewing to achieve the optimum results.

The audio on "Stir of Echoes" is a <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 mix>, which performs very well throughout the film. During Tom’s visions, we are treated to many strange sounds, which take advantage of the surround sound and fill each speaker.

The "Stir of Echoes" DVD features an <$commentary,audio commentary> by writer/director David Koepp. It’s obvious from this commentary that Koepp is very proud of the film, but he is also very hard on himself for what he feels were mistakes. Speaking of mistakes, Koepp makes a huge one when he identifies "Duel" as the film where "a truck chases Dennis Hopper", when in fact, it’s Dennis Weaver. (Although, I’d pay to see "Duel" with Dennis Hopper, "I can’t get this frickin’ truck off my ass, man!") Koepp does a fine job of mixing personal anecdotes about the cast and crew, with technical details dealing with how the film was shot.
The DVD offers a very short (less than three minutes) featurette and about seven minutes of random behind the scenes footage. This footage would’ve benefited from some narration or introductions. We have the theatrical trailer (presented full-frame) and four TV spots. There is a music video by the Canadian band Moist for their song "Breath". While this is an OK song, I would’ve preferred to hear more of Gob’s version of The Rolling Stones "Paint it Black", which figures prominently in the film. There are informative production notes and very extensive cast and crew biographies and filmographies.

I realize that there are going to be plenty of you who disagree with me in my belief that "Stir of Echoes" is a better film than "The Sixth Sense." That’s fine. These are just opinions. What I hope that I’ve conveyed here is that "Stir of Echoes" is a film that is definitely worth seeing. The story is interesting and the film gets very creepy at times. The Artisan Entertainment DVD of "Stir of Echoes" offers a perfect package to view this film.