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Stir of Echoes Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 November 2006

Image “Stir of Echoes” is another of the many Blu-Ray releases that make a critic want to throw up his hands in resignation. Why has someone gone to the time and expense of converting this film into high definition video? Very, very little is gained visually, although the DTS HD High Resolution ES Audio track is excellent. But that was due more to the production mixer than to the conversion of this film into video. There’s nothing particularly wrong with “Stir of Echoes,” and it’s a handsomely photographed film (DP: Fred Murphy). Care was taken with the Chicago neighborhood locations; it looks like a place real people live—because it is. But even the crispest, cleanest images here are still just shots of people in ordinary surroundings. Yes, you can make out the texture of the wallpaper, the grit on the cement sidewalks, the moistness of the soil that star Kevin Bacon turns over when he obsessively spades up his back yard. Was this a particularly good-selling DVD in standard format? If not, surely there must have been movies more worthy of this treatment than “Stir of Echoes.”

Not that it’s a bad movie. It’s based on a 1959 novel by the famed fantasy/horror writer Richard Matheson, though he called his book “A Stir of Echoes.” I wonder if removing that single letter A took a meeting among the producers of this film?

Tom Witzky (Bacon) is an ordinary guy; we know he is, because he tells us so, with regret, in the first few minutes of the film. He’s content in his marriage to Maggie (“Law & Order CI”’s Kathryn Erbe), and he’s deeply fond of his young son, Jake (Zachary David Cope)—who, like a boy in another 1999 movie, can hear dead people. (Writer-director Koepp was blindsided by “The Sixth Sense.” He certainly didn’t steal from a movie he hadn’t seen.) Mainly, Jake hears someone named Samantha. He’s not afraid of her, and rarely mentions her directly to his parents, but she’s around quite a bit—and early in the film, we don’t see her, either. At a party, Tom defiantly tells Lisa (Illeana Douglas), Maggie’s sister, that she may have studied to be a hypnotist, but she can hypnotize him. She tries to, and then, imaginatively, instead of showing us what happens, Koepp cuts to Tom waking up afterward with all his friends and neighbors snickering at him.

Then, one night in a rather hot sex scene, Tom begins having sudden visions. They don’t seem to make much sense—the front porch covered in snow, an image blurred as through a dirty window, hands, red lights—but they’re persistent and begin to chip away at his sanity. He assumes Lisa gave him a post-hypnotic suggestion, and asks her to remove it. She says all she had done was ask his hypnotized self to have an open mind….

Once open, it cannot be closed. Slowly, Tom becomes obsessed with odd details as the jolting visions continue. Debbie (Lisa Weil), a local girl, is hired to baby-sit Jake, but when he mentions Samantha, she flees with the boy. Tom and Maggie are sure she kidnapped him, but she actually took him to her own mother—for Samantha is the name of her slightly retarded sister, now missing for some time.

One day while Maggie and Jake are gone, Tom is surprised when heretofore friendly neighbor Frank (Kevin Dunn) walks in to say he’s got to kill Tom and Maggie, then sits on the front porch. Then he’s gone. Tom hastens to Frank’s house only to come in as Frank’s son Adam (Chalon Williams) shoots himself. But all this is not what it seems—it’s a hallucination that’s almost repeated in reality.

Tom is now disengaged from his own life, being guided by influences from beyond, presumably from Samantha. He knows he has to dig, and begins to unearth the back yard. He doesn’t know what he’s digging for, but dig he must. A death in the family takes Maggie and Jake away, so Tom rents a jack hammer and air compressor and begins chipping up the cement in the basement. Closer and closer he comes to the secret….

But not close enough, not soon enough. “Stir of Echoes” is an intelligent, well-made movie, but its story seems small and somewhat trivial. It’s as if Matheson were told a similar story to which he then added a few lurid—but not improbable—details when he turned it into a novel. Matheson wrote major SF/horror novels in the early 1950s, including “I Am Legend” and “The Shrinking Man,” filmed as “The Incredible Shrinking Man.” (One character here is seen reading “The Shrinking Man.”) He then moved largely to films and television, writing frequently for “The Twilight Zone” and most of the Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Among the other films he wrote or which were based on his fiction are “The Night Stalker” (with Darren McGavin), “The Legend of Hell House,” “Somewhere in Time” and “What Dreams May Come.”

Matheson is a true believer in life after death, and much of his later fiction—such as “What Dreams May Come”—are earnest attempts to convince the reader that it is reality. He appears in “Sight of Spirits,” a documentary on this DVD.

The movie, however, isn’t very convincing, and it isn’t very frightening, since rarely do any of the leading characters seem to be in any danger. There’s a flashback toward the end, which explains it all for you, and this is more powerful than anything else in the movie. The story is well-structured, the cast is exceptionally good (except for Kevin Dunn, who always seems to be Acting) and David Koepp brings a lot of carefully-observed technique to task. But so far he’s only directed one other movie, the mediocre “Secret Window” of 2004. However, he’s a busy screenwriter, with titles like “Jurassic Park,” “Mission: Impossible” and “War of the Worlds” to his credit.

Although high definition doesn’t particularly enhance this movie, it is helped by focused attention on the sound. There really are stirs of echoes on this sound track; the whispering of the ghost (or ghosts) is confined almost entirely to the rear speakers, lending the otherwise unthrilling visuals an undercurrent of unease.

The commentary track by David Koepp is moderately informative, slightly amusing; there’s nothing very much to be gained from listening to it, at least in terms of enjoying/understanding the movie, but he does clearly explain many of his decisions. And his frustration over the coincidence of his film being released around the same time as the much more popular (and far better) “The Sixth Sense.” The documentary, “Sight of Spirits: Channeling the Paranormal,” is straight-faced and deeply serious, as people who claim to be real mediums are interviewed.

There’s nothing really wrong with “Stir of Echoes,” but its hero’s fears of normalcy, of being only adequate, are equally applicable to the movie itself.

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