Whether it's bad or good commercial luck that the thriller Stir of Echoes follows so closely on the heels of The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan's wildly successful ghost-story sleeper, it's bad critical luck. The film has some startling parallels to The Sixth Sense: Both concern psychic communication with the departed, a small boy with otherworldly perceptions, working-class urban settings, and disturbing murder mysteries. It's possible that audiences could respond to Stir of Echoes, and even have an appetite for it after The Sixth Sense. But critics may feel the need to yawn.
It will be a shame if that happens, because Stir of Echoes is a rather good movie. Adapted from a 1958 novel by the seminal postwar fantasist Richard Matheson, it's a quicker, jazzier, more confident piece of moviemaking than The Sixth Sense, but this may merely make it seem more crass: It lacks the earlier film's earnest sweetness, the empathic charge of Haley Joel Osment's performance in the role of the little boy. And though the secrets and revelations at the core of the plot are well constructed and reasonably moving, they can't compare with the hard uppercut-to-the-jaw twist that The Sixth Sense ends with, which probably accounts for much of its repeat business.
The setting in Stir of Echoes is Chicago's South Side, a gritty but not unpleasant residential neighborhood where Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon) lives with his wife (Kathryn Erbe) and son (Zachary David Cope). At a party one evening, after expressing skepticism toward the idea of hypnosis, Tom allows his sister-in-law (Illeana Douglas) -- a hypnotherapist -- to put him in a trance.
He proves all too susceptible. He's plagued at once by horrifying visions, most of them involving the specter of a teenage girl (Jenny Morrison) who has recently gone missing from the area. Even more alarming, his son seems to have the same sixth sense for ghosts and be quite comfortable with it.
Director-screenwriter David Koepp (the man behind the scripts for Jurassic Park, The Paper, Mission: Impossible, and a few other lucrative movies) has devised a slick three-act structure for the film (making this effort far more impressive than the 1996 movie that marked his directorial debut, The Trigger Effect). The scares early on are potent and get Stir of Echoes off to a chilly horror-movie start. In its middle third, the film downshifts with a series of admirably unsettling sequences that are scary in a subtler way. For instance Bacon will have a vivid dream that begins calmly but ends in catastrophe, then he'll wake up to find his reality unfolding precisely like the bucolic beginning of his nightmare. Even Hitchcock might have liked this gimmick, if he'd had a taste for the supernatural. In the final third, the movie falls into detective-story mode, an approach that would be disappointingly conventional if it weren't so well executed. One subplot, about a mysterious underground network of psychics, doesn't amount to much; otherwise, each piece of the puzzle falls neatly into place.
Stir of Echoes is well-shot by Fred Murphy and deftly edited by Jill Savvitt, and the cast performs with real conviction. Bacon, lean and wary as a coyote, brings a charge of frantic energy to Tom; it's his best work since Murder in the First. The talented but somehow amorphous actress Kathryn Erbe brings a believable and touching sense of desperation to the part of Tom's wife. Her presence would probably be felt more strongly if it weren't for Illeana Douglas, who, as usual, gives the movie such a witty, sexy zap every time she's onscreen that she ends up usurping leading-lady status. The neighbors include Kevin Dunn, Conor O'Farrell, Liza Weil, and Lusia Strus. All of these people, even the glamorous Bacon, seem to belong to the blue-collar world that Koepp sketches convincingly and without condescension.
As Jan DeBont's wretched version of The Haunting demonstrated earlier this summer, Victorian mansions no longer scare us; the original, early '60s versions of Psycho and The Haunting were probably the last times such settings were used without irony. In Halloween and Poltergeist, supernatural terror moved to tract houses in the 'burbs, and now, in both The Sixth Sense and Stir of Echoes, it has taken up residence with the working stiffs, or, in the case of the Blair Witch, gone to the woods. Evidently when the Dow is booming, America's ghosts get downsized.
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