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October 29, 2015

Stir of Echoes

by Franz Patrick


Stir of Echoes (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★

After Tom (Kevin Bacon) learns that he and Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) are having another child, his insecurities about not becoming more than he had planned are brought to the surface. While at a neighborhood get-together, Lisa (Illeana Douglas), Maggie’s sister who hopes to convince others of the powers of hypnosis, jokingly says that Tom is not open enough to embrace things that are not so familiar to him. Though he tries to hide it, it is obvious that he is offended. In order to prove Lisa wrong, he agrees to go under.

What makes “Stir of Echoes,” based on the screenplay and directed by David Koepp, an effective horror-thriller is that it uses supernatural elements just enough to keep us curious about its rules. The first two acts of the picture depend largely on trial-and-error: Tom experiences visions and hallucinations and blindly follows the ghostly clues involving a missing girl believed by the neighbors to have ran away. So it is very disappointing that the third act fails to match the creativity and energy of the rising action.

It is difficult to figure out where the story is going so the element of surprise is consistent. It summons typical horror tropes like intercutting gruesome images as the camera focuses on the lead character suffering from intense headaches and confusion. When an important clue graces the screen, the score makes sure that we are paying attention.

And yet somehow, unlike other movies that follow a similar conceit, these are not problematic for two reasons: the events are increasingly bizarre and the plot is never stagnant. The hallucinations hold an excitement because they blend seamlessly into the family’s every day lives. Part of the fun is questioning whether what is on screen at the moment is fantasy or reality. Once it has been established, I found myself thinking about how the given piece of information fits into the puzzle.

At times the plot moves too quickly. It has a habit of presenting an idea but the writer-director does not linger to explore it deeply enough. For instance, there is a strand involving a man in the cemetery (Eddie Bo Smith Jr.) who reveals to Maggie that he is aware of the strange happenings in her household. There is an accompanying scene involving an unwelcome visit but that is it. It feels as though too much has been excised in the editing room.

The third act, when Tom is most erratic, threatens to derail the film. While Bacon is very sympathetic in portraying a husband who feels as though he has allowed himself to get in the way of giving his family a better life, moments when he is supposed to be angry made me snicker. Several more takes might have helped him turn the whininess down a notch and amped up the threat, that his character’s newfound ability has really taken a toll on him. Also, the story sort of just ends. For all the excellent build-up, one cannot help that it should have had a more graceful bow.

Still, “Stir of Echoes,” loosely based on Richard Matheson’s novel, is a good time for the most part because there is an active attempt to avoid cheap scares and to allow an ominous mood to build until the release.

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