"Stir of Echoes" was unfortunate enough to come out after "The Sixth Sense." But even if it were to have come out first, it would still have the misfortune of not being nearly as good as "The Sixth Sense." This is not to say that "Stir" is a bad movie; it's actually quite enjoyable on it's own terms. But to really enjoy the movie, you must disconnect the associative section of your brain makes connections to past experiences; "Stir of Echoes" doesn't have an original bone in its body. Take a healthy dose of "The Sixth Sense", add in a dash of "Poltergeist", a pinch of "The Shining", and what you get is a movie that's slighter than any of them; a piece of fluff as enjoyable as a decent X-Files episode, but ultimately only reminds us of those other, better films.
The basic plot of the film is relatively simple. Kevin Bacon plays Tom Witzky, a Chicago telephone lineman, who gets hypnotized by his sister-in-law in an intriguing sequence; conjuring up an ornate old movie theater decorated completely in black, with words projected on the screen maddeningly out of focus. The hypnotist also plants the suggestion that Tom "be more open." His mind does in fact become more open, to the point where one night while on the couch he sees a ghost of a young girl inaudibly begging for help. He stops going to work and, in one of the best scenes of the movie, tries to get the ghost to revisit him by re-enacting his routine from that first night. Tom's wife Maggie is portrayed adeptly by Kathryn Erbe, who shows the frustration of being married to someone who no longer seems to value their relationship as much as he does digging in the backyard for a corpse. Tom's crusade and Maggie's frustration at him is well written and well acted, and show the unrealized potential of this story.
The human element is where the film's strength really lies; in showing a lifestyle where nothing ever changes. It shows a life where sitting on a couch waiting for a ghost to appear is infinitely preferable to another day of working at a blue collar job without any hope of life getting better. It's about the frustration of having to work extra time, of being a zombie when you come home to your wife and child, of your life never having any special meaning.. "I never wanted to be famous. I just didn't expect to be so ordinary." The portrayal of the life which is at best banal and at worst deadening is finally where the original voice of this film comes from. Unfortunately that voice gets covered up in the end by a run-of-the-mill metaphysical whodunit.
What's frustrating about this movie is that there's so much room for it to be so much more than the conventional ghost story. Even though it's based on a Richard Matheson novel from 1958, this story feels like it's a rip off of better, more recent movies. Which is sad, considering the story's pedigree. Matheson is responsible for indisputable original classics like "Somewhere in Time" and "The Omega Man" (as well as the not so classic but still interesting "What Dreams May Come"), and scriptwriter David Koepp wrote scripts for "Mission: Impossible" and "Jurassic Park." Between the two of them you'd think you could find an original or at least exciting look at their subject.
The beautiful shots of the Chicago neighborhood and the haunting cinematography of the hypnosis scene, along with the well acted character interaction makes "Stir of Echoes" one of the better films to ride on the coattails of the horror boom this summer. It's worth the price of an afternoon admission or a rental, but it's beaten by "The Sixth Sense" in story depth, and by "The Blair Witch Project" in pure horror.
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