Sunday, October 3, 2010
2010 Geek Fright Fest: Stir of Echoes
Stir of Echoes (1999)
Rated R (for violence, brief nudity, and language)
Directed by David Koepp
Loosely based on Richard Matheson's novel of the same name, Stir of Echoes is the story of working-class Chicagoite Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon). He's a typical no-nonsense guy - he loves his wife, Maggie (Kathryn Erbe), and son, Jake, likes to drink beer and hang out with his friends, and he definitely doesn't believe in the supernatural. This causes him to clash with his wife's sister, Lisa (Illeana Douglas), who is into the unexplained. (One of my favorite lines in the film: "What I don't understand is how a person who's spent most of her life in college can believe all that superstitious crap.") She convinces him to try hypnosis, which he thinks is a crock, and slips a hypnotic suggestion into the mix that completely opens his mind. He begins to have strange, unexplained visions and sees the ghost of a young girl, who is clearly trying to communicate with him. Tom becomes obsessed with learning the ghost's secret, much to the horror of his wife.
The film opens with a child's voice humming The Rolling Stones song "Paint it Black". Jake Witzky (Zachary David Cope) is sitting in the bath tub and appears to be having a normal conversation with an unseen friend . . . until he asks, "Does it hurt to be dead?" Immediately, the audience knows what it's in for - a good old-fashioned ghost story.
Tom starts out with "real world" problems. He's just discovered his wife is newly pregnant, which isn't the happiest news for him, considering money is tight. The pregnancy also means that he is unable to join his buddies on their band's tour. This brings up major issues of inadaquacy for Tom, as he never expected to end up being "so ordinary". After his hypnosis, the ghost's influence over his life becomes the most important thing that has ever happened to him and his drive to see it through to the end represents his fight to do something extra-ordinary.
The director handles the hypnosis scene brilliantly. Initally, you're watching the film the way an audience typically would, but as Tom closes his eyes, you are looking from his point of view. When he shuts his eyes, the scene fades to black the way eyes normally close. You are being hypnotized as well. The scene stays black until Lisa instructs him to imagine a theater. Initially, we see an empty stage and other people sitting in the audience. Then, Lisa's instructions get more specific: a movie theater, you are alone, and everything in the room is black. The scene adjusts to her instructions in much the same way your mind shifts as you learn more details. It is an ingenious way to show what is happening in Tom's mind and to subconsciously make the hypnosis seem legitmate, since it is happening to you.
Tom begins to experience a number of odd occurances after his hypnosis. He chalks it up to residuals from the experience, but he still feels strange. After placing a call to Lisa, he finds out why. While hynoptizing him, she gave him a post-hypnotic suggestion that when he woke up, his mind would be "an open door". She laughs off his worries, telling Tom that the suggestion was harmless and at most could jumpstart some latent abilities he wasn't aware he had. The weirdness continues for Tom, though. The premonitions and hallucinations get steadily worse as the ghost reaches out more to him. As he delves deeper into what happened, he becomes steadily more obsessed.
As with many movies in the ghost story genre, the child is initally the only one who can see (and communicate) with the ghost. The difference with this film, however, is that Jake has far more interaction with the ghost than simply hiding from it under the covers. He talks to the ghost frequently, taking her advice on babysitters, and even chastising her for switching his favorite kid's show to a scary zombie flick that he is not allowed to watch. Cope is an excellent child actor, which makes it a shame that this is his latest acting credit. Unlike most child actors, he doesn't play the role sticky sweet or unnaturally creepy. He's a regular kid . . . who just happens to talk to ghosts.
Along with Cope, the rest of the cast is excellent. His turn as Tom is a surprising one for Bacon, who usually plays the slick and smarmy type. He has a convincing Chicago accent and seems genuine in his role as a working-class family man with fast-fading dreams of being a rock star. Illeana Douglas shines, as always. She is a brilliant character actress and I love to see her in roles like this. As Lisa, Tom's dippy sister-in-law, she is both ridiculously new-agey and bitingly sarcastic. It's an odd combination, but Douglas makes it work with her delivery. I was suprised at Kathryn Erbe's performance in this movie. I know her predominately from her role as Detective Eames on "Law and Order: Criminial Intent", which she plays pretty blah. In this film, Erbe is decidedly softer and more approachable. Jennifer Morrison (Cameron on "House") only has a few scenes, but is appropriately creepy as the ghost and her murder is heartbreaking in the final flashback.
Director David Koepp has more experience as a screenwriter (Stir of Echoes is his only his third directoral turn.), which makes this film even more impressive. The actors' performances are right on target and the mood is consistently suspenseful. Koepp relies heavily on repeated images. The same images appear in all of Tom's visions, expanding a little at a time. In this way, the audience learns the ghost's story piecemeal, as he does. "Paint it Black" is repeatedly heard and figures heavily into the denouement. There are classic scares - the ghost appears in mirrors, the color red signifies trouble, and the ghost's presence induces icy breath. Koepp does some interesting things that I haven't seen done with ghosts in other films, however. As Maggie gets ready to take a bath, the ghost sits on the edge of the tub, swirling the water with her hands, like you would to test the temperature. When she steps in, Maggie gasps from the cold water. The ghost also appears in the child's TV program Jake is watching and switches the station when he announces he doesn't want to talk. It is this combination of commonly used plot devices and unusual elements that keeps this film both a classic ghostly tale and a modern horror flick.
Fright Rating: 2 gasps out of a possible 5
Stir of Echoes is the perfect movie for ghost story lovers and viewers who scare easily. There is very little blood and guts, and the ghost's appearances are relatively mild. The majority of the scares come from suspenseful build-up and not frightening visuals. (This film is Rated R however, so it's not for kids or teens.)