Apr 15, 2012


Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre.

So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now… one at a time.

Dir. David Koepp
Artisan Entertainment
United States

In a previous Unsung Horrors post, I lamented the fact that Copycat had been completely overshadowed its debut weekend at the box office after falling victim to the similarly-themed but heavily star-powered serial thriller Se7en. A similar fate also befell this film from Spielberg stalwart/go-to screenwriter David Koepp, adapting Richard Matheson’s simple novel of the same name to the big screen. Released by the now defunct Artisan Entertainment, Stir of Echoes had the extreme misfortune to open against soon-to-be juggernaut The Sixth Sense. And while M. Night Shyamalan’s film debut was nothing more than a rip-off of an "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" episode, Stir of Echoes was based on a book already forty years old at that point. Frankly I find that a little sad, given the high prestige only one of these spooky films would go on to enjoy. While The Sixth Sense is not a bad film – not at all – would anyone remember it if not for the pushing-it twist ending? The jury’s still out on that one.

Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon) is your every man. And he knows it. And he doesn't love it. He has a wife, Maggie (the adorable Kathryn Erbe), and son, Jake (Zachary David Cope), he clearly loves, but also a job where he "clips wires all day; a monkey could do it." Even when his wife tells him she's pregnant, his happiness is genuine, but delayed. His initial reaction? "Bummer." And again, it's not like he doesn't love and want his family, but his presence in his little-mentioned band suggests he may have wanted more for himself. He betrays this notion by admitting to his wife that he had wanted to accomplish more with his life – that he didn't expect to be so ordinary. And with this news of his wife's pregnancy, what is supposed to be joyous news instead reinforces the idea that his chances to be anything more than a husband and father are slipping away. "I'm a happy guy," he says, but doesn't altogether mean it, and it's a little saddening. This isn't just idle chatter, nor an attempt to garner false sympathy for our lead. This is important to know about Tom Witzky right up front, because it will ultimately determine how he reacts to the change that is soon to come.

Despite Tom's misgivings, life isn't so bad for the Witzkys. Their rented house, owned by their neighbor and friend Harry Damon (Conor O'Farrell) is clean and cozy. They are surrounded by good friends, including Frank McCarthy (Kevin Dunn) and his wife, Sheila. They live in Chicago, but despite the elevated train and police officers' uniforms, it feels like Boston. (It could be the tight knit community and the seemingly constant outdoor block parties, or the extra enthusiasm for the local high school football team that gives off more of a Boston vibe. Or maybe I just don't know shit about Chicago.)

At a party, Lisa begins to tell her friends about her experiences with hypnosis, and the things she has witnessed for herself. Tom, feeling good with his gut full of beer, challenges Lisa to hypnotize him, even going as far as to antagonize her into it. Lisa, wanting to show off, takes Tom up on his offer and puts him into a trance. She tells him to close his eyes and picture an old-fashion movie theater with black walls, floors, ceiling, and seats. Tom soon falls under before immediately (to us, anyway) waking right back up, disturbed, but unaware of the remaining experience of his hypnosis. Apparently while under he had admitted to certain buried secrets previously deeply hidden within his subconscious. We know right off the bat that Lisa has successfully put Tom under, and unbeknownst to him, Lisa has opened a door inside his mind, implanting a suggestion to be more open-minded in the future.

This new open-mindedness allows Tom to see the ghost that is haunting his family's house. She appears to him in nightmarish hallucinations, waking nightmares, and even in reality. Her image is pale, translucent, and flickers before him like a character in a flipbook held by unsteady hands. (Oddly, these visions of her cause Tom to become immensely thirsty, who starts off throwing back water like it's his job before moving on to stocking his fridge filled with orange juice. This odd little detail isn't quite rationalized in the film, but it's interesting nonetheless, and also makes for one particularly humorous scene later in the film.)

Stir of Echoes  is about growing up. It's about facing the fact that you're not going to live forever – and I speak not of the spirit haunting Tom Witzky, but Tom himself. He bemoans what life could have been had he been dealt different cards. And once he gets a taste of these new cards, he definitely straddles that line between intrigue/obsession and self-destruction. It's an interesting theme that Koepp injects into his film, only because it's less glamorous than one might expect. Other directors, such as Romero and Carpenter, have used the horror genre in the past to share big, dangerous ideas with you – harsh criticisms of American culture and/or government. Wes Craven's Last House on the Left was a direct response to the Vietnam War –  the violence we do, unnecessarily, to people we have never met, and who haven't wronged us in any way. By comparison, the ideas in Stir of Echoes seem pretty small – small ideas for a small man and what he deems his small life. And what might Tom learn, whether or not he survives his ordeal? Was he right to pursue these extraordinary circumstances? Would he be/feel justified? Or was he wrong to want for something more, failing to see the family before him is all he would ever need? As always, smart movies are subjective, and what you think and feel is the only message that matters.

Stir of Echoes draws interesting parallels between another similarly-themed horror novel-cum-film, The Shining. (Perhaps you've heard of it?) Like Danny Torrance, Tom's son, Jake, has the uncanny ability to communicate with spirits around him. In fact, the film begins with Jake talking with the very ghost that will soon turn its attention to Tom. And like Jack Torrance, the part of Tom that is also able to communicate will be woken up by the change he undergoes (in The Shining it was the Overlook; here, it's Tom's new-found ability to "see"). And lastly, like Wendy Torrance (more so in the book than the Kubrick film), Maggie Witzky is a fighter. She sees for herself that this radical change in Tom is causing him to lose his mind. She doesn't like the strange kinship he begins to share with his son about the ghost, and even her own "witch" sister can't provide much help. Maggie ends up on her own journey, finding help in Neil (the movie's version of Dick Halloran, if you will), a perfect stranger with the same uncanny abilities shared by her husband and son.

He tells her:
It comes and goes. Some people have it for five seconds, some their whole lives. He's a receiver now. Everything's coming in. He can't stop it; he can't slow it down; he can't even figure it out. It's like he's in a tunnel with a flashlight, but the light only comes on every once in a while. He gets a glimpse of something, but not enough to know what it is - just enough to know it's there.
And Tom knows this. He knows the change that's occurred in him. He knows there is a spirit in his house reaching out to him, and while he's reaching out to her, he's ignoring the signs she is giving him. His son communicates with her out in the open. He hums "Paint it Black" by The Rolling Stones. He even teaches his father how to play it on his guitar, pushing him closer to realizing what song it is he is unable to get out of his mind  – the significance of which he won't understand until the climax of the film.

"You're awake now, Daddy," Jake tells his father. "Don't be afraid of it." Eventually Tom begins to follow the signs, and the pieces start to come together. This isn't like The Sixth Sense in which Haley Joel sees random ghosts walking around; while creepy, they are not a part of "the big picture." In Stir of Echoes, every hallucination, every sign, every random development has everything to do with "the big picture." They are all leading Tom to one specific destination – nothing that he sees or experiences is superfluous. 

With Jake's help, along with the increasingly angry signs from the ghost, Tom follows the journey before him, but not out of fear or obligation, but because as he finally admits to his wife in a heated exchange, "This is the most important thing that's ever happened to me in my whole stupid life." He finally feels extraordinary. He finally feels like he is doing something with his life that is of value.

If Richard Matheson is a name with which you aren't at least a little bit familiar, there's nothing anyone can do for you. The man is a literary legend, and his work is still being adapted for audiences (most recently being Real Steel and The Box, based on short stories, and the Will Smith I Am Legend, based on his novel). He's inspired the likes of Stephen King, George Romero, and Neil Gaiman. It's been a while since I read the original novel A Stir of Echoes, but I do remember the movie veering off the main skeleton of the book after a while (but with thankfully positive results). Loving homage is paid to the man in the film, from a character reading his novel The Shrinking Man to the film Night of the Living Dead playing on television, whose own writer/director, George Romero, always openly labeled as an I Am Legend rip-off.

Writer/Director David Koepp hasn't found himself behind the camera for too many films. While Stir of Echoes was not his first job as director, or last, it remains his best. He's worked steadily as a screenplay writer and fixer since 1988, contributing to such films as Mission: Impossible, Jurassic Park, Carlito's Way, and Panic Room. Subsequent directorial projects for him included the disappointing Stephen King adaptation of Secret Window, as well as the humor-injected supernatural farce Ghost Town, starring Ricky Gervais (an oddball version of Stir of Echoes considering its plot). Koepp manages to inject several creepy and shocking moments in the film, such as Tom's hallucination of Frank's son, Adam, shooting himself and maniacally grinning as he smears blood all over his own face; or the tired mirror trick, in which someone quickly closes a mirror, revealing the reflection of something standing just behind them – but this time with a twist: we can see the spirit, but our character cannot, which adds an extra level of creep to the proceedings.

Kevin Bacon never spends too much time away from our genre, diving back in from time to time as if checking in. With roles in Friday the 13th, Tremors, Flatliners, and Hollow Man, it's good to know he's one of us. And Stir of Echoes ranks up there with the best of his performances. Kevin Bacon is a great actor, but he's been relegated to supporting work for most of his career, willfully and partially disappearing into ensemble films. In Stir of Echoes, the movie begins and ends with him in the lead and he takes seriously a premise through which other actors might have slept-walk. You feel for him in the film's opening when he confesses to his wife that he'd always yearned for his life to have a bit more meaning. And during the scene where he sits alone outside on the front porch of a house in which a party is occurring, with the baby monitor by his side, there's a suggested sadness present. Sure, he may have wanted more for his life than what he was given, but that didn't mean he wouldn't die for his son, either. 

Kathryn Erbe as Maggie is thankfully fleshed out and fully dimensional. The role of "the wife" is often underwritten and included in genre films just so there is one more person around to disbelieve the ensuing ramblings and claims of our lead character. But she gets in on the spooky business from the very beginning, close enough to recognize the change that's occurred in her home, but far enough removed that she can approach it with an open mind and a clear rationale. Tom might be the one suffering through the increasing anger of the ghost, but it's Maggie who puts herself in real physical danger by descending to the seedier city streets to search for the mysterious Neil, the perfect stranger who might be able to shed light on just what the hell is happening to her family.

Illeana Douglas is goddamned fun in this. She was given the best part in the film and she knows it. She plays a witch and a kook and has almost every best line in the film. She provides great comic relief when the film needs a chance to breathe, but she also seems quite real. She's dry and flippant one moment to her sister, but then immediately apologizing to her the next - and meaning it. She's a well-rounded character who starts this whole thing in the first place, but never comes off vindictive – just more of a new-age, hippie liberal. Added to that is the very subtle dislike between her and Tom – it's not overbearing like your typical cinematic sister/brother-in-law dynamic, but it's definitely present. Tom doesn't respect Lisa because she seems like a grown up child, and Lisa doesn't like Tom because she considers him close-minded and small-dreamed – something he dislikes even about himself. They make a good, if at-odds, on-screen pair.

Kudos must absolutely be given to Kevin Dunn as Frank McCarthy. Most assuredly an audience will see Kevin appear on camera and say, "hey, it's that guy!" It's because he's appeared in literally everything over the years – from "Seinfeld" to Hot Shots to the Transformers films, and most recently 2011's brilliant Warrior. Again, Dunn has found himself in supporting character work for most of his career, but it's in Stir of Echoes where he shines. This underrated actor gives a career-best performance, rattling off rambling and comedic dialogue one minute and switching gears and becoming morose and somber the next, leading to an extremely powerful performance in the film's climax. He'd never before been given the chance to express so many different emotions within one character, and his performance displays his eagerness to show all that he is capable of as an actor.

The more cynical out there might say that Stir of Echoes isn't an entirely original premise; after all: main character sees ghosts + twist ending = standard Hollywood fare. But let's not forget Richard Matheson wrote the core concept back in 1958, when it was a little less standard. And don't misunderstand my argument; I don't intend to make it sound like Stir of Echoes should be grandfathered in just because its now-cliched concept wasn't so cliche in '58. Instead, it's like I've always said: I don't care how many times I've seen the same premise in a genre film – if you come at it with a passionate and well-told story, and so long as you're backed up by talented folks in front of and behind the camera, then that's good enough for me. And it always will be.

1 comment:

  1. I really love this film. So good, and it seems like a lot of people overlook it.