“You’re awake now, Daddy.”
Tom and Maggie have just finished moving their growing family into a new house in a working class Chicago neighborhood. Musician-turned-telephone lineman, Tom, asks his sister-in-law Lisa to hypnotize him at a block party. A little drunk and more than a little puffed up, Tom thinks nothing will happen. After all, everyone thinks Lisa is a bit of a quacky flake. But something does happen. It turns out Tom is one of the lucky 8%. The small percentage of the population that is highly hypnotizable. The experience changes him. He begins seeing grisly images and is plagued by the feeling that something, or someone, is trying to reach out to him.
Stir of Echoes is the 1999 supernatural/paranormal horror film directed by David Koepp starring Kevin Bacon as Tom, Kathryn Erbe as Maggie, Zachary David Cope as Jake, Illeana Douglas as Lisa, and Jennifer Morrison as Samantha Kozac.
It’s not uncommon for projects with similar themes to be released in the same year. Think Armageddon and Deep Impact. Think The Prestige and The Illusionist. Think Volcano and Dante’s Peak. Okay, that last one was particularly painful. I still don’t understand how they drive that car over hot lava. But, I digress. It would seem that it’s typical for one to be widely embraced while the other is more or less panned by critics and/or moviegoers alike.
Unfortunately for Stir of Echoes, the phenomenally successful M. Night Shyamalan project The Sixth Sense had beat them to market by more than a month. By September 10, 1999 when Stir of Echoes finally opened, The Sixth Sense had been #1 at the box office since its release on August 6th. And while Stir of Echoes opened #5 at the box office, it would not enjoy the 40 weeks in theaters that The Sixth Sense would. Does that mean Stir of Echoes is in some way an inferior film? Read on.
While the similarities between the projects are undeniable, each has its own style and way of telling similar story. With Stir of Echoes, the thrust is more about a world beyond ours – the unseen – accessed through intent rather than circumstance. When Bacon’s character is given a post-hypnotic suggestion by his sister-in-law to be more open, no one guessed it would open a door through which Tom would not only see the past but the dead.
I always liked the premise of the film – that this man, who never thought he would be so boringly ordinary, is suddenly changed, his world expanded beyond anything he could have ever dreamt. He is a Receiver – a person that can see spirits. That he becomes obsessed in search of the truth is as interesting, to me, as the motivations of Bruce Willis’ character in The Sixth Sense.
In the end, I believe the film’s underlying subject matter – unforgivable abuses suffered by a young woman at the hands of a group of protected teenage boys – made the film too tragic, sad, uncomfortable or disturbing for a majority of film goers. I’d have to agree to an extent. After watching the film for the first time, I found certain elements worming their way into my thoughts. People that are put off by body horror (or those of you who enjoy it) should take note Stir of Echoes will unapologetically serve it up.
On the upside – the hypnosis scenes are incredibly well executed and are among the most visually strong for the film. Even if you don’t feel like watching the entire movie, check out this clip of the scene. And Kevin Bacon turns in what is among his best performances. Notable too are performances by Kathryn Erbe and Illeana Douglas – they are pitch perfect, adding touches of realism and comedy where needed. Unlike its twin (The Sixth Sense), Stir of Echoes does manage to hold up to repeated viewings thanks to the cast’s nuanced performances and cinematographer Fred Murphy‘s camera work. And, if you like the Rolling Stone’s “Paint It Black“, all the more reason to check out Stir of Echoes. The song acts as a unrelenting supporting cast member, adding a touch of the sinister to a film already populated by the eerie.