Friday September 10, 1999
Timing may be everything, but it's also a funny thing. How else to explain why "Stir of Echoes," in which a little boy sees dead people, should open at a time when the biggest movie in the country is about a little boy who sees dead people?
But the reason "Stir of Echoes" works as well as it does has nothing to do with any similarities to "The Sixth Sense"--or to "The Shining," Poe's "The Black Cat" or even the infamous Glen Ridge, N.J., rape case that seems to figure in the story (and which seems unlikely, since Richard Matheson wrote his book more than 35 years ago). Neither is it about the hokum-rich screenplay of director David Koepp. Or all the hallucinatory editing intended to keep us off balance and susceptible to spooks.
What gives the movie its teeth is the very earthy Witzky family, who behave so much like real people you might think they are. Maggie (Kathryn Erbe of "Oz") is pregnant. Tom (Kevin Bacon) wishes she wasn't.
Little Jake (Zachary David Cope) seems to talk to people who aren't there. Generally, though, the Witzkys occupy their blue-collar Chicago neighborhood like every other beer-drinking, high school football-supporting, classic-rock-loving family on the block. Until, of course, the supernatural moves in with them.
Life is normal until Tom and Maggie go to a neighborhood beer blast and Maggie's sister Liza (Illeana Douglas)--a yet-to-be-licensed hypnotherapist--puts Tom under a spell. Everybody thinks it's the world's greatest party trick, but Liza's post-hypnotic suggestion that Tom continue to keep his mind "open" makes Tom a receiver for otherworldly transmissions, which turn his life upside-down, inside out and leads him to a murder in his own backyard.
Which he digs up, literally, along with the cellar in his house and the floorboards in his kitchen, looking for whatever it is the otherworld is compelling him to seek. Maggie, meanwhile, has discovered that both her son and her husband are part of a subculture with a gift (see: "The Shining"). The neighbors, including the skirt-chasing Frank (Kevin Dunn), are discovering that Tom is on to something they'd rather he didn't pursue. And Tom just keeps digging until he gets the good sense to rent a jackhammer.
Which is funny. But while all that digging may make a good trailer and allow Bacon to heroically obsessively compulse, the best parts of his performance are when he's just being Tom--working-class family man, maybe not the brightest light in the box but a genuinely decent, reasonably courageous husband/father. He and Erbe give Tom and Maggie enough mutual affection/benign irritation that they really seem like a couple in a long-term relationship. More important, they react to the strange and unnerving things that happen to them the way you expect people might--unlike so many characters in so many movies, who turn into aliens the minute life becomes less than rational.
Koepp, who as a screenwriter was responsible for such blockbusters as "Jurassic Park," "Mission: Impossible" and "The Lost World," is fond of arranging torrents of images to suggest the tumult of Tom's mind and also indulges in a lot of false alarms (quick cuts to nowhere) to keep his audience primed and jumpy.
The more impressive aspect of "Stir of Echoes," however--especially considering the contrived way he resolves the film and the rather mawkish way he ends it--are the performances Koepp gets out of his actors and the substantial character study they all leave behind. It may sound illogical, but the more reality in a ghost story, the more convincing the ghosts.
Stir of Echoes, 1999. R for violence, sexuality and language. Artisan Entertainment presents a Hofflund/Polone production. Director David Koepp. Producers Gavin Polone, Judy Hofflund. Executive producer Michele Weisler. Screenplay by David Koepp, based on the novel "A Stir of Echoes" by Richard Matheson. Cinematographer Fred Murphy. Editor Jill Savitt. Costume designer Leesa Evans. Music James Newton Howard. Production designer Nelson Coates. Art director David Krummel. Set decorator Susie Goulder. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. Kevin Bacon as Tom Witzky. Kathryn Erbe as Maggie Witzky. Zachary David Cope as Jake Witzky. Illeana Douglas as Liza. Kevin Dunn as Frank.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun