I love the mainstream, popular, and critically acclaimed films as much as the next person. The last thing I’d consider myself is a cinematic snob. But there are times when a truly amazing movie slips into—and out of—theaters without much buzz before fading into obscurity. So I’d like to bring a few of those gems back into the light and remind you that sometimes the blockbusters aren’t the only films that can give you plenty of bang for your buck.
Released mere weeks from The Sixth Sense, Stir of Echoes wasn’t given much of a chance to make a stir. At a surface level, both films have the same set-up: the main character sees dead people.
What sets Stir apart in my books is its rewatchability (is that a word? If it isn’t, it should be). The Sixth Sense was great the first time, good the second, but after that…. Once you know the big twist, the story loses much of its power. Stir of Echoes, though, is something you can appreciate no matter how often you watch it.
Kevin Bacon plays Tom, a blue-collar guy with a wife and young son living in a tight-knit neighborhood in Chicago. Tom’s unsatisfied with his job, frustrated with how small his life is, and spends most of his nights drinking beer and sitting on the couch. One night at a party, he agrees to be hypnotized by his New Agey sister-in-law. As nothing more than a joke, she plants a tiny suggestion in his head: you’ll be open to everything.
That night things start to get weird. Tom begins hallucinating and feels as though he’s being physically attacked. A ghostly girl appears. It soon becomes apparent that his son’s “imaginary friend” is anything but imaginary, and that something very dark happened in Tom’s house.
What makes this film so great is how it plays with typical ghost story tropes without feeling stale and predictable. Yes, there’s a little kid who’s often creepy, the ghost moves in herky-jerky stop motion, there are plenty of jolts and crazy flashes. But it’s all done so well it never feels cheap, and there’s the sense of a much bigger story beneath—we’re only seeing a glimpse.
It’s also one of the few blue collar ghost movies I’ve ever seen; usually spooks haunt derelict Victorian mansions or plague hot co-eds. It’s interesting seeing a supernatural mystery play out through the eyes of a no-nonsense working class family. And of course this setting—a modern Chicago neighborhood framed by the El tracks—really adds a unique tone; there’s less atmospheric mist and more glaring neon lights.
The best supernatural stories are always rooted in very human emotions: loss, sorrow, guilt, curiosity, anger. The truth behind what happened in Tom’s house is truly tragic and upsetting, and as he becomes more and more obsessed with uncovering it the audience only gets drawn in deeper.
Bacon’s performance as his character’s sanity begins to fray is riveting; he’s a man on the edge by the climactic scene, and Kathryn Erbe’s turn as his wife Maggie is equally compelling as she tries to come to terms with her husband’s—and son’s—strange abilities.
What I love most about this movie is how intricate it is. Every little detail fits together like a jigsaw piece, and only when you see the whole puzzle can you appreciate how layered the story is. The snatches of music that come back in a more significant way, Tom’s seemingly incomprehensible visions and hallucinations, Jake’s mysterious comments.
Stir of Echoes is loosely based off of a novel by Richard Matheson, the horror maestro behind I Am Legend (AKA The Last Man on Earth), The Shrinking Man, and What Dreams May Come. Matheson also wrote a slew of Twilight Zone episodes; seeing his name attached to a project usually guarantees a pretty darn good time. It’s too bad that we won’t be getting any new material from Matheson the likes of Stir, as he passed away this June.
If you’re in the mood for a solid ghost story with plenty of intrigue and some great scares, you couldn’t do much better than Stir of Echoes. And if you’re a fan of Kevin Bacon and have yet to check this out, you should definitely bump it up in your Netflix queue: this is definitely one of his strongest performances.
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”
Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.