Retro Rewatch – Stir of Echoes 1999


Retro Rewatch is an ongoing editorial that takes a look into certain films, conventions, crazes, and characters of the horror genre years after their heyday. It is an effort to try and put the magnifying glass up to the horror world with the much needed luxuries of time and perspective applied in order to fully understand the impact and social significance of these projects/themes/ideas (if any). So for this installment of Retro Rewatch, I present to you the very well received ghost/revenge/psychic flick Stir of Echoes. Spoilers lie ahead!

Directed by David Koepp, Stir of Echoes is a ghost story that not only genuinely terrifies its audience, but does it in with a very specific visual style.  Stir of Echoes is loosely based off a novel by Richard Matheson about a Chicago lineman named Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon) who gets hypnotized at a party which causes his psyche to accidentally open up doors to another world (dimension? Plain of existence?).  Unfortunately most people don’t want to really give much attention to the movie because of its close release proximity to the giant hit The Sixth Sense. 

Sure there were a few plot points that mirrored each other including the visible breath of someone when spirits were close as well as a young child being able to communicate with the dead.  However, this is not a rip off of The Sixth Sense, but is rather a fitting companion piece with a bit more of the gritty and macabre attached to it.  While The Sixth Sense and Stir of Echoes were arguably a bit similar in terms of plot there is no denying that they were both shot beautifully.  However, there is one sequence in Stir of Echoes that really separates the film from The Sixth Sense.

It starts off at the party, where Tom is pandering to his sister in-law Lisa (Illeana Douglas) by letting her hypnotize him.  Tom thinks that it’s all a bunch of garbage and in order to prove it, he wants Lisa to put him under.  Very soon into the process, we cut to a visual cue of what Lisa is describing to Tom as we imagine it appears in Tom’s mind.  She starts off by saying “you’re in a theatre” and as she is describing the world, it becomes visible to us.  Tom glimpses brief moments of everything else and then the story is off and running.  This scene has always stuck with me because of the unsettling idea that we are active participants in the processes in Tom’s mind.  Then when you start to visualize something as Tom does, your mind plays little games with you.  It’s kind of like having a window on your skull that allows people to see your thoughts as if they were watching a movie on a PSP.  That alone is enough to seal the deal for me both thematically and visually, but it’s also important to look at one trend in ghost stories that I find very interesting.

Ghosts have existed on screen for what seems like forever.  In a number of films (especially in foreign cinema) the ghost is originally something to be specifically and solely feared.  In a number of these films, the ghosts then come back to take their revenge on whomever wronged them.  That’s always a good time, but the difference in Stir of Echoes isn’t that the ghost came to get revenge but rather it came to save a life.

In the movie Tom’s son Jake is able to communicate with the dead and also see visions (We don’t participate in them like with Tom’s visions, they are all implied).  One of the most popular visions that he has is described as just “feathers”.  We have no idea what this means until the end of the movie where we see a stray bullet go through the floor and right through the pillow where Jake’s head would be, that is if he and Mommy hadn’t left for the weekend to attend a funeral.  At this point, it’s interesting to look at why Jake isn’t at the house at that moment. 

The ghost, who was once a young girl named Samantha, gets in Tom’s head and plants thoughts and ideas of what he essentially has to do.  During the movie, we get a feeling that Tom is misinterpreting the messages that are being beamed into his head.  The one that really sets it all off is when Tom gets the message to “dig”.  He starts taking up the back yard making all kinds of holes in the ground trying to find whatever he is supposed to be looking for.  Fast forward a little bit and Tom stays at the house to dig while the family attends a funeral.  Nothing in Tom’s life matters anymore to him except digging and searching for something which drives his family away.  This actually saved Jake’s life because he would have been in bed at the time it all happened.  So did the ghost make Tom dig (because she wasn’t in the ground anyway) just so that he could drive his family away, in turn saving them?  Was Samantha’s ghost using Tom the entire time?  What was with all the OJ?

The point here is that the movie doesn’t treat you the viewer like an idiot.  Yes, the whole main story about finding Samantha and who did what to her has been resolved, but there are so many more questions that need to be answered.  Why does Jake hear voices at the end of the movie?  Is he telepathic now kind of like his dad?  Is Tom’s mind still a door to another world?  This is what makes a great story; there are elements that are resolved while at the same time loose ends are still unanswered.  That’s how life is, things get fixed, resolved, concluded, but at the same time things get forgotten, lost, and escalated.  Not everything is in a neat little package and Stir of Echoes realized it all way before I did.

Is it a cult classic, a fitting analysis, or complete forgettable?:  I’m leaning towards a fitting analysis.  This seems like one of those movies that whenever someone looks back 50 years from now at those horror films of the late 90s, more people will recognize Stir of Echoes before the blatant gimmicky (but still very good) showmanship of The Sixth Sense

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