After being hypnotised, a man is haunted by strange supernatural visions.
David Koepp, 1999
Utilities linesman Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon) finds his life generally unsatisfying. He’s married, with one young son and another kid on the way, but he dreams of being less ordinary. His son Jake (Zachary David Cope), on the other hand, is far from ordinary. He talks to people who aren’t there frequently, worrying his father and mother, Maggie (Kathryn Erbe). In the interests of getting Tom to loosen up and open his mind, the couple’s friend Lisa (Ileana Douglas) hypnotises him one night at a party. But the hypnosis opens a door that can’t be closed, and Tom becomes a receiver for the supernatural, having vision and sensations that can’t be explained. When he starts to see the same girl over and over again in his home, he feels compelled to find out what’s happening, scaring Maggie in the process.
Stir of Echoes is a surprisingly good film. It’s horror-by-the-number in a lot of ways – ghost haunts family, kid sees dead people, dad goes crazy, mom gets worried – but the quality of acting elevates the film. The direction from David Koepp maintains a high level of tension without crossing the line into being unwatchable. The film also invests a decent chunk of time in establishing the characters, and they feel significantly more real and human than 90% of horror movie protagonists. They’re all people – flawed, well-meaning, caught up in the minutia of everyday frustrations. Kevin Bacon, in particular, makes his everyman hero into someone who could easily be anyone’s neighbour. He’s aggravated and aggravating, stuck in a rut and taking his frustrations out on everyone else. The chemistry between Bacon and Erbe is easy and natural, establishing a couple who care about each other but know exactly which buttons to push in a fight.
All of this investment makes the film so much better once the horror stuff kicks in. The supernatural elements are also handled in a very visceral way that cuts through, moments of body horror or psychological trauma that are scarier for their suddenness and realness. Liza Weil is electrifying in a minor role, establishing a world of fear and sorrow that Tom was blind to. Kathryn Erbe gets a decent amount to do in the film, which is also really great given its undercurrent of sexualised violence. There’s a small-town feel to the horror that grounds it in something very human and much scarier for it, and thanks to that groundedness the ghosts and visions tend not to cross the line into the unbelievable. The film does have its silly moments – when Tom and Maggie start investigating what’s happened, it leads to some really clunky dialogue from mystics and similar rubbish. There’s some supremely iffy mystical racism with a black cop that plays badly and doesn’t contribute much to the plot, too. The film works better when it’s not trying to explain itself, when the claustrophobia of the little family in their little house is drawn out, when the dark underbelly of a friendly neighbourhood is explored. A pleasantly surprising thriller.
Stir of Echoes on IMDb