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Review: Visions of a rehash hamper 'Stir of Echoes'

Web posted on:
Thursday, September 16, 1999 11:19:03 AM EST

By Reviewer Paul Tatara

Editor's note: In this second posting of this review, Paul Tatara accounts for confusion about perceived influences on "Stir of Echoes."

(CNN) -- Psychological thrillers are a lot like westerns and gangster movies: You can't really make one without referring to the hundreds of variations on a theme that came before. That's sort of the point of genre pictures.

Films like "The Godfather" (1972) and "The Searchers" (1956) run all the usual signifiers up the flagpole. But they succeed where so many others fail because of an unexpected emotional element, or a director who imbues the story line with a personal political or sociological vision.

That trick is a little tougher to manage with a thriller, however, because the story almost always centers on a normal person who starts seeing things, then falls into an elaborate, cinematic fit of madness.

Theatrical preview for "Stir of Echoes"
Windows Media 28K 80K

More complex themes, no matter how gently administered by the person at the helm, are usually overrun by the bulldozer of creepy visions and bloody deaths. Audiences, unambitious as they are these days, show up to see only the creepiness. If the director has something else to say, theyíre not likely to listen.

David Koeppís "Stir of Echoes" -- starring Kevin Bacon as the normal guy who assumes heís going bonkers -- isnít ambitious enough to give us something we havenít seen before, and it probably doesnít matter.

Bacon brings it home

For about an hour, the film delivers the creeps in a big way. Bacon gives one of the better performances of his career, even while being consumed in a slew of been-there-done-that sequences and story-telling devices. The film eventually becomes a game of "name that reference," but if you've seen (or read about) the picture and think Koepp's screenplay is ripping off Stephen King's 1980 "The Shining," you're very, very wrong.

I certainly was. After pointing out the "lifts" in an earlier version of this review, I received an e-mail from horror writer Dean Andersson ("I Am Dracula," "I Am Frankenstein," and the coming October release "Exploring Texas Skies With Children: Night Skies, Day Skies, Weather & More").

Andersson informs me that "A Stir of Echoes," the Richard Matheson novel on which Koepp based his screenplay originally was published in 1958, years before King started cranking them out for fun and profit. In any case, much of the film "Stir of Echoes" will seem familiar to even casual moviegoers. King just got his film made first. I and a couple other critics I've read stand corrected.

Bacon plays Tom Witzky, a Chicago telephone lineman whoís not all that happy with his life. He wanted to be a rock star, but what he ended up with is a backbreaking menial job. His sexy wife Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) and cute little son Jake (Zachary David Cope) are a bit of a comfort. But that all comes to a screeching halt when Ö

"Youíve Seen It Before, Vol. I" -- the kid starts seeing and talking to dead people.

Of course, the knee-jerk reaction here is to say that they're ripping off the currently popular "The Sixth Sense," but the two films were almost certainly being developed at the same time. But you've seen it before in "The Shining." Whether King first read it in "A Stir of Echoes" remains open to debate; he's admitted his debt to Matheson in the past.

Jakeís conversations with an obviously dead teen-ager (played by Liza Weil) are definitely goose-bumpy. I just canít figure out why the 6-year-olds in these pictures are so difficult to rattle. Jake converses with the cadaver as if the two of them are about to pedal down to the 7-11 to get some Popsicles.

You are getting sleepy

One night, Tomís flaky sister-in-law (Illeana Douglas, honing her ability to irritate to a fine edge) hypnotizes him at a party. During the session, Tom grows terribly rattled and believes heís seeing someone being murdered.

Later, he canít shake the periodic visions and cryptic flashes of information that pop up in front of him. His son, of course, is going through the same thing, and Maggie later meets a strange African-American man who immediately recognizes that Jake can see dead people. The man can see them, too.

"Youíve Seen It Before, Vol. II" -- um, "The Shining."

Tom quickly grows obsessed with his visions. They must be telling him something, even if no one else believes heís actually seeing anything. Eventually, heís freaking out in a sweaty, speed-freak kind of way that looks good on film and, admittedly, looks even better coming from Bacon. He really is locked into the performance.

Another hypnosis session suggests only that Tom must "dig" to relieve his tension. So, he starts digging holes all over the back yard, and eventually pulls a jackhammer into the basement to blast away the concrete floor. He quits getting up and going to work in the morning, and his wife can barely speak to him through all the agitation.


"Youíve Seen It Before, Vol. III" -- OK, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977) isn't a psychological thriller, but that's only because Richard Dreyfussí hallucinations lead to touchy-feely, California-style aliens rather than the kind that whip out death rays and fry the president. Otherwise, what youíve got is a normal Joe who experiences visions that drive him and his family crazy.

Eventually, Tom rips the homestead apart trying to make sense of it all. It seems like Baconís character wouldíve recognized this and just hopped a ride to Devilís Tower.

There's also a moment in which the girl is lured to her death in a manner so much like a scene in David Cronenberg's 1983 "The Dead Zone" -- based on another King book -- that itís more proper to get French about it and call it an hommage.

But letís face it, escargot are just buttered snails.

By the time everything starts zooming toward a protracted, extremely vile conclusion, you may be thinking more about those other movies (or King's novels or Matheson's novels) than the one that's being projected on the screen in front of you. That couldn't have been the intention.

"Stir of Echoes" contains gruesome violence, profanity, nudity, an attempted rape, a smothering, a fingernail breaking away from a clawing hand, and all the other things that make life so worth living. Rated R. 100 minutes.

Kevin Bacon's rock guitar show
August 28, 1998

Official 'Stir of Echoes' site
Artisan Entertainment
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