Synopsis: After being hypnotized by his sister-in-law, a man begins seeing haunting visions of a girl’s ghost, and a mystery unfolds around him.
Stars: Kevin Bacon, Kathryn Erbe, Illeana Douglas, Zachary David Cope, Liza Weil, Jennifer Morrison, Kevin Dunn, Lusia Strus
Director: David Koepp
Running Length: 99 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: The 1999 release of Stir of Echoes saw the convergence of two writers who had figured prominently in Hollywood history. Author Richard Matheson’s work had served as the inspiration for countless features dating back to the ’50s (The Incredible Shrinking Man) and continued to churn out both novels that were adapted into big-screen entertainment as well as small-screen scripts for serialized TV shows that bore his unmistakable gift for tone. His contributions to The Twilight Zone, Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe features, The Night Stalker TV movies, and most famously, the teleplay adaptation of his short story for Steven Spielberg’s Duel made him a sought-after scribe.
As Matheson was winding down his active writing era, David Koepp began his. Striking early with films like Death Becomes Her, Carlito’s Way, and The Paper, as well as finding a way to bring Michael Crichton’s tech-forward novel Jurassic Park to the screen, Koepp became a favorite of heavy-hitters in Hollywood almost immediately. With names like Spielberg, Tom Cruise, and Brian De Palma in his Rolodex, it wasn’t hard to get his first movie, 1996’s The Trigger Effect, made, and while that movie fizzled, it was his adaptation of Matheson’s 1958 novel A Stir of Echoes three years later that helped to firmly establish the “and” in Koepp’s “writer and director” title.
Both Matheson’s dark thriller novel and Koepp’s scary screenplay succeed because they play to the popular entertainment of the day: goosebump frights that send a shiver up your spine just long enough to achieve the appropriate jolt but aren’t the kind to linger any longer than that. Though it falls into a rote formula around the halfway mark and contains a handful of regrettable performances that keep it from being evergreen, for a good clip, Stir of Echoes maintains a clammy grip on your jugular.
A working-class Chicagoan, Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon, They/Them) feels the slow climb to middle age and starts to realize that he’s not done anything remarkable with his life. A possible promotion at work is something to hold on to, or at least prove to his devoted wife Maggie (Kathryn Erbe, The Good House) that he’s making good on a promise he made long ago to always provide for her and their son Jake (Zachary David Cope) no matter the cost. When Maggie’s sister Lisa lets it slip that his wife is expecting another child, deep feelings of inadequacy that he’s tried to tamp down start to bubble up.
At a neighborhood party, Tom allows free-spirited Lisa (Illeana Douglas, Cape Fear) to hypnotize him, partly because he doesn’t believe in it, mainly because he knows she can’t do it. And yet he is put under, seeing a strange vision while asleep and unable to shake a snaking fear when he wakes. The nagging distress follows him home, and he soon becomes more aware of his surroundings and, at times, an apparent ability to predict the future. There’s another new element to contend with: a specter in the form of a girl who looks like one gone missing from the neighborhood. Is she reaching out to him to help her with unfinished business, or is she trying to identify a dangerous killer in Tom’s neighborhood who won’t hesitate to strike again?
Bacon nicely handles Tom’s growing insecurity that leads to his distressing turmoil. His visions upend his life, making work impossible, and his relationships suffer. On a mission to find answers, he discovers how desperate people can be to keep a secret safe. Not knowing who to trust or if he’s even sane, Tom figures the only person he can trust is himself, which drives a wedge between him and his family. This leaves space for Erbe to come in and deliver terrific work. Erbe’s an actress who has flown under the radar since the beginning, and this performance is another example of how good she is, even if the role feels a little superficially constructed as the typical supportive movie wife. Regarding child actors, Cope is excellent with some complex material.
The problems arise in Stir of Echoes with Koepp’s third act when all of the suspense and detailed structure that the writer/director took such pains to set up early on are forgotten about in favor of formulaic schlock developments that may satisfy viewers looking to get their mega scare on but will disappoint those of us who like metered consistency from beginning to end. It’s clear Koepp understands how to make a scene spooky, but the longer it goes on, the less scary it becomes. It doesn’t help that the more people involved, the broader and less successful the acting gets.
And yet, Stir of Echoes is usually on multiple “underrated” horror lists yearly, for good reason. It’s well-crafted entertainment from a filmmaking perspective, with Fred Murphy’s cinematography ringing true for the Chicago setting and James Newton Howard’s (A Hidden Life) score clinging to your ear with the right amount of clang. Bacon and Erbe are delivering dynamite performances that are still warmly reflected upon. I almost wish the 2004 TV movie sequel featured the Douglas character encountering another iffy hypnotism instead of it being a stand-alone story starring Rob Lowe. Koepp would go back to screenwriting after this (reteaming again with Bacon in 2020’s You Should Have Left), occasionally directing but primarily providing original and adapted screenplays for some of Hollywood’s most memorable blockbusters. This Richard Matheson-inspired tale may not thoroughly stir you, but you’ll get shaken now and then.