All right, I lied. I’m actually going to post one more of these before I start my vacation, only because I’ve really wanted to give this movie some love for a very long time and all my feelings about it came flooding back as I rewatched parts of it on the inter tubes this afternoon. I realize that I took a bit of a turn toward the obvious in my last post about A Nightmare On Elm Street, but I’d now like to make amends for that transgression by going back and giving a hearty shout-out to what I feel is one of the most underrated horror films of the past twenty years.
Stir of Echoes (1999), directed by David Koepp and starring Kevin Bacon, is based loosely on Richard Matheson’s terrific short novel. Its plot is pretty standard horror movie fare—a creepy psychic kid, hypnosis, disturbing visions of a violent crime—but its execution is deft and chilling, and it still pains me to this day that the film tends to fly a bit under the radar when the best scary movies are discussed, even in fairly well-informed company. I’ve talked to many horror fans who have never even heard of it, and this is a great shame.
Stir of Echoes’s disappearing act from the public consciousness has very little to do with the quality of the film (which is very, very good), and almost everything to do with timing. You see, Stir of Echoes had the misfortune of coming out at pretty much the exact same time as that supernatural juggernaut, The Sixth Sense (in fact, I seem to recall seeing both films in the theater within a couple days of each other). Since movie audiences can evidently only handle one ghostly spookfest per release cycle, Stir of Echoes was left in the dust while The Sixth Sense went on to become a monster hit, the second highest-grossing film of 1999, to be precise (The Phantom Menace was number one, in case you wondered).
Again, this annoys me probably more than it should. It isn’t that The Sixth Sense isn’t a good film; it’s actually pretty decent, and frankly the only one of M. Night Shyamalan’s films that I really enjoyed (and before you ask, no, I didn’t really think Signs or Unbreakable were that great, and all his other films were objectively terrible). But I have to say that I think a large part of its success can be attributed more to that breathtaking “twist” and the word-of-mouth it subsequently generated than any inherent excellence of the film as a whole. And now that everyone and their mother knows what the twist is, the film loses much of its impact upon rewatch.
No such burden dogs Stir of Echoes. While it’s certainly a much more intimate, low-key film than The Sixth Sense, it is also darker and much, much creepier than its more-successful rival. As a matter of fact, I saw a late-night showing of Stir of Echoes with my friend Jen, who often took me along to scary movies because she loves them but is usually unbearably terrified by them at the same time. I was there as the “tough” girl, the horror aficionado who was rarely fazed by anything and could talk her out of her fear if necessary. And yet, ironically, even I absolutely did NOT want to walk across the darkened parking lot after the movie let out after midnight. Not after seeing that.
In brief, the film tells the story of a working class joe from Chicago with a pregnant wife and a psychic son. Said working class joe (whose name is actually Tom) gets hypnotized by his sister-in-law as a party trick, and thereafter begins to see disturbing visions of a neighborhood girl who had gone missing some time earlier.
There are actually two scenes I’d like to discuss, as they sort of bookend each other. In the first one, new-agey sister-in-law Lisa (Illeana Douglas) is hypnotizing skeptical Tom (Kevin Bacon) and establishing the methods she uses to get her subjects to visualize. “Close your eyes,” she tells him. “Certainly, Lisa,” he says, a little condescendingly. Then we’re thrown right into Tom’s perspective: We see Lisa through his eyes, and the screen goes black from top and bottom, as if we are closing our own eyes. Then we are staring at a black screen and listening to Lisa’s voice, exactly as if we were listening to her hypnotizing us. It’s a simple, but pleasantly eerie effect.
“I want you to pretend you’re in a theater,” Lisa says, and a traditional “live-action” theater stage appears in our field of vision, with patrons sitting in the seats in front of us. “A movie theater,” Lisa specifies. A movie screen descends from the ceiling with a strangely portentous sound (the sound in this whole sequence, I should point out, is very Lynchian in its effectiveness and contributes a great deal to the otherworldly, disquieting feel of the scene overall). “There’s no one there,” says Lisa, and the people in front of us fade away, leaving rows of empty seats. “It’s one of those great old movie palaces,” says Lisa, and sure enough, the plain movie screen transforms into one of those red-curtained beauties, the empty seats before us glowing mahogany in the darkness.
Upon Lisa’s instructions to look around, the camera pans swiftly back with another creepy sound so that we can take in the whole of the gorgeous space. Then things get a little more sinister: “You notice that the walls of the theater are painted in black.” Darkness descends and covers the walls as she speaks. “The seats, covered in black,” Lisa says, and the blood-red seats fall under a shadow. Now that the entire theater is black, Lisa prompts us to focus on the only thing we can see, the white movie screen. It pops out at us with another unnerving sound. Lisa begins to describe letters on the screen that are out of focus, and a word duly begins to appear on the screen, though it is still too blurry for us to read. Lisa tells us to drift closer to the screen, and the camera pans forward, a little unsteadily. As we move closer to the screen with its blurry lettering, Lisa is going on and on about how comfortable and relaxed we are, lulling us into complacency with her soothing voice. Finally, when the white screen encompasses our entire field of vision, the word suddenly comes into focus. “The letters spell ‘sleep,’” Lisa says, and there is the word ‘sleep’ in a typewriter font across the white screen. It fades out as Lisa intones again, “Sleep.” There is a brief moment of blackness. Then, a sudden, startling vision: The front of a house, with vague shadowy figures moving on the porch in a way that suggests violence. Then follows a blue-cast closeup of what appears to be a face in a black mask, and then comes the briefest flash of a distressed girl with her hands clamped on either side of her head.
We are abruptly thrown out of the vision and back to our own perspective with an extreme closeup of Tom’s closed eyes. He snaps out of his trance, sweaty and disoriented. “What the hell was that?” he asks, and then there is a burst of raucous laughter. Another shot from Tom’s point of view reveals that everyone at the party who had been watching Lisa hypnotize Tom is standing there laughing their asses off at his confusion. It’s a fantastically affecting sequence.
The second scene is structured similarly to the first, but takes it to a darker place. Lisa is hypnotizing Tom again, though they’re in the house alone this time, and both are visibly tense because of all the strange phenomena that Tom has been experiencing in the interim. He is impatient with her, as he simply wants to get to the bottom of his visions while she is trying to establish the relaxing state of mind she coaxed out of him during the earlier session. The camera lingers on her face as she again tells Tom to visualize the black theater with the white screen. Then we are seeing things from his point of view again, the white screen before us as in the earlier scene. We drift closer to the screen. There is another shot of Lisa and she tells him that, again, there are letters on the screen. Both we and Tom see blurry letters appear, and even though they are too out of focus to read, it is clearly a different, shorter word than before. Tom gasps. “There’s someone here,” he says, his eyes still closed. “No, the theater’s empty,” says Lisa. “There’s someone else in here,” Tom insists, and in his hypnotic state we see the back of a woman’s head. She is sitting in the front row of the theater as we get closer to the screen. “There’s no one in the theater, Tom,” Lisa argues, perhaps sensing that this session is getting out of her control. She tries to get him to relax by using her standard spiel, but Tom is fighting her, getting closer and closer to the woman in the theater. Finally, amid protestations from Lisa, Tom puts his hand on the woman’s shoulder. “I want you to look at the screen. Look at the screen!” Lisa begs. The woman in the theater turns her face partially toward Tom, and it looks perfectly normal, but then there is a closeup shot of Tom. Suddenly a hand darts out and grabs his face, and we see that the hand is attached to the figure of someone who appears to be wrapped in plastic. The figure makes a weird, distorted roar that almost sounds like a word, though it happens too quickly to make out what the word is. Then we are back in front of the house from the first vision, and there are several quick edits of hands, of Tom’s panicking face, of a figure in plastic, of a screaming girl with missing front teeth being brutalized. There’s a brief shot where it appears that Tom has become either the victim or the perpetrator in his vision.
While all this chicanery is going on, Lisa is frantically trying to salvage the session. “Tom! Tom!” she’s yelling. “LOOK AT THE SCREEN!” Tom finally does as she says and whips his head around to look. And the white screen suddenly looms large in our vision, accompanied by the girl’s screams, and on that screen is a single, chilling word: “DIG.”
That. Freaks. Me. The. Fuck. Out.
It has a similar effect on Tom, I gotta say, who immediately after being confronted with the word, rockets straight out of his trance, out of his chair, and into the kitchen, where he stands in front of the open fridge and just downs an entire can of beer while Lisa harangues him.
We feel your pain, Kevin Bacon. You earned your beer.