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Friday, September 11, 2020

‘Stir of Echoes’ is an Affecting Ghost Story with an Incredible Kevin Bacon Performance [Formative Fears]

Formative Fears is a column that explores how horror scared us from an early age, or how the genre contextualizes youthful phobias and trauma. From memories of things that went bump in the night, to adolescent anxieties made real through the use of monsters and mayhem, this series expresses what it felt like to be a frightened child – and what still scares us well into adulthood.

Does it hurt to be dead?

Stir of Echoes has been overshadowed by The Sixth Sense ever since their timely releases in 1999. While they both share an element of children communicating with the dead, the surface similarities end there. Director David Koepp based his more plot-oriented yet equally affecting screenplay on a Richard Matheson novel first published in 1958. Beyond the basic plot of a boy possessing second sight, Stir of Echoes is more concerned with the child’s father coming into his own extrasensory gifts. Still, the scheduling was unfortunate and people were quick to write Koepp’s movie off as unoriginal. Audiences who gave the film a chance, however, experienced one of the decade’s best ghost stories.

To any outsider, five-year-old Jake Witzky is an average kid. He’s recently moved to a blue-collared neighborhood in Chicago where nothing unseemly ever happens. Lately, Jake spends most of his time lost in another world; within earshot, he’s often caught talking to people who aren’t really there. With their arguing more than usual, Jake’s mother and father can only assume their son has created an imaginary friend to play with. It’s just the opposite, though, because Jake isn’t retreating into himself so he can cope with the stress at home or from the move – in fact, he’s reaching out to someone who’s no longer of the living.

Children in touch with the supernatural did not begin with either The Sixth Sense or Stir of Echoes, but Haley Joel Osment’s iconic role popularized a trope that spilled over into future films. Jake (Zachary David Cope), who is a few years younger than someone like Cole Sear, is eerily calm when talking to his spectral playmate; he shows little signs of fear because his new friend simply doesn’t pose a threat to him. In other films where kids are psychic or connected to another world beyond ours, they’re essentially written like adults in children’s bodies; they are precocious and unusually mature. On the contrary, Jake feels authentic thanks to Cope’s natural performance; Koepp did well to listen to the advice of Steven Spielberg who told him not to hold very young actors to the script and to let them surprise you.

After Jake’s father Tom (Kevin Bacon) is revealed to be another “receiver,” the movie focuses on his journey to understanding a new and uncanny ability. It’s a reversal of roles where now the child looks after the parent. Prior to his dormant gift being triggered, Tom makes an unfeigned confession that endears him to anyone who has ever felt disappointed by their own adulthood. He feebly states he’s happy with how his life turned out upon learning his wife Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) is pregnant again; in the same breath, he shows his pathos by telling her, “I didn’t expect to be so, I don’t know, ordinary.” Soon after, Tom’s quiet prayer for more meaning in his existence is answered when his sister-in-law Lisa (Illeana Douglas) hypnotizes him. What should have been an amusing party trick is really a wondrous experience for Tom.

Tom becomes restless and verily spooked in the days that follow his hypnosis. On top of seeing ghastly visions with no discernible explanation in sight, Tom is visited by what he believes to be a teenage girl’s ghost (Jennifer Morrison). In the meantime, Maggie is understandably worried; her husband is having what looks to be a mental breakdown, and she’s feeling like an outsider in her own family. Her frustration only grows when Tom asks Lisa to close the mystical door she opened. Rather than ending this whole nightmare and returning to his otherwise uneventful life, Tom acts on the ghost’s ominous request.

As Tom relentlessly yields to the spirit’s cryptic demand – he digs up his rental home’s backyard and basement – Koepp has us take a hard look at what could be happening in our own supposedly safe neighborhoods. Tom is reminded time and time again that his family moved to an area full of “decent” people. By uncovering the sad origin of his ghostly visitor, though, Tom exposes an ugliness that stains the very ground he walks on every day; he discovers a loose thread waiting to be pulled. Stir of Echoes is as true to form as any other horror movie that uses the supernatural to reveal awful truths about the real world. It’s here we see characters who believe themselves to be good, therefore so are their actions. This neighborhood’s presumed decency is the result of people doing very bad things to keep a false notion in place.

Just as impetus for change regularly comes from tragedy, a terrible secret here incidentally inspires personal growth for some and peace for others. A downhearted man finds a new direction and becomes a better husband and father in the process; a wakeful spirit wronged in life is freed from her own anguish and saves others from suffering the same fate down the line. In relation to the supernatural being afforded more benevolence than in other similar narratives, Kevin Bacon once said of Stir of Echoes, “I would like to assume that a ghost would not necessarily have to be all bad.” This along with the director’s belief that a ghost story can be “reassuring” – the idea of an afterlife as comforting as opposed to scary – is why this movie still resonates years later.

Had David Koepp’s movie been released at an earlier time, maybe its fate would have been different. Regardless, his approach to the source material is deft; he finds a healthy balance between cinematic spookery and compelling character work. Among a set of talented actors, Kevin Bacon shines as the everyman looking for something bigger and better. This is easily one of his finest and most charismatic performances to date. 

Stir of Echoes is not scary in the traditional sense of the word, but it is haunting. Whether it be a family traversing the uncertainties of life, a child catching a glimpse of the harsh reality he’s aging into, or a person losing everything in an instance because of human nature’s darkside, the film understands anxiety stemming from the unknowable. What puts a discouraged mind at ease, though, is realizing that even if we’re no longer in it, this messy world still remembers and hears us. It seems like the least someone can ever do, but to a troubled soul looking for a little help, listening can mean everything.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3631468/stir-echoes-affecting-ghost-story-incredible-kevin-bacon-performance-formative-fears/

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