'Stir of Echoes' none too stirring

Review: Kevin Bacon's understated performance is overshadowed by overdone filmmaking.

September 10, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

After a summer of "The Blair Witch Project" and "The Sixth Sense," who would want to have the bejeebers scared out of them one more time by "Stir of Echoes," the latest entry into the Heebie Jeebie Sweepstakes of 1999?

This supernatural thriller, which stars Kevin Bacon as a blue-collar husband and father who becomes convinced that his stolid brick rowhouse is haunted, isn't nearly as terrifying or suspenseful as its predecessors. Writer-director David Koepp ("Mission: Impossible," "Jurassic Park") is much too obvious a filmmaker to make a classically engaging horror film. But it does feature some nicely understated performances from Bacon and Kathryn Erbe, who plays his wife, and it portrays its working-class Chicago milieu with gritty authenticity.

"Stir of Echoes" makes no bones about what it is from the very first scene, in which 7-year-old Jake Witzky (Zachary David Cope) chats breezily with an unseen presence in his bathroom. Jake's dad, Tom (Bacon), barely even hears the child, assuming Jake is talking to himself. But later that night, when Tom's sister-in-law (Illeana Douglas) hypnotizes him at a party, he becomes privy to the world that Jake moves in and out of so easily. Eventually Tom discovers the identity of the unseen presence, as well as its story, but not until after suffering some horrifying visions of the past and the future.

Koepp, whose directorial debut was the quietly atmospheric "Trigger Effect," again does a good job of setting up a context. In this case it's a tattered but stately Polish Catholic block in Chicago, where kids play outside the church and friends attend high school football games on Friday nights. And in the Witzkys he has brought to the screen characters we know but rarely see -- a young couple on the cusp between their rock and roll youth and a more settled adulthood.

Bacon plays Tom Witzky with a grizzled growl (think of Ray Liotta at his most strung out in "Goodfellas"), and Erbe, who resembles a more human-looking Courteney Cox, gives an alert, un-vain performance as a woman watching her house go from "thirtysomething" to "The Shining." Both do an excellent job at flattening their vowels into wafers for the Chicago accent.

"Stir of Echoes," which is based on the 1958 novel by horror author Richard Matheson, is legitimately scary at the beginning, when Tom's hallucinations cut across his vision with knife-like violence. But the mystery is resolved much too soon when Koepp shows his cards in a scene of way too obvious import. Once the audience knows who the ghost is and why it's tormenting Tom, it's just a matter of watching him become more and more hysterical -- a monotonous spectacle despite Bacon's convincing portrayal of a man dancing on the edge of a psychological abyss.

Koepp and director of photography Fred Murphy have created some dazzling in-camera special effects, especially the ingenious idea of filming the story's ghost at a slow speed, six frames per second, giving the being a strange, otherworldly way of moving. If only they had sustained the suspense longer -- and resolved it in a less ripped-from-the-headlines manner -- they could have kept summer audiences scared sleepless for at least one more night.

`Stir of Echoes'

Starring Kevin Bacon, Kathryn Erbe, Illeana Douglas

Directed by David Koepp

Released by Artisan Entertainment

Rated R (violence, sexuality and language)

Running time: 99 minutes

Sun score: **

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