(director/writer: David Koepp; screenwriter: based on the 1958 novel by Richard Matheson; cinematographer: Fred Murphy; editor: Jill Savvitt; cast: Zachary David Cope (Jake), Kevin Bacon (Tom), Kathryn Erbe (Maggie), Illeana Douglas (Lisa), Kevin Dunn (Frank), Conor O’Farrell (Harry), Liza Weil (Debbie), Eddie Bo Smith Jr. (Neil, Chicago cop), Jenny Morrison (Samantha); Runtime: 99; Artisan Entertainment; 1999)


“What transpires is an okay ghost story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Stir of Echoes is first a ghost and then a murder story, taking place in a working class Chicago neighborhood where the neighbors are close-knit. In either case, writer/director David Koepp (writer of Snake Eyes, The Lost World and director of The Trigger Effect) have created an emotionally disturbing film.

Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon) is a telephone lineman and as a hobby plays guitar for a rock band. He is down on himself for his life being so ordinary, yet he tells his expectant wife Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) that he is a happy man because of her. One of their problems, is that their 5-year-old son Jake (Zachary David Cope) sees ghosts and carries out conversations with them in a most peculiar fashion. He asks a ghost, “Does it hurt to be dead?” If I were his dad, I would have gotten the kid some immediate professional help.

This ghost story centers around the most unlikely believer in such supernatural tales, the hard-hat father of Jake. He has always repressed his extra-ordinary visionary gift. Therefore the film chooses not to focus too much on the precocious kid’s gift, going instead almost exclusively for his father’s nightmarish visions.

During a neighborhood gathering Tom’s sister-in-law Lisa (Illeana Douglas) talks about hypnosis, and the drunken and skeptical Tom challenges the very amateur hypnotist to put him under. As a result, the lesson learned becomes: never play mind games you don’t understand with someone inexperienced and not completely reliable who has you under their power. It turns out, our man Tom is a Receiver (which in the supernatural trade means that he has the gift, he could see things in the other world). Tom is told to think of an empty theater and with that in mind, visions come of some ill-doings in the house he is renting. It gives him the impression someone’s buried there. When out of the trance, Tom says he felt no pain and is surprised when told he had a pin stuck in him. He remembers nothing of his visions but still has x-ray vision and a severe headache after waking. Tom also has a foreboding fear that he better do something about these visions or else his family will be in danger. The next day when he turns to ask the kooky Lisa what she did to him she tells him she only suggested to him that he keep the door open, to have an open mind.

Tom starts calling in sick to work, and his worried wife thinks he’s cracking up. And even after he tells her what’s going on inside his head, she doesn’t get it that this could be something requiring professional help; she seems to be more concerned that he’s used up all his sick days. But the kid understands his father. They are now both on the same wavelength and hold frequent chats together in private, afraid that what they are talking about would scare mommy.

Tom is now obsessed with the vision of a ghost in the house, which he soon identifies as a missing neighborhood teenager, Samantha Kozac (Jenny). She is mentally retarded and the sister of Debbie (Liza Weil), who babysits for Jake for only the first time at the suggestion of Jake. Debbie’s presence gets the ghost story really rolling, as Jake blurts out to her his visions of Samantha in the house. Though, at times, the story is close to losing it, getting enveloped in melodramatics, it manages to pull back and return to the family and their struggle with the existence of a ghost in their house and their marital problems. This keeps the film suspenseful allowing you to overlook if you care to, the many holes in the story. It isn’t until the climax that the film really falls apart and reverts to a conventional ending, as it tries to do justice to the murdered ghost.

From this character driven film, we learn that ghosts get angry when we don’t respond to them properly. That the afterworld is a place that some of us more than others have a chance to penetrate and if we do, we better learn how to listen. Kevin Bacon plays the role convincingly with just the right amount of skepticism and psychological tension, coming close but never going over the top like a lesser actor might have been tempted to do. Kathryn Erbe is solid in her role as the loving wife who doesn’t see what the rest of her family sees supernaturally, but in her own brave way tries to keep the family together. Zachary David Cope seems like a child who is used to seeing strange things all his life and is rather placid and accepting about it, playing his role as well as could be expected. But I did have some problems with his role, as I thought it was underdeveloped. I felt I didn’t know much more about him by the film’s end than I did in its beginning. In both sequences ghosts are communicating with him, but I just had the feeling that the kid could end up being a basket case if his folks didn’t take some time to help him deal with his gift; and, that even though they were hard working and nice people, they were not a very perceptive couple.

What transpires is an okay ghost story, a suspenseful story of an ordinary couple trying to cope with something that they are not prepared for, and a weak murder story that brings the film down to earth.

Is the film worth seeing? Yes. It is entertaining and spooky, and you get taken on an emotional roller coaster ride. No. It is earthbound and contrived, and the ending is a stinker. Take your pick, both answers are correct.