DAVID KOEP, THE writer/director of Stir of Echoes, made a name for himself 10 years ago with his first screenwriting credit for the subtle and creepy suspense film Apartment Zero. Since then he's written much more commercially successful, if much less artistically fulfilling, films such as Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible and The Lost World: Jurassic Park II.
Having paid his dues by making untold millions of dollars for the Hollywood studios, he's gone back to his subtle and creepy roots with Stir of Echoes. While not as fabulous as Apartment Zero, Stir of Echoes allows Koep to stake his claim as an innovative director by showing a visual sense lacking in studio films for nearly 20 years.
Stir of Echoes will no doubt be compared to The Sixth Sense in that both films feature young boys who can see dead people. That's about it for similarities, though, as The Sixth Sense is all about treacly human relationships and a really cool surprise ending, whereas Stir of Echoes is more of a straight-out thriller.
Stir features Kevin Bacon as Tom Witzky, a blue-collar guy whose 4-year-old son Jake has the power to see dead people. The movie begins with the son, played to creepy perfection by Zachary David Cope, speaking to the camera but addressing a dead woman, putting the audience in the role of the ghostly presence.
Later, Jake's dad Tom is hypnotized as a party gag, and winds up acquiring the same eerie powers as his son. The hypnosis scene is also played as a turn on the role of the audience in the film, with Ileana Douglas as the hypnotist directing Tom to imagine he's in a movie theater, staring up at the enormous white screen.
As a result of the hypnosis, Tom winds up seeing the same ghost as his son. Why the ghost is appearing to them, and what the ghost wants of them, is the central mystery of this well-paced film.
In contradistinction to most Hollywood fare, Stir of Echoes metes out plot information slowly, in tantalizing, individually wrapped morsels, much the way that Kraft metes out its slices of delicious American cheese. The level of interest is thus kept steadily high throughout the film's seemingly short 110 minutes.
Although it's a very tense and effective suspense film, Stir of Echoes may be even more successful in its visual sensibility.
In the '80s, camera work on major motion pictures became incredibly dull, as close-ups became the dominant shot to the exclusion of most other compositions. This was due largely to the boom in the home video market. Close-ups, it seems, translate very well to the tiny TV screen.
Sometime in the '90s American directors got sick of shooting everything in such a way as to make it easier to crop for later release on the shelves of Lackluster Video, and returned to composing more elaborate views. As the photographic sense returned to cinema, one thing was still missing, and that was the artfully done dolly shot. The moving camera had not regained its artistic sense, and the directors who emphasized moving shots, such as Oliver Stone, were not well versed in what could be accomplished in terms of storytelling by allowing a dolly or pan to reveal action or plot. Stone, for example, would usually just spin the camera around until the audience was thoroughly nauseated.
In Stir of Echoes, director Koep shows an unusual sensitivity to the "motion" aspect of motion pictures. While his shots are composed with the same photographic sensibility as much of the better, recent Hollywood fare, Koep manages to keep that sensibility as the camera moves. In one well-played shot, a woman is shown from the waist up. The camera moves continuously to reveal first a man staring at her cleavage, and then the man's wife staring at him. It's funny and effective, but because the movement is so fluid it never has the feeling of a cheap gag.
While that's one of the showier examples of the moving camera, the film is filled with many more subtle and beautiful shots. It's common in action films for a fast-moving camera to be used to confuse or overwhelm the audience, but here the moving camera is used to compose compelling and informative images. The fact that these images are hard to capture in words is part of what makes them good cinema: they convey ideas in a purely visual language.
Stir of Echoes is not Citizen Kane, nor does it try to be. It's content to remain within its genre, but it surpasses most of its peers with its precise plotting and exacting visual aesthetic. It seems like the kind of film that would be made by the illicit offspring of Alfred Hitchcock, if he'd somehow been impregnated by David Lynch. Plus, it's got Kevin Bacon, making it an important addition to the roster of Kevin Bacon movies that we now understand to be pivotal to our very culture. Such films as Footloose, Flatliners and She's Having My Baby now have a worthy companion in the horror/thriller/suspense genre.