31 Days of Fright: Stir of Echoes

Kevin Bacon sees dead people.

Kevin Bacon sees dead people.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s film is the millennial freak-out, Stir of Echoes, starring the ubiquitous Kevin Bacon and directed by David Koepp (Secret Window! Premium Rush!). And it’s based on a novel by Richard Matheson! Who knew? My friend and fellow Giller Light Bash committee member, Elizabeth Barker, was a big donor to my fundraiser. She saw Stir of Echoes at a sleepover when she was fourteen and still hasn’t recovered. I rented the film from my friends at Queen Video.

What happens:

I have never seen Stir of Echoes before, though I must have seen the trailer about a hundred times as a teenager. When I informed someone I’d be watching Stir of Echoes, a friend said, “That’s the one where Kevin Bacon is digging a hole, right?” Which was also about as specific as my memory was of the trailer. Stir of Echoes: a movie about the existential dread of Kevin Bacon digging a hole. As the opening credits begin, we hear a child hum “Paint It Black,” which music fans will know as the spookiest of all the Rolling Stones’ songs. The movie opens with working-class father, Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon) strumming guitar in the background as his young son, Jake (Zachary David Cope) plays in the bath. Jake stops and turns to no one to ask, “Does it hurt to be dead?”

Tom, missing this entirely, heads downstairs where his wife, Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) and sister-in-law, Lisa (Illena Douglas), have been having a conversation, during which Lisa has correctly guessed that Maggie is pregnant. Lisa is vaguely new-agey, wearing shirts with mandalas and reading volumes into astrology, so she sensed her sister’s expectant state. This is news to Tom, and he’s less than happy to hear it. Tom works as an electrician and imagines he’ll have to take on a lot of overtime to provide for this second child, which makes Maggie unhappy: “You get home so late, and it’s like you’re in a trance. You’re useless to me.” (Horror movie writers are pretty good at foreshadowing.)

Tom says he’ll stop fooling around with the band he’s playing with and grow up. He’s facing a bit of a mid-life crisis, depressed about still being a phone lineman: “I never wanted to be famous. I just never expected to be so … I don’t know, ordinary.” Leaving a baby monitor on in the sleeping Jake’s bedroom, Tom, Maggie, and Lisa head over to a rocking Carlsberg-years’ party in their Chicago neighbourhood. There they meet up with nearby neighbours, Frank (Kevin Dunn) and Sheila (Lusia Strus), whose teenaged son is a local football hero. As partygoers leave and things get a bit more intimate, talk naturally turns to hypnosis. Tom is a doubter, but Lisa is convinced hypnosis works – she’s even a bit of an amateur hypnotist. Tom, feeling self-conscious when Lisa says he’s close-minded and conservative, dares her to hypnotize him. Despite her wariness, she agrees.

In his hypnotic state, Lisa tells him to envision a large, empty movie theatre with blurry letters on a white screen. Gradually, he moves closer until he can see the words on the screen: SLEEP. Suddenly, Tom sees flashes of violence in his own house and he wakes from his trance. His assembled friends laugh: Tom was easily hypnotizable. Lisa even stuck a safety pin through his hand. He didn’t feel a thing and instead talked about his childhood bully. Disturbed by the visions he saw, Tom leaves and takes Maggie with him. His attempts at sleep are first interrupted by more troubling visions, then by his amorous wife. She mounts Tom, and while they make the beast with two backs, his visions get more disturbing: blood spattering, teeth scattering across a wood-panelled floor, fingernails ripping from their fingers. Tom pulls Maggie off him, unable to continue in his panicked state.

Sheep? Steep? What is the movie screen trying to tell him?

Sheep? Steep? What is the movie screen trying to tell him?

Tom goes to the bathroom for a glass of water, but finds his mouth is bleeding. He slowly pulls a rotting tooth from his mouth. But when he blinks and looks back in the mirror, his mouth is fine! He heads downstairs to distract himself with some television, but as soon as he sits on the couch, a ghostly woman appears and reaches out to him. The spooked Tom heads back upstairs where he finds Jake on the landing, who advises, “Don’t be afraid of it, Daddy.” The next morning, Tom calls his sister-in-law (from a telephone pole) and demands to know what she did to him while he was hypnotized. She confesses she gave him a post-hypnotic suggestion, but it was just a small one: that when he awoke, his mind would be open.

At this point, it’s pretty clear that little Jake is talking to ghosts. When Maggie talks with her sister on the phone, lamenting how hard it is to find a babysitter, Jake – upon the suggestion of the unseen Samantha – suggests an option: Debbie. Debbie Kozac (Liza Weil) arrives that night and Tom immediately gets negative vibes from her. (Whenever he looks her way, the film stock literally goes negative.) Maggie and Tom leave for the local high school football game, but Tom senses danger whenever he looks at a red light. Alone with the spooky kid Jake, Debbie hears him talking to someone on the baby monitor. She goes to him and asks who he’s talking to, and when Jake answers “Samantha,” something in Debbie snaps. She starts to interrogate Jake, shaking him, hoping to find out how he knows about Samantha.

Several blocks away, Tom’s visions of danger become too strong, too frequent. He shoves through the crowd at the game and races home – Maggie following close behind – to find Jake and Debbie are completely gone! Tom and Maggie follow his startling visions to the train station where they find Debbie and their kidnapped son. A scuffle breaks out, but Tom and Maggie retrieve their child from the teary Debbie. Debbie took Jake to the train station because her mom works there. Her sister, Samantha (Jennifer Morrison), who may or may not be developmentally delayed, went missing months ago and she wants to know why this child seems to know all about her. At this point, a cop intervenes, and Debbie flashes a picture of her sister. Even though the girl is clearly the ghost Tom saw on the couch, he pretends he’s never seen her. To end things amicably, Tom and Maggie don’t press charges.

Later, Tom reveals Samantha is the girl he saw on the couch, and asks Maggie who suggested to use Debbie as a babysitter. Accordingly, he has a lot of questions for his son. Jake refuses to answer. In time, Jake answers in a demon voice not his own, “Don’t ask the boy any more questions. Talk to me.” Given a tiny taste of the supernatural, Tom is like a dog with a bone. He starts badgering Jake, clapping in his child’s face to get his attention. Maggie makes him stop and Tom is left by the television, trying to recreate the actions that caused him to see ghost Samantha in the first place.

Looks like this ghost just had a bright idea!

Looks like this ghost just had a bright idea!

A few days later, at a neighbourhood tailgate, Tom, now popping pills and looking more rangy than Kevin Bacon usually does, starts asking his neighbours and his landlord, Harry (Conor O’Farrell), about Samantha Kozac. Maggie grows concerned for her husband, who’s started skipping work and sleeping on the couch for twelve hours at a time. Awaking from one of those luxurious sleeps, he finds his neighbour, Frank, distraught in his living room. He follows Frank to his house and hears gunshots from inside. When he enters, his sees Frank’s son, Adam (Chalon Williams) who calmly shows him a pistol. Adam, unprovoked, shoots himself in the head and smears the blood all over his face. As you might have guessed, this was all a dream. But when Tom wakes a second time, everything progresses exactly as it did in his dream. The only thing absent is the distraught Frank. He pays a visit to Frank’s house, just in case, and again hears gunshots. Adam has shot himself (in the chest?), and Tom is the first person to find him. He screams for help and the ambulance arrives just in time.

Meanwhile, Maggie has taken Jake for a walk, during which Jake is drawn to a bagpiper in the nearby cemetery. (Or maybe he’s just drawn to the cemetery itself. Hmm.) Jake catches the attention of a large police officer who’s in the cemetery for an official funeral. He follows Maggie and Jake, during which he comments that Jake’s “got the eyes on him … X-Ray.” He says Jake has special sight, and one of his parents must, too. Maggie says she’s never seen a vision, so the officer, Neil (Eddie Bo Smith, Jr.), hands Maggie a business card and says – in the most sexually creepy way imaginable – “Tell Daddy to come see me tonight.”

Back at home, Tom noodles on his guitar. Jake gets up from his toys and guides him in playing a few chords. “Why do I know that song?” he wonders. Maggie tells Jake he’s going out to the movies, but she takes her hunting knife with her. (She knows Batman’s origin story, I guess.) But she’s not going to the movies at all; she’s instead paying Neil a visit to find out what’s happening to her husband. She visits Neil’s apartment, hidden in a darkened alley, and he greets her at the door in a dashiki. Some sort of group session is happening in his place and they’re anxious for him to shut the door. Closing the door behind him, Neil informs Maggie of her husband’s condition: “He’s a receiver now.” Tom is receiving glimpses from the other side, like being in a dark tunnel with an intermittently working flashlight. Her son Jake, he says, is the same, but has a “better flashlight.” (This is a remarkable prognosis from someone who has never met Tom and only briefly seen Jake.) Neil warns her if this Samantha is a ghost, she wants something, and if her family doesn’t do what she wants, the ghost may never go away.

Later that night, while Tom is manically rifling through his CD collection for the tune Jake gave him, Maggie draws a bath and the ghost comes along to watch. Or rather, ghost Samantha arrives to turn Maggie’s bathwater cold. So cold, Maggie is forced to go to the basement and check the furnace. While Maggie attempts to re-light the furnace in the basement, the ghost controls young Jake’s television choices (she really wants him to watch Night of the Living Dead) and grants Tom another vision. This time, it’s clearly Samantha inside his house, though the house is under construction. Maggie comes up from the basement and sees Tom in the middle of a trance. She embraces him to break the spell.

Near the end of his rope, Tom goes to Lisa (who has just smoked a bowl with her friend) and demands that she hypnotize him again and undo whatever she did. She tries, but this time, when Tom finds himself in a massive theatre, there’s another moviegoer. That moviegoer is Samantha, who roughly grabs him as he approaches her chair. Tom is then shocked by a vision of Samantha being shoved into a plastic bag. The movie screen now has a new message: DIG. Tom awakens from the hypnotic trance and immediately downs a beer. “I’m supposed to dig,” he declares to Lisa.

Diggin' a hole, 'cuz that's the way you treat him. (Joke for the Big Sugar fans reading this.)

Diggin’ a hole, ‘cuz that’s the way you treat him. (Joke for the Big Sugar fans reading this.)

Maggie comes home from her nursing job to find dirt tracked all over the floor and the fridge jam-packed with cartons of Minute Maid. She follows the dirt to the backyard where Jake and Tom are digging a few massive holes. Maggie is perplexed, but Tom, shirtless and looking leaner and meaner than an inner-city Olympic swimmer, explains, “What exactly don’t you understand? I’m supposed to dig.” All this inexplicable digging leads to a spat between Tom and Maggie. Tom sees this vision quest as the most important thing he’s ever done and won’t stop, but Maggie is more than a little frustrated because the ordinary life Tom is so sick of is the one he shares with her. Shortly after their big blow-up, Maggie and Tom make up. She opens a letter from her brother Steve, who has informed her that their grandmother was just admitted to the hospital. (Even in 1999, who puts this in a letter?) Tom has a premonition that Maggie’s grandmother has already died, and a phone call moments later confirms it. That guy is really becoming quite the receiver!

Maggie and Jake drive to the funeral (which I guess is happening immediately?), leaving Tom behind to dig his holes. Not that his wife is overly happy about that. Tom has been using water to soften the dirt of the yard, and when the water cuts out, he has to go to his basement to check what the problem is. But did Samantha just want him to come to the basement? He follows a hunch and takes a pick-axe to the concrete floor of the basement before realizing he might need more firepower. (I mean, Tom’s arms are impressive, but not that impressive.) He makes a quick excursion to the hardware store for a jackhammer and air compressor, then gets back to his midnight toil.

By the time Maggie calls him from her grandparents’ house, the basement looks like the spot where a bomb was detonated. Tom and Maggie reconcile over the phone, and Tom pretends he’s given up on digging (which he definitely hasn’t). Maggie calls his bluff and offers to drive home and pick him up so he can be at the funeral. Jake, frightened to return home, stays with his aunt Lisa. Tom returns to his basement labour when he has an epiphany: what if he dug sideways? He starts hammering down the basement wall and soon makes grim discovery: a teenager’s blackened corpse, sans one tooth, hidden under some plastic sheeting. He’s no detective, but he’s pretty sure that’s Samantha Kozac.

Tom grabs the corpse’s hand and immediately witnesses Samantha’s murder in his mind. Two neighbourhood teenagers – Adam and Kurt – lured the unpopular Samantha into the Witzky home while it was under renovation. Kurt (Steve Rifkin) is the landlord Harry’s son; this predates the Witzky’s move-in. The two guys have been drinking and start to romance Samantha, but become aggressive very quickly. When she demands they stop what is fast becoming a sexual assault, Kurt shoves her to the ground (knocking out a tooth) and handcuffs her. Samantha starts screaming and Adam yells to “shut her up.” They crank the stereo, which, insultingly, blasts Canadian pop-punk jokesters Gob’s cover of “Paint It Black.” (They can’t even treat Samantha to the original in her dying moments.) They cover her with some plastic sheeting, shortly after which she suffocates in a horrible sexual assault turned deadly.

Recovering from the flashback, Tom climbs out of the basement and viewers see the one murderer who didn’t shoot himself spying from the window. Tom visits his neighbour Frank, who is watching over his convalescent son, Adam, and says he needs to show him something in his basement. Frank is shown the girl’s corpse, and Frank at first denies it could be Kurt and Adam. Tom notes that the corpse is holding a hank of someone’s hair in her hand, and it could easily be tested for DNA. Then Frank tearfully confesses he’s known Kurt and Adam killed Samantha for months. He helped them hide her body. Unsurprisingly, he whips out a pistol and fires it into the air, chasing Tom away. As Tom scurries away, a second gunshot rings out and the basement falls silent.

Moments after Frank has apparently ended his own life, the landlord and his son Kurt ring the front doorbell, feigning concern with the unorthodox renovations he’s been doing. Tom – now with two dead bodies in his basement – tries to discreetly make them leave, but they’re not having it. Tom realizes why they’ve arrived and as Harry goes for his gun, Tom smacks him with the lamp. But the two men subdue him, and just as Harry is about to kill him, execution-style, with a throw-pillow-silenced gun, there’s a honking from outside. Maggie has arrived to give Tom a ride!

Luckily, Maggie realizes there’s something not quite right afoot and she takes the hunting knife from her bag – the one Jake reminded her to take – and enters her house. She’s attacked by Kurt and his dad, but she also gets a few good shots in, stabbing Kurt in his foot, Adventures in Babysitting style. But just as the villains get the upper hand and are about to kill Maggie, Frank emerges from the basement, very much alive, and shoots them both. Samantha Kozac’s soul is released from the house and Frank, even with all that’s happened, maintains they still live in a decent neighbourhood. A denouement follows in which Maggie and Tom, now on much better terms as husband and wife, pack up a U-Haul and move to a new neighbourhood. But as they drive past rows of houses, their son Jake hears the spirits speaking to him again, clearly leading the way for Stir of Echoes 2: The Homecoming (I guess).

Tom learns all about improper ghost storage in Stir of Echoes.

Tom learns all about improper ghost storage in Stir of Echoes.

Takeaway points:

  • It’s impossible to watch Stir of Echoes and not think about The Sixth Sense. Both have similar premises: a child who can see dead people, those dead people impel him to carry out work in the physical plane. With the help of a father (or father figure), they bring the ghost’s killer to justice. They both were released in the summer 1999, and they both employ the idea of ghosts being cold – characters’ breath becomes visible in the presence of the dead. The primary difference is that the father figure in one movie is a ghost himself, and the other one is Kevin Bacon. The Sixth Senseseemed to bury (get it?) this film, which has been largely forgotten.
  • The murder of Samantha, and particularly the reaction of the parents of the teenage rapists and murderers, has all sorts of parallels to the University of Missouri, Vanderbilt, the University of Ottawa – the many, many college sports rape scandals of the past decade. When Frank confesses he knew what his son did, but says it was an accident, and that “those kids have their whole lives ahead of them,” it’s chilling. Chilling because that’s what parents, defence attorneys, and news pundits say in every single one of these cases. Chilling because people think that’s a reasonable response to such horror.
  • Stir of Echoes is unusual because – unlike most horror movie protagonists –Tom, like a firefighter running into a burning building, moves towardthe horror. Disillusioned by his ordinary life, he eventually sees his supernatural visions as his ticket to the more-than-ordinary. Solving the case of this ghost girl becomes the mission of his life. So, unlike most horror heroes, he embraces the horror, doing everything he can to make the ghosts return.
  • The inclusion of the song “Paint It Black” is strange. It becomes a theme – in fact, it was the only other thing I remembered from the trailer: “Paint It Black” and Kevin Bacon digging a hole. It’s the song that plays when Samantha is killed, and while Lisa hypnotizes Tom, she has him imagine everything in the movie theatre painted black. But there’s not a real thematic connection of the song to the movie.
  • More importantly, how did Frank recover? He seems to have shot himself in the basement, then he returns, deus ex machina, to save the day. What did he shoot while he was alone in the basement? The wall? Samantha’s corpse? Did he try to shoot himself and screw it up, much like his son? They offer no explanation whatsoever.
  • Fun fact: Debbie Kozac, while babysitting Jake, is reading The Shrinking Man, another book by Richard Matheson.
  • Can we have a moment of appreciation for Kevin Bacon’s impressive Minute Maid triple-take? (Somebody please put this on the internet.)

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Parts of Stir of Echoes are terrifying, certainly. Most of Tom’s spooky visions and his second hypnosis session, in particular, are future nightmare fuel. But partway through the movie, Stir of Echoes becomes more of a mystery than a horror movie.

Tell me you can picture Illena Douglas on the cover of Women & Songs, Vol

Tell me you can’t picture Illena Douglas on the cover of Women & Songs, Vol. 5.

Best outfit: Shout out to Tom Witzky’s Social Distortion shirt. (I didn’t think you were that fashionable Tom, but I was wrong.) But you can’t top Lisa’s pitch-perfect, late-90s, occult

Best kill: The central kill, an attempted rape turned murder, is extremely unsettling. So while it’s the most vivid, it’s far from the ‘best.’ It is satisfying to watch one of the rapist-murderers stabbed through the foot, then shot, though.

Unexpected cameo: Debbie Kozac, Jake’s babysitter and Samantha’s sister, is played by Liza Weil, best known to Gilmore Girls fans as Paris Geller! So great! (Weirdly, the character of Lisa, played by Illena Douglas, apparently has the last name ‘Weil,’ as well. Or as weil. Lisa Weil.)

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: Did you know that making dirt wet makes it easier to dig? I didn’t! Grave-digging tips from Kevin Bacon! That’s why you watch Stir of Echoes.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: That’s a hard one. Post-Hypnotic Suggestion? Better Flashlight? Or – based on a throwaway comment from Lisa – Gift Boner?

Next up: The Howling (1981).