31 Days of Fright: Candyman

Candyman handles bees in the face way better than Nic Cage did in The Wicker Man.

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! Last night’s film was Candyman, directed by Bernard Rose (Immortal Beloved), and suggested by donor Darla Woodley. Though I’ve never met Darla Woodley, we collaborated on a children’s book together! Darla’s book, called Red Socks Go with Absolutely Anything, is a encouraging story about how a simple pair of red socks can give a child a little boost when they are feeling out of their comfort zone. Don’t be misled by the fact that Woodley recommended the gory and depraved Candyman, her children’s book is quite delightful. Candyman was rented from my (maybe) friends at Queen Video.

What happens:

Based on a short story by horror writer Clive Barker called “The Forbidden,” Candyman is that rare beast: an urban horror film. Whereas so many horror movies take place in remote cabins and mountaintop villas, so few happen in the heart of a major city. Candyman is set in The City with Big Shoulders, Chicago. The film opens with a voiceover by (we can assume) the Candyman himself – not to be confused with Rene from Danish pop band Aqua – who asks us while the screen fills with bees, “What’s blood for, if not for shedding?” (I feel like a hematologist would have a lot of good answers to this question.) Then he warns that with his hook for hand, he’ll split us from groin to gullet. Then a swarm of bees envelops Chicago, just like in a Wu-Tang video.

A woman begins to tell Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen, looking a lot like Madonna) a “true story,” she claims. A friend of a friend, Clara, was babysitting when local bad boy, Billy, came over. She tells him the legend of Candyman: if you say “Candyman” five times in the mirror, this guy with a bloody stump for a hand that has a hook protruding from the hand’s meat (gross!) will appear. They say his name four times in the bathroom mirror while Billy begins to undress Clara. They chicken out at four, and Billy heads downstairs. But Clara, left alone in the washroom, says it one last time. She was found split open by a hook, and the baby was killed, as well. Only Billy survived the encounter and went insane soon afterward.


“Candyman? I bought you a really nice coat …”

Why is this woman telling Helen Lyle this gruesome story? That’s because Helen is a university researcher a the University of Illinois, who, with friend Bernadette Walsh (Kasi Lemmons), is gathering stories about urban legends for her thesis. Helen in married to professor Trevor Lyle (Xander Berkeley), who when we first see him is lecturing about alligators in the sewers. Helen sits in on the end of the class, then chases away eager student Stacey (Carolyn Lowery), who’s been making eyes at her husband. She scolds Trevor for lecturing on urban legends, as she wanted him to wait until she and Bernadette were done their thesis. She asks him about Stacey and Trevor is offended at the suggestion of any impropriety with one of his students.

Working late, Helen meets the custodian, Henrietta Moseley (Barbara Alston), who – after overhearing Helen’s recorded interviews – says she has a friend who lives in Cabrini-Green, Chicago’s somewhat infamous housing projects, who knows someone killed by the Candyman. Henrietta retrieves her fellow custodian, Kitty, who recounts the story of a girl named Ruthie Jean, who was killed by someone who broke into her apartment through the medicine cabinet. Intrigued, Helen goes through microfilm of Chicago newspapers and discovers there actually was a woman named Ruthie Jean who was murdered in Cabrini-Green. Maybe there is some truth behind this urban legend.

At her and Trevor’s apartment, Helen shows Bernadette some of the recent research she’s done. She displays for her the printouts of the Ruthie Jean murder and asks Bernadette if she notices anything. The building in Cabrini-Green and Helen’s own apartment are the same building. Her condo building was originally built as a housing project, but then city planners realized there was no barrier like a highway to keep the building closed off from the rest of the city, so they turned it into high-end condominiums. (Sounds familiar.) Helen shows Bernadette that the project building layout has a trick wall behind the medicine cabinet – you could easily enter into the unit next door. They then dare each other to play “Candyman” in the mirror, but only Helen is willing to say it five times. To give the audience its first decent jump scare, Trevor arrives home drunk late at night and leaps on Helen in bed, terrifying her something good. (Virginia Madsen is not a great screamer: she’s no Jamie Lee Curtis.)

The next morning, Helen and Bernadette drive to Cabrini-Green. Some first-person accounts will lend credence to their thesis that a disadvantaged urban group has taken to attributing the daily horrors of life in the projects to a mythical creature. But they drive with some trepidation, given the stories they’ve heard about gangs in the area. (Bernadette has brought mace along.) Bernadette is also worried that they look like cops with the way they’re dressed, and her fears are not unfounded. As soon as they exit their car, local toughs begin catcalling them and warning the neighbourhood that the “5-0″ has arrived.

Undeterred – though a little nervous – they head upstairs toward Ruthie Jean’s old apartment. On the way, Helen is distracted by some really neat graffiti – “SWEETS TO THE SWEET” – and has to take a bunch of photos like a run-of-the-mill poverty tourist. She’s suddenly scared by a nearby apartment’s Rottweiler. The dog’s owner – a housekeeper, by her uniform – makes the dog heel and returns inside. Helen and Bernadette enter the abandoned apartment and Helen discovers the layout is identical to her own (though it’s obviously not in quite the same shape). The mirror in the washroom is in pretty good shape, but the back wall of the medicine cabinet was torn open some time ago. Helen wants to crawl through to the other side, but Bernadette attempts to stop her. Helen pushes ahead, walking through a circular doorway that serves as the mouth of a mural illustration. On the floor, she finds a nest of wrapped candy with razorblades inside – another urban legend seemingly come to life! Eventually, the housekeeper next door asks what the two women are doing. “Whites don’t ever come here, ‘kept to cause us problems,” she notes. They enter the apartment of the woman, Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams), who is caring for a young baby, Anthony. Anne-Marie knows they’ve come because of Ruthie Jean. She asserts that the Candyman is real, and he’ll never be caught.


Helen and Bernadette discuss Candyman, whether or not he is really from Bountyland.

Over a self-important academic luncheon, Helen tells her advisor, Professor Philip Purcell (Michael Culkin), who also has an interest in urban legends, that her work is going to put his to shame. He laughs condescendingly and Helen reveals that they’ve been to Cabrini-Green recently. Purcell immediately recognizes that they’re investigating the Candyman. An expert on the subject, he outlines the legend of the Candyman. The legend first appeared in 1890. Candyman was the son of a slave who became wealthy (and a free man, I guess?) through the invention of a cobbling device. The man’s son (Candyman) grew up in high society and showed a talent for art, eventually becoming a portrait artist. A landowner hired him to paint his daughter, but the artist and daughter fell in love and the daughter soon became pregnant. The landowner, horrified that a black man had impregnated his daughter, hired “local hooligans” to exact his revenge. They chased him to Cabrini-Green where they sawed off his drawing hand with a rusty saw. Then they smeared him with honey and let loose some bees from the nearby apiary. (That was handy.) The bees stung him to death, but for good measure, the goons also set fire to his body.

Helen returns to Cabrini-Green on her own. Anne-Marie is at work, but a neighbourhood kid, Jake (DeJuan Guy), is loitering in the hallway. She asks Jake if he knows about Ruthie Green, and Jake admits he does, but he can’t talk about it. The Candyman will get him. Helen bargains with Jake: if he just shows him something, but doesn’t say anything, it would be their little secret and the Candyman would never know. Winning the child over with this logic, Helen follows Jake past a massive pile of trash – apparently the future site of a bonfire – to a desolate public washroom. Jake tells her a horrible story about what happened inside.

A developmentally challenged child, Charlie, had to go to the washroom. His mom, shopping in a store across the street, became frustrated with him, and sent him across the street to the washroom on his own. That’s when she heard screaming. A big tough guy from the neighbourhood ran inside and staggered out, his hair now entirely white. And what happened to Charlie, Jake says, was worse than death. In flashback, we see the boy, clutching his crotch, screaming in a pool of blood on the tiled floor. The toilet itself, is splattered with blood and gore. Not spooked enough by this horror story, Helen enters the washroom to check it out on her own.

She enters the washroom and is overcome by a powerful stench. Someone has written “SWEETS TO THE SWEET” on the walls with human excrement. Also written in poo: an arrow pointing to a toilet. Helen opens the lid and finds the toilet bowl full of swarming bees (which, to be honest, is probably one of the better things that could have been inside). As she turns to leave a tall man in a black trench coat enters and brandishes a hook (though he clearly has two hands). A number of other goons enter and corner Helen in the washroom. One holds her hands behind her and the hook man says, “I hear you’re looking for the Candyman, bitch. Well, you found him.” Then he smacks her across the head with the hook.


False alarm: this is just a candyman, not THE Candyman.

Helen, with a prominent black eye, sits in a police precinct and identifies the Candyman from a police lineup. The detective, Frank Valento (Gilbert Lewis) congratulates her. “Did he kill Ruthie Jean?” Helen asks. The detective is certain that this “Candyman,” who runs local gang The Overlords, is responsible for that and a number of murders. But no one would testify against him before, as the police have a hard time protecting eyewitnesses in the projects. Jake, who found the unconscious Helen, is waiting in the police reception, and Helen thanks him for saving her life. Jake, however, is less than enthusiastic. He says that Helen told their secret, and now the Candyman will get him. Helen assures him that the Candyman isn’t real. It was just a hoax the local gang leader exploited to intimidate people.

When Helen recovers enough to return to the university, Bernadette gives her a box of slides developed from her photos of Cabrini-Green. And Bernadette has more good news: it sounds like publishers have taken an interest in Helen’s work. Helen, pretty darn pleased with herself, begins to inspect the slides on the way to her car, when a dapper man follows her into the aboveground parking garage. In his deep voice, smooth as oiled leather, the man calls for Helen. He stands at the far end of the garage in a full-length fur coat. Also – quite noticeably – he has a hook protruding from the bloody pulp has has for a hand. Looks like this might be the genuine article Candyman (Tony Todd)! He tells Helen that he came for her, and she, seemingly mesmerized, doesn’t know what to do. “Be my victim,” he insists. That’s when Helen blacks out.

When she opens her eyes, she’s lying on the floor of a strange washroom, covered in blood. A woman screams outside the locked door. Helen opens the door and sees that the trail of blood leads to the severed head of a Rottweiler. She’s in Anne-Marie’s apartment! Helen picks up a discarded meat cleaver (clearly the weapon in the dog beheading) and goes to the bedroom, where Anne-Marie is screaming in front of an empty crib that’s covered in blood. She turns to see Helen and calls her a murderer. Anne-Marie knocks Helen down and begins to smash her head against the floor. Helen retaliates by slicing her shoulder with the cleaver. When the police burst in, Helen has the cleaver held to Anne-Marie’s head.


Helen’s knife sales pitch goes a little too far.

Detective Frank Valento, very disappointed in his star witness, tells Helen she’s being arrested. The Chicago police treat dog decapitation as a pretty serious crime and, besides, Anne-Marie’s baby has gone missing. Helen makes her one state-sanctioned phone call to Trevor, but he’s not home. (It’s 3 AM, Trevor! Where are you at?) In her jail cell that night, Helen dreams of the Candyman, who holds Anthony hostage in his creepy apartment in Cabrini-Green. The next morning, Trevor and his lawyer bail Helen out and they fight through a media circus to escape home.

Helen hasn’t been charged yet because the police are hoping to find Anthony’s body so they can charge Helen with first-degree murder. She asks Trevor where he was last night, and he claims to have been fast asleep. Helen relaxes in the tub, and though Trevor worries about leaving her alone for any period of time, he goes to retrieve some papers from the university anyway. While home alone, Helen fires up the old carousel and views the slides she took in the Cabrini-Green projects. In one photograph, where she stands in front of a broken mirror, she spots a dark figure looming over her shoulder. Is it the Candyman? Helen goes to her bathroom vanity but doesn’t speak a word. She opens the cabinet door and a hook hand shoots out of the inside, swatting at her. Helen dashes from the apartment into the hallway, but the man in the fur coat waits for her at the end of the hall, beckoning Helen with his velvet-smooth voice. He is upset with Helen: her disbelief has destroyed his congregation.

Helen locks herself in the apartment and tries to call for help, but the Candyman just appears inside her living room. Helen crumples to the floor, and – like Jon Hamm with Tina Fey – the Candyman caresses her with his hook, blood running down her neck. Bernadette arrives with flowers at the apartment door and rings the bell. Helen yells at her friend to leave, but Berandette, concerned with all the shouting, forces her way in and is surprised by the Candyman. A lot of screams and wet ripping sounds follow. Trevor returns home moments later and finds Helen unconscious on the floor, butcher knife in her hand and blood drenching her clothes. When Helen comes to, she’s been handcuffed in her own bed – and not in a sexy way. The police are on the scene – the murder scene, that is. Helen runs to the living room, hands tied behind her back, and sees upon the floor the gruesome body of Bernadette, cut up the middle.

Helen hears the Candyman in her head now, is haunted by visions of his ruined apartment, dripping with blood. Candyman loves being dead, he tells her. It’s so much better living in dreams and nightmares. Helen is taken to a mental hospital and strapped to a gurney. While she struggles with her manacles, Candyman appears to her, floating just above her body. Helen begins to scream and flop around until the orderlies must sedate her. Later, Helen is wheeled to the office of Dr. Burke (Stanley De Santis), who reveals that she’s been in the hospital for a full month, mostly under the influence of thorazine. Her trial for the first-degree murder of Bernadette Walsh will begin soon, and Burke is to assess her ability to stand trial. Burke then shows her the video from the night she was admitted – there was no Candyman over her gurney at all. She imagined it all!


Candyman learned the hard way how difficult it is to get bloodstains out of fur.

Desperate to believe she hasn’t lost her mind, Helen says she’ll prove that Candyman exists. She turns to face a mirror in the office and summons him. Nothing happens. But then Dr. Burke starts choking and sputtering blood. Candyman appears, goring the psychiatrist from behind. Once Burke has been thoroughly gutted, Candyman frees Helen from her bonds then leaps backwards, smashing through the office window. Helen follows, crawling along the building’s ledge. Eventually she finds the window to another hospital room and, entering, quickly knocks out the nurse inside. She steals her uniform and escapes from the hospital. All thanks to the Candyman.

Naturally, she runs to Trevor’s apartment, where the door has been left open. But – betrayal of betrayals – his student Stacey has seemingly shacked up with him, and the two are painting the apartment, a symbol of new love heretofore only seen in bank advertisements. Helen, incredibly hurt, starts to pace the apartment and toss paint buckets at the wall. When Stacey goes to reach for the telephone, Helen snaps at her. She burns holes into Trevor’s forehead with her thousand-yard stare (not literally, of course) and growls, “What’s the matter, Trevor? Scared of something?” She storms out and Trevor immediately dials the hospital.

The lost Helen seeks guidance from the Chicago River, and Candyman, still in her head, tells her to come to him, for “All you have left is my desire for you.” Helen returns to the projects in Cabrini-Green and finds the apartment hidden behind the medicine cabinet. In the interim, someone went to Chapters or Pottery Barn and bought a whole bunch of votive candles to spruce the place up. Helen finds a hook on the floor, then proceeds upward. In a very messy room – Candyman is a true bachelor – Helen finds her fur-coated tormenter asleep on a stone table. She raises her hook above her head and as he wakes, drives the hook into his neck. But it has no effect.

Helen can’t defeat Candyman, it seems, so she takes him up on his offer. If she surrenders herself to him, Candyman will return Anne-Marie’s child unharmed. She acquiesces, and Candyman begins to lift her skirt with his bloody hook hand. “Come with me and be immortal,” he suggests, and opens his coat to reveal a rib cage filled with swarming bees. His mouth is also full of bees now, and he swoops in for a deep, bee-filled kiss with Helen. She wakes up, brushing imaginary bees from her mouth. Helen is now back in the original candlelit apartment, the hook still in her hand. However, a new message and new mural is on the wall. Over a fresco that seems to depict Candyman’s origin story is the message: “IT WAS ALWAYS YOU, HELEN.”

John Cusack had his boom box and Peter Gabriel song; Candyman had to improvise.

John Cusack had his boom box and Peter Gabriel song; Candyman had to improvise.

A baby’s cry pierces the cold Chicago air; it appears to be coming from the trash mountain. (They plan well ahead for bonfires in the projects.) Helen begins to climb Mount Trashmore to find the infant Anthony. Jake, meanwhile, is awakened by the commotion. When he goes to his window, he sees a hook (Helen’s) slip into the mound of garbage. “He’s here,” Jake whispers. While Helen roots around in the immense pile of trash, Jake and some older friends douse the mountain in gasoline. They set it ablaze and soon the whole neighbourhood comes out into the streets to enjoy the bonfire. Helen finds the baby just as flames begin to surround her. That’s when Candyman appears behind her, muffling her mouth.

The crowd chants, “Burn him! Burn him!,” and Helen – finally breaking free from Candyman – picks up a flaming stick and drives it into Candyman’s belly. He flails around, causing some of the flaming trash to fall onto Helen’s back. Eventually, she scrambles out of the flaming garbage heap. Her back and hair have caught on fire, but she’s managed to protect the baby. Anne-Marie can’t believe what she’s seeing. Neighbours smother the flames and take Anthony from her, but Helen’s head and back are covered in third-degree burns; her ears even seem to have melted off. Candyman, trapped in the flames, howls, “Come back to me!” as he is swallowed by the fire. Jake can see his charred corpse among the garbage: Candyman was real.

Helen apparently had no friends, as her funeral is attended only by Trevor, his new girlfriend Stacey, and those two other professors from the luncheon. But then a procession of all the hundreds of people from Cabrini-Green, led by Anne-Marie and Jake arrives to pay their respects. Jake takes Candyman’s hook and drops it into the open grave. In the final scene of the film, Trevor, overcome with grief, hides in the bathroom from Stacey. He cries over Helen while Stacey reluctantly makes dinner solo with the largest butcher knife I’ve ever seen. Trevor, a total mess, gazes into the vanity mirror and says “Helen” five times. She appears, burns upon her naked scalp and a hook for a hand. She quotes herself – “What’s the matter, Trevor? Scared of something?” – and stabs him in the gut. When Stacey goes to the washroom to check on her professor boyfriend, she finds him in the tub, completely disembowelled. Stacey screams and the camera zooms in on a mural of a saintly Helen Lyle on some project apartment wall.


Trevor has all his most regretful thoughts on the toilet.

Takeaway points:

  • A better name for Candyman might be White Privilege: The Movie. One might be tempted to think today’s current focus on white privilege is something relatively new, but obviously it was front of mind in 1992. Helen outlines the issue pretty clearly: “Two people get brutally murdered and nothing happens. A white woman gets beat up and the police lock the place down.” This is the principle that underlies the Black Lives Matter movement (aside from the fact that Black Lives Matter explicitly concerns police killings, and not Candyman killings). Helen and her upper-middle-class black friend Bernadette are terrified to enter Cabrini-Green, not even realizing their fears are based on stories that are as much an urban legend as the sewer alligators Trevor jokes about. The movie also interrogates the idea of mining other cultures for material. After all, two academics head into the projects to take the stories of disadvantaged racialized people in order to prove their thesis, which is troubling, no matter how good the intentions of their project. It’s telling that the horror experienced by the black characters manifests in actual bodily harm: castration, infant abduction, death. The horror experienced by our white protagonist is that she is being accused of murder. The black characters fear actual pain; the white character fears being labelled. If that’s not white privilege, I don’t know what is.
  • The film treads the fine line between representing and stereotyping black culture. The sad fact is, it was novel to see so many black characters in a horror film. And particularly cool to see Tony Todd as perhaps the most charming movie monster since Dracula. At the same time, Candyman – particularly given his origin story – could be viewed as an egregious stereotype of the black seducer, come to “steal all the white women.” More troubling is how Helen effectively becomes saviour to the black community in the finale. The project residents pay their respects as if Helen were Atticus Finch leaving the courtroom. The final shot almost turns her into the Patron Saint of Cabrini-Green. Despite those two issues, Candyman generally handles issues of race well, explicitly interrogating white privilege (see above), for instance, or describing how city planners aimed to keep black communities from the rest of the city via physical barriers like highways. Candyman also shot on location at the real Cabrini-Green housing projects, using local people as extras.
  • The music in Candyman was composed by modern American composer Philip Glass! It’s strange this horror movie features an original Glass score, but the incredible gothic soundtrack really adds another dimension to the film. It effectively helps create what is, in essence, an Inner-city Gothic. Apparently, Glass claims he was misled about the project, believing he was working on an artistic independent film project rather than a low-budget slasher pic. But he has since come to terms with the film.
  • Apparently those are real bees swarming all over Tony Todd and Virginia Madsen! They were specially bred for the movie to look like mature bees, even though they were adolescents whose stingers would do less damage. Todd actually had a mouth full of bees, with only a mouthguard to keep the bees from flying down his throat. Madsen is allergic to bees, so an ambulance was on set whenever a bee sequence was in effect. Celebrities: they’re just like us!

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: I’d be willing to categorize Candyman as terrifying. But it’s also just an entertaining, well-made movie, with a little more (overt) interest in social issues than the average horror film.


Say hello to the toughest – and best-dressed – man in Cabrini-Green.

Best outfit: Helen Lyle has some really great outfits, including a ribbed blue sweater that she wears with brown leather gloves. And I could write an entire essay on Trevor’s patterned vest. But nothing beats the killer look of a character who barely has one scene: “the big, tough guy” from Jake’s flashback, complete with an amber leather coat and beret.

Best line: “What if someone’s packin’ drugs in there?” – a concerned Bernadette Walsh, making up slang as she goes along

Best kill: That’s a tough call. The castrated boy in the washroom is probably the most disturbing, but it’s a little too unsettling (and not really a “kill”). Watching Dr. Burke sputter up blood in his office was much more fun.

Unexpected cameo: Ted Raimi (brother of Sam, co-star of SeaQuest: DSV), looking thirty-five, plays rebel teen Billy from the story that opens the movie. But even better than a Ted Raimi appearance – which is pretty awesome – is that Gilbert Lewis, who plays Detective Frank Valento, sometimes played The King of Cartoons on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. In object cameos, booksellers will be amused to see an Ingram shipping box among the assembled junk in Trevor’s paint-ready apartment.

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: You can afford the bail for dog beheading and child abduction on an adjunct professor’s salary.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: The Overlords. Or Cabrini-Green.

Next up: Prophecy (1979).

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).