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Stir of Echoes (Special Edition)

Lionsgate Home Entertainment // R // August 17, 2004
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted August 29, 2004 | E-mail the Author
Based on the novel by Richard Matheson (Duel and The Omega Man, among innumerable others), Stir of Echoes stars Kevin Bacon as Tom Witzky, a blue-collar family man who recently started renting an overpriced house in Chicago with his wife Maggie and five-year-old son Jake. He dreams of one day being something more than ordinary, hoping for a promotion to the company office when he's not toiling away in a bar band, but that goal has continued to elude him. Tom's sister-in-law Lisa (Illeana Douglas) attempts to open his mind through hypnosis, and the experience coupled with a well-intentioned post-hypnotic suggestion send Tom spiraling into madness. He's haunted by disturbing, briefly-glimpsed visions, and when he sees a dead teenager on his couch, he becomes a complete shut-in, rarely straying more than five feet from where the encounter took place. Tom's wife Maggie is mortified by his demented obsession, and whatever supernatural visions he's being inundated with seem to be shared by their young son. It's becoming increasingly clear that this spirit is trying to compel Tom to do something, and it's growing weary waiting for him to figure out what that might be.

The core premise of Stir of Echoes is similar to The Sixth Sense -- a ghost delivers a message from beyond so that it may rest in peace -- but its approach is rather different. The Sixth Sense spends more time focusing on the interaction between the realm of the living and the spirits that haunt it, while Stir of Echoes is less interested in ghosts themselves than the effect one has on an individual man. Images of the apparition are brief and fleeting, and the communication is largely one-sided. There are no conversations or heartfelt stories spun from beyond the grave -- the messages come in brief, visual spurts that are substantial enough that Tom knows an entity is trying to tell him something, yet sufficiently vague that he's unable to determine what it is. Those glimpses are disturbing and unnerving, convincing enough for it to be believable that Tom would plunge so close to the brink of madness. Rather than perch the camera squarely on Tom's shoulders and show events unfold solely from his perspective, the movie spends quite a bit of time with his wife Maggie, the only person in the Witzky home that isn't haunted by any sort of spiritual presence. Though supernatural elements are pervasive, they're typically a catalyst, not directly providing any of the action. If not for Tom's precognative glimpses into the future, there's little from Maggie's perspective to believe that anything supernatural is going on. There are no banging cupboard doors or blood-scrawled messages. It just looks to Maggie as if her husband is gradually losing his mind and that her son pals around with an undead imaginary friend.

The spirits lurk even further in the background than in The Sixth Sense, which at times works incredibly well. Jake's simple, innocent question, "What's it like to be dead?", to an unseen presence is much creepier than a close-up of a chick in a fright wig and pasty makeup. Still, that approach comes back to haunt the movie in its final moments. Instead of building to darkly supernatural climax, its brawls and gunplay seem better suited to the last act of a Lifetime Original Movie. The full revelation of the spirit's backstory is effective, but the action that surrounds it flounders. I also wasn't fond of a diversion where Maggie encounters and later seeks out the help of someone who possesses the same otherworldly visions as her husband. These scenes seem intended to serve two purposes -- to give Maggie an opportunity to play a more active role and to force in some exposition to better explain an element of the story that really doesn't require an explanation in the first place. If I wanted something spelled out for me, I'd probably point to Tom's unexplained insatiable thirst and an obsession with orange juice that's almost as deep-rooted as his drive to dig.

Much of the success of Stir of Echoes is owed to its strong characterization and a talented cast. The Witzkys generally come across as an ordinary blue-collar family forced to deal with an extraordinary situation, not just a cinematic concoction to supply the foundation for some sort of genre formula. The movie rests on Kevin Bacon's shoulders, and his Close Encounters descent into a single-minded obsession is just restrained enough to avoid seeming cartoonish or absurdly over-the-top. Maggie isn't the obligatory horrified wife convention demands, but a strong woman who's frustrated and confused by behavior completely contrary to the man she's known so intimately for the past eight years. Even the ghost strikes in interesting balance. It isn't a benign spirit reaching out from beyond to grave to meekly seek the assistance of the living, but it's not a page violently ripped out of The Entity either. That sort of middle ground is rarely-tread territory in the genre. The ghost isn't aggressive or violent towards the few who can perceive her, but it's still pissed off about the lack of results from the messages it's sending out.

Despite its occasional missteps, Stir of Echoes is a well-acted, creepy, unsettling film that's able to successfully take more of a psychological bent rather than splatter viscera across the screen for an hour and a half. This DVD from Lion's Gate improves upon the previous release from Artisan, incorporating a number of new extras as well as a DTS soundtrack.

Video: This special edition of Stir of Echoes shares the same visual specifications as the previous release from Artisan, presenting the movie in anamorphic widescreen at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. I don't have the older disc in hand to do a direct A/B comparison, but I have no major qualms about the quality of this fantastic presentation. Although some of the earlier moments of the movie have somewhat of a hazy appearance, and there is intermittent ringing around some edges, the image is predominately crisp and detailed. Black levels are appropriately deep and inky, and the varied palette remains nicely saturated throughout. As should be expected from a fairly recent film, there are no discernable defects in the source material either. If this is the same transfer as Artisan's release, then they did the job well-enough the first time for it to hold up remarkably well five years later.

Audio: Stir of Echoes gets an aural upgrade, packing on both Dolby Digital 5.1 EX audio (448Kbps) and a new DTS 6.1 ES mix. Like numerous other movies in the genre, Stir of Echoes relies heavily on sound to establish its eerie tone, and it uses the multiple channels at its disposal to great effect. The way sounds creak from speaker to speaker, the separation across channels, the sudden low-frequency booms from the subwoofer -- it's very well done and extremely effective, and the sheer clarity of it all is impressive as well.

The DVD also includes subtitles in English and Spanish as well as closed captions.

Supplements: Most of the extras from the previous DVD from Artisan have been carried over to this newly-minted special edition. Among them, though somewhat hidden by only being listed on the audio setup screen, is an excellent commentary with director David Koepp. He notes how he tries to incorporate elements familiar to his life in the movies he directs, mixing in local Chicago flavor, taking advantage of Kevin Bacon's ability to lose himself in a character, and how additional drama can be eked out of marriages rather than writing about new love. Since Koepp is well-known in the industry as a screenwriter, he comments on some of the advice and assistance he received from friends like Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma. He also points out how he spent hours looping in "Paint It Black" when the rights to a Doors song fell through and how the letters on a movie screen for video/DVD had to be further blurred, among numerous other stories. Instead of just saying what he did or how things were done, Koepp explains why he made certain decisions. That can be more valuable than just rattling off film stocks or lighting techniques as is the case in some commentaries. There's also something endearing to me about a track where a director can be critical of his own work. Stir of Echoes accomplishes what I prefer in a commentary -- it's informative, it's entertaining, and it provides a real insight into what it must be like to helm a feature film. Also ported over is a letterboxed music video for Moist's "Breathe", which looks like I'm streaming a low-resolution clip from Launch and stretching it to full-screen. Some of the other extras from the Artisan DVD -- a theatrical trailer, TV spots, and an incredibly short featurette -- didn't make the transition. They're not missed, though, given the number of supplements that take their place.

"Making Of: Behind the Scenes" (21:02) is a fairly comprehensive featurette, revolving around interviews with producer Gavin Palone, executive producer Michele Weisler, director/screenwriter David Koepp, and actors Kathryn Erbe, Kevin Bacon, Liza Weil, Illeana Douglas, and Zachary David Cope. The featurette is broken up into six main sections -- writing, producing, the story, the cast, its young star Zachary, and its director. Among the key points are Koepp's discovery of the Matheson novel, noting the differences between writing an original project and an adaptation, how the movie is a metaphor for a midlife crisis, comparing the casting process to dating, and how Douglas and Koepp were hypnotized in preparation for the movie.

"The Mind's Eye: Beneath the Trance" (10:21) focuses on hypnosis, including comments from hypnotherapist Dr. Marc Shoen, novelist Richard Matheson, and actress Illeana Douglas. They discuss their experiences with hypnosis and how the events in the movie compare with the real thing. Shoen attempts to dispel some of the myths associated with hypnosis and points out some of the potential benefits. There's also footage of an actual hypnosis session. The whole thing drags on a little long for my tastes, but viewers with more of an interest in hypnosis may find it interesting. "Sight of Spirits: Channeling the Paranormal" (10:39) does much the same for parapsychology. The featurette is anchored by Dr. Larry Montz, founder of the International Society for Paranormal Research. Montz talks about his team of researchers and how he used his abilities to solve a grisly murder case. Montz also relates how similar the movie is to his knowledge and experience in the field. Richard Matheson contributes to this featurette as well, and both he and Montz note what grounds some entities to the earth. Both of these featurettes are presented in anamorphic widescreen.

The remaining two featurettes are more closely related to the movie but considerably shorter, each running just under four minutes in length. "Special Effects" has Koepp, Weisler, visual effects supervisor Casey Cannon, and production designer Nelson Coates talking about the challenge of creating a look for the ghost, also noting the movie's approach to visual effects and their attempts to do as much in-camera as possible. Coates and Weisler also contribute to the "Production Design" featurette, which discusses shooting in Chicago and the house's continual metamorphisis. Kevin Bacon also offers some brief comments on the Windy City near the end.

There are three deleted scenes, in total running a little over four minutes. They include Tom talking about the toll his visions are taking, additional appearances by an inquisitive, unseen spirit, and Tom noting to a mildly surprised check-out girl that he's supposed to dig.

Providing more insight into what went into making the movie is a set of four behind the scenes/final shot comparisons. There are two sets of footage on-screen -- one window depicts the finished product, and the other includes shots of the crew at work and raw footage without any processing or special effects. It gives a pretty solid idea of what the energy on the set must have been like, and it's also interesting to see how vastly different it is to be a fly on the wall on a movie set versus a color-timed, fully edited feature film. Finally, there's test footage of different ghost looks, Tom caked in dirt, and a makeup test for Maggie.

The DVD includes a set of animated 16x9-enhanced menus, although they're a little too stylized for my tastes, rapidly shifting images and frequently obscuring text. The provided insert lists thirty chapters, despite there only being twenty-four chapter stops on the DVD. The disc comes packaged in a standard keepcase with a transparent overlay that at least partially paints it black.

Conclusion: The new extras on this DVD aren't impressive enough to warrant an upgrade from the previous edition, but for those who haven't seen the movie or at least hadn't added Artisan's DVD to their collection, Lion's Gate's special edition of Stir of Echoes is worth considering as a purchase. Recommended.

Related Reviews: DVD Talk also has a review of the original Stir of Echoes DVD, written by Aaron Beierle.
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