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Memphis Flyer Scary Visions

'Stir of Echoes' is "good" and dark.

By Hadley Hury

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999:  Occasional glimmers of intelligence, imagination, and style in the dark supernatural thriller Stir of Echoes suggest that 36-year-old writer-director David Koepp may yet artistically capitalize on his education as one of Hollywood's most successful commercial journeymen. Koepp has learned his craft even as he vaulted onto the A-list of screenwriters by scripting or co-scripting some of the decade's biggest box-office flicks. With credits like Jurassic Park, its sequel The Lost World, and The Shadow, Koepp became known among producers as "a sure bet." But this output (particularly the derivative messiness of his Mission: Impossible) has, for some filmgoers, begged the question -- sure bet for what? A fairly low common denominator, one might argue -- were it not for Koepp's work on the more interesting margins of his wunderkind career.

For in addition to cranking out sluggish, pea-brained, dialogue about dinosaurs and insipid pseudo-bon mots for Tom Cruise, Koepp also wrote films that proved less safe at the box office but far more intriguing -- from his smart and atmospheric 1988 debut Apartment Zero with Colin Firth to the eccentric, uneven, but frequently hilarious Death Becomes Her with Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn, and the edgy Carlito's Way and The Trigger Effect.

Stir of Echoes is Koepp's second outing as both writer and director -- the underseen Trigger Effect was his first -- and it suggests that he may be using his clout strategically in order to shore up the artistic flank of his career as well as to ensure his commercial viability. It features a resonant performance by Kevin Bacon as a decent everyman, a telephone lineman named Tom Witzky, who lives with his wife (Kathryn Erbe) and young son (Zachary David Cope) in an old in-town neighborhood in Chicago and who has begun to wonder if his life might not be lacking in something. He loves his sexy, loving wife and his thoughtful little boy, but he faces early middle age with the dispirited sense that he has missed the American Dream boat, that it has sailed off -- with its promised cargo of economic opportunity, liberation, and self-invention -- irretrievably beyond his circumscribed world. The character is well-written, and Bacon brings to memorable life a man, still young and sensuously vital, who is beginning to gray with the fatigue of unrealized intelligence, imagination, and adventure.

In classic genre tradition, the inarticulable prayers of this ordinary man are answered extraordinarily. Hypnotized by his sister-in-law (Ileana Douglas) at a party and left with the post-hypnotic suggestion that he be more "open-minded," Tom stumbles into a far more rigorous life-of-the-mind than he bargained for. He becomes a receptor of nightmarish images, a baffled clairvoyant, an unwitting clearinghouse for troubled spirits urgently clawing at the breach between life and afterlife. The life he had felt was somehow anemic and wan becomes claustrophobically crowded, overcharged with blood and energy, a psychic minefield through which he begins to run. Like the mad Dane, he is given a moral imperative that he cannot understand, but which -- despite the threat to his family and himself -- he must nonetheless follow and on which he must act.

And this ineluctable track of obsession is the strong suit in Koepp's game -- not his vaunted fondness for familiar formulas. Adapted from a novel by Richard Matheson, Koepp's script is firmly grounded in the seemingly indefatigable media misconception that we all want to sensationalize ourselves out of existence. With a smugly blind eye to the moral capacities of art, and the attention spans of gnats, producers resolutely continue to refuse to make movies that might actually address causalities and responses to our collective distress over our deepening, interrelated, and cyclical problems with dehumanization, illiteracy, and violence. They can only hold a mirror up to life, they insist. What disingenuous baloney. We have newspapers and television news for that, and we're pretty sick of looking at what we see in the mirror. Instead of taking an active -- whether intelligently provocative or simply enlivening -- role in American culture, the great majority of Hollywood films being made today are either mindless escapes into trivializing sentimentality, or necromantic titillations ripped-off from the headlines to exacerbate an already debilitating societal sense of menace, anomie, and free-floating angst. How many more movies -- purporting to be thrilling entertainments but which are in fact merely bottom-feeding sensationalizations of our legitimate fears of social disintegration and violence -- must the rough beast that is our popular culture spew before it as it slouches toward the millennium?

Koepp's best efforts -- and Stir of Echoes is one of them, despite its trendy ghoulishness -- would seem to indicate that he has the capability to grow in the direction of substantive filmmaking. One hopes that he will be at least equally allured by questions of character and society as by lucrative, generic, contracts (such as his reported current work on a Spider-Man script).

His flirtation here with the porous borders between life and death is at its most arresting and genuinely frightening when it brings us closest to Tom Witzky's absorption into what he calls "the most important thing that's ever happened to me"; and to its credit, the few queasy-making flashes of violence are deployed only in service to the larger scheme of ghostly visitation. It is the purpose of any effective supernatural tale or horror movie to unsettle us, and in that sense Stir of Echoes is a very good horror movie.

But even the most appreciative viewers may leave it feeling, not unlike Tom, even more imperiled than they were to begin with. The real horror of today's horror movies is that the horror bleeds so seamlessly from the frame.

Forty years after Hitchcock opened his Psycho can of worms with malicious glee, we may sometimes find ourselves longing for the good old frightful days of Vertigo or The Man Who Knew Too Much (or even the arched-eyebrow exploits Claude Rains and Vincent Price), wishing for just the tiniest shred of aesthetic distance, of cultural wiggle room, between us and our vulnerable, startled humanity.

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