1999 was the year of The Sixth Sense. The year when we thought a stunning new talent, someone improbably combining Spielberg’s skill at juxtaposing the mundane and magical with Hitchcock’s lean storytelling and flair for suspense. To those who know what followed, or who have even heard of The Happening, all I can say is, look, we didn’t know. We couldn’t see into the future, and The Sixth Sense was and remains a good movie, albeit one built entirely on the back of a single, stunning twist. The unfortunate thing that everyone forgets was that 1999 featured another ghost movie — Stir of Echoes — one that has been largely forgotten, despite having more staying power.
Some of this might be due to the men behind the camera. M. Night Shyamalan was a wunderkind with the kind of pretentious name normally reserved for professional wrestlers and people that write Divergent fanfic, announcing his presence with a stylistic tour de force. The man behind Stir of Echoes was David Koepp, a lifelong Hollywood jobber who generally makes the kinds of movies no one will admit to liking. Chances are, if you go through his CV as either writer or director, you’re likely to find one or two you have lingering affection for, and several you despise. Arguably his best-loved movie is Jurassic Park, which he wrote the screenplay for, but he had very little to do with how well that succeeded or failed.
Stir of Echoes came from a Richard Matheson novel, and for those who don’t know, Richard Matheson is better at writing horror than you and I will ever be at anything. His work has been plundered over the years by TV and movies ranging from the brilliant to the terrible, and it’s a credit to him that the ideas beneath have gone from stories we tell to culture we know. Matheson was able to tap into the id like no horror writer before or since — and I’m including Stephen King, a man who outsells Matheson and one who is a far better writer than the revisionists like to claim — causing his work to elevate to a place so rarified, it’s like it doesn’t even need a writer anymore.
The adaptation of Stir of Echoes is top notch, but it was not built on that twist that made The Sixth Sense such a part of the zeitgeist. Flashy tricks like that, even ones pulled honestly as in Sixth Sense, are often overvalued by mass audiences. While they’re easier to be mad at when they wilt under scrutiny, they are still fundamentally magic tricks. Think of them like the Cheetos of fiction. Tasty, but not exactly filling. Genre fiction tends to lean on tricks like these, which is one of the few justified reasons it’s considered the ghetto of entertainment. Stir of Echoes is a good story told honestly, a horror-drama where the motivations of every character make intrinsic sense and do stand up to later analysis. In retrospect, it never had a chance.
The movie opens with the one trope that still gets me every time: the creepy child. A little boy hums a snatch of music that hovers just outside of recognition as he has a one-sided conversation with an unseen partner. As the scene finishes, the boy asks, “Does it hurt to be dead?” and the reveal is that he’s talking to no one at all. Though the little boy, Jake, seems like he’s going to be some kind of devil child, for the most part the usual tropes here are subverted. Jake is able to perceive things he can’t understand, and does not yet have the language skills to ask about them. It plays very well in the secret worlds children develop that are tragically forgotten by the time they are able to meaningfully communicate.
Jake’s parents are Tom (Kevin Bacon) and Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) a pair who are still holding onto a youth of tattoos, rock music, and big dreams. While Maggie is far more comfortable in her lower middle-class existence, Tom chafes against what he sees as a curse of being ordinary. It’s a very real character note, and handled well both by Koepp and Bacon. Growing up, you think you’ll be the one shaping the world, and then life sets in. Before you know it, you’ve discovered that “ordinary” is that way for a reason. It happens to most of us.
It’s why Tom grabs hold so hard when something remarkable does happen to him. At a party, his snarky sister-in-law (Illeana Douglas playing a very Illeana Douglas role) hypnotizes him, leaving behind a post-hypnotic suggestion to keep an open mind. The hypnosis scene is excellent, a bravura display of immersive visuals that uses actual techniques, and as a side benefit, is absolutely stuffed with foreshadowing. This scene (as well, as the flashbacks to it, and the second hypnosis attempt) makes me think Koepp is a better visual stylist than he lets himself be.
Tom’s newfound open mind re-acquaints him with the psychic powers lying latent inside him, powers his son has to a frightening degree. A series of terrifying and bizarre visions follow, caused by a restless ghost. While he spirals into madness, an increasingly desperate Maggie tries to hold the family together. On a day out, she encounters another psychic who recognizes Jake’s talents with a single look. The later scene, when Maggie crashes a meeting of other psychics, suggests a much larger world than the one we’re seeing, a confident flourish that gives the movie the weight of reality.
What the psychic tells Maggie is fascinating. Essentially, Tom is communicating with a world he can only perceive for isolated, unpredictable moments, likening it to holding an unreliable flashlight in a dark tunnel. He can’t truly understand what’s happening to him, and this can look a lot like madness. There is a clock, though. The ghost wants something from Tom, and from her perspective, she’s already talked to him. Now she’s growing angry. I don’t want to spoil any more of the journey, as it’s a wonderfully creepy exploration of both psychic power and ghost stories.
Other than the ones I mentioned, the cast includes some great turns by Kevin Dunn and a young Jennifer Morrison, most famous now as the lead on Once Upon a Time. Zachary Cope, who plays little Jake, does some great small child acting as well. Only ever appeared in one other thing, too. Casting a kid this small is basically a crap shoot, and this is a big, pivotal role. Jake is the linchpin of the entire film, and he has to be able to handle creepy child moments as well as the more relatable parts when he’s just aware enough to know his parents are having problems. The kid nails them both.
It’s been long enough since that storied year of 1999 that we can have two great ghost movies. It’s time to rediscover the forgotten one.