When they work, not merely as genre pieces but dream-stealing windows on our civilized weaknesses and vanities, horror movies can achieve a kind of primal profundity, a psychosocial commentary you feel between your toes. Sadly, that zany film-students-in-the-woods movie aside, supernatural narratives almost always deteriorate into literalism and exposition—ghost stories, for instance, may be the most infantilizing form of irrational experience, but they nearly always climax by providing succor for the unhappy dead. Once the paranormal is made normal, where’s the beef?
Stir of Echoes, like The Sixth Sense, makes the most of its psychological tortures before it cops a therapeutic plea. Adapted by David Koepp (whose The Trigger Effect began in its own hothouse of domestic uneasiness) from a Richard Matheson novel, Stir is ultimately structured like a whodunit but fraught with anxiety. Though not as palpably damaged as The Sixth Sense‘s grade-schooler, Kevin Bacon’s half-educated Chicago lineman suffers mightily after being hypnotized (by New Agey sister-in-law Illeanna Douglas) at a party and thereafter experiences a series of disorienting visions. Koepp sticks to the rules (there’s apparently no getting by without that old open-then-closed bathroom mirror trick), but revels in dislocation when he has the chance: the ghost in question (Jenny Morrison) has genuinely jolting appearances, a very real kidnapping by a babysitter is jacked up into a confrontational frenzy, and a scary dream in which neighbor Kevin Dunn appears in Bacon’s living room babbling about murder is even scarier once Bacon wakes up and it begins to happen all over again.
Throughout, Koepp has made an interesting but irrelevant parallel between the otherworld and movies—Bacon’s hypno trances are actually set in a vast, idealized movie theater, and the old crime he eventually uncovers is witnessed at first as unedited images. But it’s the mad siege of home and family, a classic Matheson drill, that Koepp focuses steadily on, down to the chilly ending: Bacon’s spirit-conversant preschool son (Zachary David Cope) sits tiny and implacable before a rising soundtrack storm of needy whispers.
– Smooth genre entry that it is, Stir of Echoes demonstrates there’s something to be said for a firm control of storytelling convention, a principle that evades veteran producer Jeremy Thomas with his directing debut, All the Little Animals. Quite the off-kilter, half-baked eco-sermon to begin with, Thomas’s movie crumbles in its last quarter or so like a stack of supermarket cans. Christian Bale plays the dim-witted scion of a wealthy chain-store-owning Brit family, Daniel Benzali is the menacing stepfather looking to squeeze the heir out of the business, John Hurt is a homeless vagabond dedicated to burying roadkill whom Bale joins up with after running away. There’s no accounting for the strange foolhardiness of the film’s story (based on a novel by Walker Hamilton), and little excuse for the blistering incoherence of the film’s climactic scenes, which dispense with plausibility altogether.