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Stir of Echoes: Special Edition

Released one month after M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense, David Koepp's similarly themed Stir of Echoes (1999) got lost under the avalanche of acclaim for Night's more somber film. And that's a shame, because Koepp's picture is a smart, clever thriller-cum-ghost story that takes itself a lot less seriously — and references far more interesting sources, as well. There's a dash of Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for example, in the obsessive personality of telephone lineman Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon), a regular Joe who finds himself seeing ghosts after goading his New Age-y sister-in-law (Ileana Douglas) into hypnotizing him at a party. It seems her partially tongue-in-cheek, post-hypnotic suggestion that Tom "open his mind" has flung wide the doors of his previously suppressed extra-sensory abilities, and when a bunch of creepy visions and a dead girl appear to him unbidden, he becomes singularly focused — first on figuring out what the hell is going on in his head, and then later on helping the spook resolve whatever it is she needs him to do. Bonding tightly with his young son who shares his gift, Tom's increasingly bizarre behavior alarms his wife, Maggie (Katheryn Erbe), who just wants to live a nice, quiet suburban life free of ghosts, ESP, or a husband who spends every waking minute digging up the backyard looking for a body. Based on a 1958 novel by prolific author Richard Matheson, writer-director Koepp dips his brush into a little J-horror to dial up the creep factor. Released a year after the Japanese film Ringu (and beating the Americanized version of that film, The Ring, by three years), the flavor of the genre is subtle but notable here, especially in the visual tricks used to present the ghost and the quick-cut editing of Tom's psychic flashes. Bacon is, as usual, excellent as a man who sees his new talent as both a curse and a calling, having only recently begun to accept the routine humdrum of his life ("I never wanted to be famous," he says to Maggie, pre-visions. "I just never expected to be so ordinary.") Sure, Bacon's New England accent comes and goes, sometimes sounding like he just has a bad head cold — but this is one of his best performances, encompassing fear, confusion, borderline insanity, and heroic bravery. A reasonably spooky, tightly directed film, this one's definitely worth a second look on DVD. Lions Gate's Special Edition DVD release replaces an earlier release by Artisan and offers a very good anamorphic transfer (1.69:1) that sometimes seems rather soft and the colors a bit muddy — but it's hard to tell if that's the fault of the transfer or a deliberate choice on the part of Koepp and cinematographer Fred Murphy, who utilize a mostly drab color palette of grays, browns, and blacks (making one segment that hinges on Tom's intense reaction to flashes of red all the more dynamic.) The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (also available in DTS 6.1 with Spanish or English subtitles) is excellent, making use of the surrounds' full range and amping up the eeriness by effectively presenting spooky sounds from the rear speakers. A commentary track with director Koepp is pleasant, very informative, and chatty, offering a lot of background information. There's a handful of mostly unimpressive extras, including a standard-issue "making-of" featurette (6 min.), plus short featurettes on hypnosis and "channeling the dead" (featuring actual parapsychologists and hypnotherapists!), the creation of the special effects and production design, a nice feature showing the set-up and preparation for four different scenes, makeup tests, a music video by the band Moist, and three deleted scenes — all accessed via a flickering, Ring-esque menu that's supposed to be spooky but is really just annoying to have to maneuver through every time. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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