Meet Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon). He's just a regular guy, a utilities worker in Chicago, married to the lovely Maggie (Kathryn Erbe), and with a young son, Jake (Zachary David Cope). Then late one night at a party, Tom's sister-in-law hypnotizes him, and spurred by her urges to "keep his mind open," he falls into the beginnings of a nightmare. Before you can say, "I see dead people," both Tom and Jake have become "receivers," visited by the ghostly apparition of a murdered young girl. Delivering deeper into his apparent delusions, Tom begins to unravel the mystery of the young girl's death, but his growing obsession may be putting the pregnant Maggie in grave danger. Who is this mysterious girl, and why has Tom been called by the supernatural to uncover the identity of her killer?
'Stir of Echoes' had the misfortune of coming out three weeks after 'The Sixth Sense.' It was quickly lost in the wake of that supernatural blockbuster, as their similar plots left most to dismiss 'Stir of Echoes' as a rip-off (unfairly, of course) and the film grossed a mere $20 million before finding a relatively quiet afterlife on video. Unfortunately, I can't say that is a huge shame. 'Stir of Echoes' is a decent film and fairly entertaining, but it does feel like a poor man's version of 'The Sixth Sense.'
It is hard to nail down the example problem with 'Stir of Echoes.' Kevin Bacon always delivers a fine performance, especially when he is called upon to be an everyman caught in an extraordinary situation. Faring less well are the supporting players, especially Illeana Douglas as Tom's sister-in-law (her character just seems silly), and as fine a child actor as Cope is, he's no Haley Joel Osment. Though I believed Bacon, I just didn't believe the family dynamic, nor much of the story.
Nothing about 'Stir of Echoes' is bad, really -- the film just feels a bit inert. I have to hand it to M. Night Shyamalan -- at least with 'The Sixth Sense,' he managed to redefine the genre with a fresh take on the now-tired "dead kid returns to tell us a secret" plot, especially that film's big twist ending that had everyone talking. 'Stir of Echoes' is far more routine. Partly that's because David Koepp, who has found great success as a screenwriter with such films as 'Jurassic Park,' 'Spider-Man' and 'War of the Worlds,' just never rises above the level of competent as a director. Perhaps there is just not enough stylish bravura here, a la a Brian De Palma or a Wes Craven, to really elevate the material?
If anything, 'Stir of Echoes' ultimately reminded me of 1979's superior 'The Changeling,' a little-seen thriller starring George C. Scott. It's a film that few remember, though its central mystery and backstory seem to have been lifted not only by 'Echoes,' but also 'The Sixth Sense' and especially 'The Ring.' I wish 'Stir of Echoes' had a better ending, because like 'Changeling' and 'The Sixth Sense,' it has a great build-up during the first two acts, but just doesn't pay off. I can't say 'Stir of Echoes' is not worth seeing -- it makes a perfectly fine diversion on a rainy Sunday afternoon -- but it could have been so much more with a better climax and more fanciful direction.
'Stir of Echoes' was mastered twice on standard-def DVD (the first version released by Artisan), and this first Blu-ray edition looks like it was minted from the same master used for the most recent Lionsgate special edition. As such it is a good-looking disc, with some nice improvements over the standard-def DVD, though it still suffers from a slightly hazy, spotty appearance. (Note: Though mislabeled on the package as 2.35:1, this transfer is actually framed at a matted 1.78:1. The films' original theatrical aspect ratio was 1.85:1.)
The source material is in good shape, though hardly perfect. Surprisingly, there are patches of white speckles visible, however infrequent. There is also a marginal amount of dirt mixed in with the thin veneer of film grain present in most scenes. Again, nothing excessive but hardly pristine stuff. Nor is the transfer razor sharp -- I suspect the filmmakers were going for a slightly softer look, and the cinematography by Fred Murphy is appropriately dark and eerie. Still, the transfer subsequently suffers from a lack of depth in some scenes. I was also disappointed that posterization was apparent on some of the overcast Chicago skies, as well as noise on large patches of color, such as solid walls, during interior scenes.
On the plus side, blacks are spot-on and contrast relatively consistent across the entire grayscale. Detail can also be terrific in some sequences -- fine subtleties, such as facial hair and fabrics, are often exquisite. I also like the subdued yet vivid color scheme, which effectively uses splashes of rich, saturated hues at key moments. Colors are reproduced nicely, and fleshtones relatively accurate despite the stylized lighting. Overall, this is another inconsistent Blu-ray transfer -- I've seen better, but I've also seen worse.
I enjoyed the audio over the video on 'Stir of Echoes.' Lionsgate serves up DTS HD High-Resolution ES and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX soundtracks, and both are restrained yet effective. (Note that the DTS mix is not encoded in the DTS-HD Master Audio lossless format, but a higher resolution, higher bitrate version of the standard DTS 5.1 surround track found on the previous DVD of the 'Stir of Echoes.')
'Stir of Echoes' benefits greatly from atmosphere, and the sound design of the film clearly supports this. Ambient sounds are frequently deployed to the rears, and both the DTS and the Dolby Digital tracks do a fine job of reproducing delicate tonal shadings, such as the creak of a door or the metallic scraping of a shovel. I also appreciated the isolation of select sound cues to the rears, which really helps up the goosebump factor. Dialogue is firmly rooted in the center channel and never underbalanced in the mix. Frequency response is very good for a rather subdued soundtrack like this, with a meaty sound to the mid-range and perfectly solid low bass. Sure, there are no sonic fireworks here, but then 'Stir of Echoes' doesn't really need them.
Lionsgate has released 'Stir of Echoes' a couple of times on standard-def DVD, and the most recent release had a quite a few notable extras. However, for the film's Blu-ray debut the studio has pared down the supplements considerably, so we're left with a rather slim package.
The highlight is the screen-specific audio commentary with filmmaker David Koepp. A smart, personable guy, he does have a sense of humor about himself and his movie and keeps the pace moving. He points out quite a few goofs in the movie, but otherwise sticks to your typical production antecedents, from shooting in Chicago to Kevin Bacon's method acting to hard it was looping in the Rolling Stones' 'Paint it Black" was after rights to the song he wanted originally fell through. A sturdy, all-around informative track.
"Sight of Spirits: Channeling the Paranormal" is one of those fun featurettes that isn't about the movie but its subject matter. Parapsychologist Dr. Larry Montz and author Richard Matheson are interviewed, who stump for the existence of the afterlife, and it is a subject I always find fascinating. It is also nice to see that there are genuine doctors out there attempting to deal with the subject without resorting to quack rationalizations, or who aren't outright frauds like that John Edwards guy. This ten-minute featurette is hardly an in-depth documentary on the subject, but worth a watch if you are interested in the paranormal.
Rounding out the extras are three Deleted Scenes that run about four minutes, though they are pretty marginal. All are added emotional bits with the Kevin Bacon character, and don't really flesh out the character that much. I can see why they were snipped.
'Stir of Echoes' is one of those "almost there" thrillers. It has an intriguing premise, solid acting and a few chills, but ultimately is just not that memorable. Same goes for this Blu-ray release. The transfer has some nice moments but it is inconsistent, and the soundtrack and extras are mostly average. Certainly, if you are a fan of 'Stir of Echoes' this is worth considering if you don't already own the film on disc, but it is hardly the most worthwhile upgrade I've seen on the format.