In the mood for a supernatural thriller that's smart, stylish and sophisticated? Then run -- do not walk -- to your local theater and see The Sixth Sense again. Don't waste your time on "Stir of Echoes," an ungainly ghostly potboiler that digs furiously away in the same thematic graveyard as this summer's most revelatory sleeper hit, but doesn't unearth anything that's worthy of attention.
Mundane instead of fanciful, hackneyed instead of imaginative and manipulative instead of uplifting, "Stir" makes every tactical error "Sense" assiduously avoids. One might be tempted to tag it "The Fifth-and-a-Half Sense," but the math would still be off -- and in this wholly undeserving film's favor.
We're on familiar ground from the first scene, in which precocious tyke Jake Witzky (Zachary David Cope) sits in the bathtub of his Chicago home and conducts a one-sided conversation with a house guest we can't see. As Cope bugs his eyes with hammy ominousness, the implication is clear: Jake can talk to the dead! The fact that we know nothing else about him, however, detracts more than a bit from the situation's intended urgency; unlike "Sense's" Cole Sear, Jake is given no time to become an actual character before he's sent off to dwell in a spectral fantasyland. As a result, his every subsequent appearance on the screen evokes feelings of dread, not sympathy. The kid is obviously bad news from the get-go, and we wish he would stop staring at us and take his creepy extrasensory powers somewhere else.
It's a minor relief that "Stir of Echoes" doesn't have the guts to concern itself with a child's woes anyway. The movie really belongs to Jake's dad, Tom (Kevin Bacon), a blue-collar worker who gradually discovers that his son's abilities are a family trait. After he's sent into a hypnotic trance during an outwardly harmless party game, Tom emerges with a similar knack for spotting the spooks in any room. He also experiences traumatic visions of the past and future, apparitions that lead him closer to an unspoken horror that may rest beneath the floorboards of his own house.
Bacon can at times be a fine actor, but he's utterly laughable as a dyed-in-the-wool Chicagoan. Lamenting his psychic burden while quaffing brews with his equally unbelievable working-class buddies, he affects a pseudo-Midwestern dialect that's chock full of over-accentuated "deses" and "doses." Throw in an appearance by George Wendt, and another "Saturday Night Live" sketch would be ready for airing. Da Bears! Da ghosts!
The film's numerous shock sequences aren't nearly as clumsy, and a few even succeed as basic exercises in cinematic fear-mongering. But there are few story points being served among the creaking doors, no rationale to the swooping phantoms beyond the engineering of a purely Pavlovian response. George A. Romero, the gifted director of "Night of the Living Dead," once dismissed the then-hot slasher genre by claiming that he could randomly splice loud noises into a reel of leader film and get an audience to jump in its seats. What we see here is only slightly more ambitious.
At least the frantic goings-on distract us from the bungled attempts at familial drama -- the humanistic vein "The Sixth Sense" so effectively mines. When Tom's wife, Maggie (Kathryn Erbe), discovers her hubby madly shoveling up their back yard in search of the dark secrets he's certain are buried there, she seizes the opportunity to initiate a long-overdue talk -- not about his increasingly psychotic behavior, but about her dawning awareness that something may be seriously wrong with their relationship. No, no, Maggie: It's the mental ward first, the marriage counselor second.
"The Sixth Sense" presupposes a basic intelligence on the part of its characters and its audience; "Stir of Echoes" assumes we're all dolts and treats us accordingly. Throw a sheet over it and give your money to Bruce Willis instead.
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