A lot of well-known actors get their start in low-budget horror flicks, but Kevin Bacon happened to cut his teeth in one of the most well-known horror movies of all time, Friday the 13th. Few actors star in a classic horror movie out of the gate and then find mainstream success on their own the way Bacon did. He doesn’t often wax nostalgic about his time at Camp Crystal Lake, although that seems less because he feels above it than it does that it was thirty-seven years and almost eighty roles ago.

Friday fans (like yours truly) will always remember him as Jack, the likeable guy who ended the summer of 1980 with one hell of a sore throat, but it’s important to remember that he also has some other phenomenal genre work to his credit. One such film didn’t have me expecting much at first, but by the end had me considering it as one of my all-time favorites. It’s a movie that blends phenomenal acting and creepy atmosphere to create a truly memorable urban gothic tale. I’m speaking, of course, of the 1999 David Koepp-directed ghost story, Stir of Echoes.

Based on the 1958 novel by Richard Matheson, Stir of Echoes stars Bacon as Tom, the quintessential average Joe. Living in a working-class Chicago neighborhood with his wife, Maggie (Kathryn Erbe), and his son, Jake (Zachary David Cope), Tom learns early in the film that Maggie is pregnant with a baby that they might need to name “Whoopsie Daisy.” This means he’s pretty well-locked into his job as a lineman (for the countyyyyyy), and his chance at doing something extraordinary with his life is pretty much shot. That is, of course, until he lets Maggie’s sister, Lisa (Illeana Douglas), hypnotize him and he starts having all manner of visions and premonitions. In particular, he starts seeing a young girl (Jennifer Morrison), who seems to be trying to tell him something in a fashion too cryptic for him to understand. He gets progressively more obsessed with these visions, especially as he realizes that Jake has similar abilities. As Tom continues to barrel down the rabbit hole, he starts to realize that something sinister may be hiding right under his nose.

This being a haunted house story from the ’90s, on paper I shouldn’t like this movie on two levels. First, I’ve never been a big fan of ghost stories that often rely on a series of jump scares at the expense of story. What’s more, it was released at the tail end of a decade that often had a hard time holding my attention. Movies in the ’90s were usually too polished and sanitary to grab me in any lasting fashion. In fact, I probably never would have bothered with this one had I not been with a group that just happened to choose Stir of Echoes as the movie of the night, but the universe must have been smiling on me that day, because this flick really is something special.

The primary reason for this is the performance by Kevin Bacon, who has to hit a multitude of notes in just the right way to make the role work. On one hand, Tom is kind of an ignorant lout. He’s that type of guy who’s still clinging to the hope that his shitty garage band will hit it big, and he resents anyone who’s lived life out of his small sliver of experience. But at the same time, he’s a genuinely loving husband and father who wants to do right by his family even though it pains him to feel so ordinary. This sets the stage for the emotional plunge he takes when he begins having these visions. Again, there’s a dichotomy to Tom, as he’s terrified of the things he’s seeing, but he’s also infatuated with the idea that he has this chance at doing something extraordinary. It’s a very precarious tightrope to walk for an actor, but of course he’s up to the task because he’s Kevin freaking Bacon.

With Bacon on his trip to the edge of sanity, we need someone grounded to fill in for the audience and provide the voice of “what the hell is going on here?” Kathryn Erbe fills this role and does so with oodles of charm and weight. There’s this terrific moment at a block party where Maggie, after days of dealing with what from her point of view must be Tom’s increasing psychosis, is barely able to keep her composure after an offhanded comment from her sister. She chokes back tears as we realize just how hard it’s been for her to keep it together this whole time, and it’s moments like these that make me think Erbe doesn’t get the credit she deserves for her work.

Speaking of unheralded actors, I need to take at least a moment to celebrate Kevin Dunn and Illeana Douglas. You might not recognize the names, but I guarantee you recognize the faces as two of the most underrated supporting players in the business. Dunn’s done some great comedic work, most recently as downtrodden White House Chief of Staff Ben Cafferty in HBO’s Veep, and while he gets to play to the comedic side of things as the boorish neighbor Frank in Stir of Echoes, we also get some unexpected moments of depth. As for Douglas, most would likely recognize her from her infamous scene with Robert DeNiro in Cape Fear, but here she gets to play it lighter as flighty sister Lisa. In both performances we are treated to actors whose roles aren’t to steal the show, but to make the whole film better with their presence.

In case it’s not clear, for my money the performances and character development are the names of the game for this flick. But director David Koepp compliments the stellar acting with some truly ominous atmosphere, the core of which comes from making a neighborhood in Chicago seem small and separate from the rest of the city. The majority of the movie takes place in a space of a few blocks where people spend most of their lives, leaving the viewer with a distinct sense of claustrophobia and isolation.

This sense of isolation contributes to the film’s ability to make the haunted house tale effective in an urban setting. Usually a city like Chicago would lack the dark, quiet moments necessary for a ghost story to work, but here Koepp has the opportunity to play with expectations. Sure, there are the usual “boo” scares we get from supernatural films, but here they are done quite well in the context of Tom’s sporadic and unreliable visions. And, on top of the typical haunting tropes, we also get dashes of other horror elements. There are some nods to body horror, with a tooth removal that will make you squirm and some great camerawork done to play with Tom’s burgeoning psychic powers, making use of color and time in ways that keep us guessing.

Like most great horror movies, Stir of Echoes works so well because it doesn’t just roll out its spooky ghost, make us jump a few times, and call it a day. Rather, it uses its ghost as a device to explore the things about ourselves that we may not want to (or be able to) know in a realistic context. In this case, we’re asked to question what it means to be ordinary, and we’re reminded that the extraordinary may be hiding from us just beneath the surface, for better or for worse. And, it does so in such a compelling manner that I’d recommend it to anyone, especially those like me who don’t like most haunted house stories. That’s because Stir of Echoes isn’t like most haunted house stories, and I’m just grateful for the opportunity to have found that out for myself.

  • Bryan Christopher
    About the Author - Bryan Christopher

    Horror movies have been a part of Bryan’s life as far back as he can remember. While families were watching E.T. and going to Disneyland, Bryan and his mom were watching Nightmare on Elm Street and he was dragging his dad to go to the local haunted hayride.

    He loves everything about the horror community, particularly his fellow fans. He’s just as happy listening to someone talk about their favorite horror flick as he is watching his own, which include Hellraiser, Phantasm, Stir of Echoes, and just about every Friday the 13th movie ever made, which the exception of part VIII because that movie is terrible.