The sleeper success of “The Sixth Sense” may bode well for “Stir of Echoes,” another low-key, character-driven supernatural drama with a minimum of graphic violence and an abundance of across-the-board audience appeal. Screenwriter-turned-auteur David Koepp’s sophomore effort as a multi-hyphenate (following “The Trigger Effect”) is a white-knuckle thriller propelled by Kevin Bacon’s exceptional performance as a working-class Everyman who discovers dark secrets under his own roof after inadvertently gaining precognitive powers. Expect above-average business for this early-autumn Artisan release, followed by prolonged afterlife through cable and video exposure.
Ticketbuyers may flinch as “Stir of Echoes” begins with a hint that, a la “Sixth Sense,” plot will focus on a small boy who communicates with spirits of the dead. When Tom Witzky (Bacon) is momentarily distracted from bathing his young son, Jake (Zachary David Cope), moppet calmly converses with an unseen apparition. “Does it hurt to be dead?” Jake asks.
Shortly afterward, however, the focus shifts as Tom and wife Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) attend a neighborhood party. After more than a few beers, the ever-pragmatic Tom is more than usually outspoken in his teasing of Lisa (Illeana Douglas), his metaphysical-minded sister-in-law. Lisa insists she knows enough about hypnosis to plant a post-hypnotic suggestion inside the mind of anyone — even someone as stubborn as her brother-in-law. Tom dares Lisa to make good on her claim, so Lisa lulls him into a trance. While he’s under, she encourages him to be more “open” in his thinking.
Trouble is, being more “open” makes Tom more receptive to bad vibes long after he reawakens. He finds himself increasingly ill at ease as he dimly perceives grave portents throughout his house, which he is renting from a neighbor. Tom is especially upset by his vision of an unfamiliar teenage girl on his living room couch. Unfortunately, the girl may be the spirit of a mentally challenged neighborhood girl who disappeared several months earlier. Even more unfortunately, Jake may be having the same vision.
Right from the start, Koepp does a masterful job of grounding his intimations of the supernatural in a totally persuasive down-to-earth context. The verisimilitude is enhanced by Fred Murphy’s moody lensing in three different Chicago environs — Wicker Park, Polish Village and Brighton Park — which editor Jill Savitt seamlessly weaves into a single working-class neighborhood. Canny production design by Nelson Coates adds to the believability.
But the credibility quotient gets its biggest boost from Bacon’s shrewdly detailed performance as an ordinary guy who takes a dangerously long time to fully comprehend, or even believe, his extraordinary powers.
A major turning point occurs when Tom and Maggie attend a high school football game to cheer a friend’s son. (Kevin Dunn gives a nicely ambiguous performance as the proud father.) Suddenly and inexplicably, Tom becomes aware that a newly hired babysitter, Debbie (Liza Weill), has absconded with Jake.
But Debbie isn’t a kidnapper. After tracking the babysitter and his son to a train terminal, Tom discovers that Debbie simply wanted her mother to hear what Jake had to say about seeing a ghostly teenage girl in his home — a teenage girl, it should be noted, who sounds a lot like Debbie’s long-missing, mentally challenged sister.
Maggie doesn’t understand what’s happening, but she doesn’t like it. And she likes it even less when she and Jake fortuitously meet a Chicago police officer (Eddie Bo Smith Jr., making the most of a small but key role) who instantly recognizes Jake as a kindred spirit.
A fleeting subplot that involves an entire subculture of similarly “gifted” psychics gets disappointingly short shrift. On the other hand, paring away nonessentials allows Koepp more time to build and sustain suspense while charting Tom’s increasing anxiety and reluctant enlightenment.
Standout supporting players include Erbe as Tom’s understandably distressed wife and Cope as their innocently curious son. Douglas adds a sly touch of humor by suggesting that Lisa secretly enjoys her role in causing so much excitement.
Trivia spotters take note. “Stir of Echoes” is based on the novel “A Stir of Echoes” by Richard Matheson, whose books have also inspired such diverse pics as “Somewhere in Time,” “The Omega Man” and “What Dreams May Come.” Matheson’s “The Shrinking Man” — basis for the 1957 sci-fi classic “The Incredible Shrinking Man” — can be glimpsed during a in-joke, on-camera allusion.