The Sixth Sense is one of the biggest, most critically acclaimed horror movies of all time. Sure, people may now insist that they saw the twist coming from the very first scene, but you didn’t hear any of that when it first came out. It was huge. It was a colossal hit. Which didn’t bode well for the similar films released that very same year. Despite being a major studio release and having a cast led by Kevin Bacon, Stir of Echoes has become something of an underground hit. Most people only vaguely remember it. This just comes down to timing. It wasn’t made to capitalize on the success of Sixth Sense because nobody could have predicted how huge that movie would be. People would be surprised at just how often these things come down to bad luck. Still, it’s always been known as the ghost feature that followed on the heels of Sixth Sense and it will probably never shed that reputation.
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While it’s Toni Collete’s extremely underrated performance that, to me, saved The Sixth Sense, Kevin Bacon is so believably terrified by what’s happening to him in this film that it’s impossible not to empathize with him. There’s so much to the characters and the relationships here that went largely unnoticed by audiences and critics, both of whom seemed ready to dismiss it the moment they walked into the theater. Here is a man with a wife and child, a man who should be perfectly content but really isn’t. Tom has never shaken his dreams of being a rock star. At the very least, he believes he was meant for something greater.
When a hypnosis session goes wrong, Tom wakes up with the ability to see and maybe even communicate with ghosts. By that point, we’ve already set up a great character arc as he embarks on helping this particular ghost bring her killer—or killers—to justice. More than he wants the visions to cease, he hopes that doing this will bring him that long sought-after sense of purpose.
This also sets up a great arc for Tom’s pregnant wife, Maggie. The more he starts obsessing over what’s happened to him, the more it becomes obvious how unsatisfied he was with the way things were before. She naturally begins to wonder if she was a consolation prize for a wannabe rock star.
There’s an opportunity here to make Tom out to be a bad guy that the film wisely avoids. Ultimately, this was a horrific thing that went wholly unpunished and Tom realizes that he is the only hope this case has of ever being solved. It’s a strange sort of horrific hero’s journey. Tom’s son, Jake, also has the ability to communicate with the ghost but doesn’t because he can see how much it upsets his mother. This is such an interesting dichotomy, where the child can see it’s upsetting her and stops, and the father continues to act fairly childish in her presence.
Stir of Echoes is filled with great little moments, too, and I think that’s one of the things that helps it to remain effective. All of Jake’s one-sided conversations with spirits are really unnerving, and his scene at the graveyard almost feels like it could be its own little short film. But every good production should have one or two moments where you can point to it and say “This is what the movie is about.” For Stir of Echoes, that’s the scene where Tom is obsessively digging in the backyard. It’s the moment where his wife realizes just how out of hand this has gotten. He’s finding nothing, he’s no closer to having any answers about not only what happened to this girl but what is happening to his mind and body. He keeps on digging. Even though part of him knows that he won’t just find this girl buried in his backyard. In that moment, the desperation and fear in both characters reaches its peak. There are no ghosts in the scene. There are no jump scares. Just quiet fear that comes from looking at someone you love and realizing you can’t do anything to help them.
That is why the movie works. That’s why it stands on its own and why it is such a shame that after sixteen years it is still in another film’s shadow.