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Despite the 2 in its title, the only connection this new film shares with its predecessor is that it brings back the character of Jake Witzky â the spirit-seeing boy in the original film â for a brief cameo as a now-grown but still troubled young man (played here by Zachary Bennett). Ironically, this one scene may be a call back to the original “Stir of Echoes,” but it’s “The Sixth Sense” that Witzky is prompted to quote by writer/director Ernie Barbarash as he speaks to Lowe’s answer-seeking hero â “Let me guess. You see dead people, right?”
It’s a rhetorical question, of course â Lowe’s spooked protagonist is constantly seeing ghastly specters. As Ted Cogan, a National Guard Captain serving in Iraq who was involved in the tragic (and fiery) death of a van load of civilians, Lowe is following in the footsteps of Kevin Bacon’s character in “Stir of Echoes,” playing a working class man who has no choice but to start believing his own eyes when he can’t stop seeing ghosts. Given the nature of the incident in Iraq that necessitated his return home, Cogan believes that the apparitions he’s seeing â figures of charred flesh â must be tied to the deaths that he feels partially responsible for. Is this an instance of the war coming home with its soldiers or is there something more to this haunting?
While the horror genre was quick to address the social impact of the Vietnam war in the late ’60s and early ’70s by expressing the rage of the time through films like “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) and “Deathdream” (1974), so far our current conflicts have gone all but ignored by today’s horror filmmakers with the notable exception of Joe Dante’s superbly strident first season episode of “Masters of Horror,” coincidentally named “Homecoming”. However, not only does Barbarash fail to handle his material with much finesse (and lacks the uncorked fury that fueled Dante’s film), his storyline feels more in line with the sentiments of a Vietnam era film with Lowe returning home only to be saddled with the stigma of being branded as a “killer.”
Barbarash also fails to give Cogan, his family, and their immediate circle a believable dynamic. Unlike the working class characters of the first “Stir of Echoes,” which were rendered so well by Koepp and his actors, the characters of “Stir of Echoes 2” are identified as “working class” mainly in that they’re the sort of people inclined to make off-hand racist and ethnic jokes. And while Kevin Bacon and Kathryn Erbe lent their husband and wife characters in Koepp’s film a temperamental but loving rapport, Lowe and his onscreen wife Marnie McPhail (as Molly Cogan) lack the same chemistry.
In fact, Molly may be the worst onscreen spouse in some time. When her idea of a great welcome home is to throw a big surprise party â having a packed room of family and friends jump out of the dark at Ted â you’ve got to wonder exactly where her brain is. You’d think that common sense and spousal sensitivity would tell her that as her husband is returning from just getting his ass blown up in a war zone, that the last thing he wants when he finally walks into his home â the last thing he might regard as “fun” â is to be ambushed by a room of screaming idiots. Wouldn’t you think the guy’s been traumatized enough as it is?
With Bacon and Erbe, the sense was that there was a marriage worth saving, that these two people had a deep bond that was being tested by their ordeal. But that doesn’t come across with Lowe and McPhail. A major aspect of that has to do with the fact that while Koepp took the important step of letting Erbe’s character be confused by her husband’s behavior but taking it upon herself to do some independent investigating and show the audience that this character wasn’t going to be passive when it came to matters of her husband and her marriage, Barbarash doesn’t give McPhail’s Molly that same level of concern. Ted also has a surly teenaged son to contend with (played by Ben Lewis), which only compounds our sense that Ted has returned home to an ungrateful household.
As Ted gets closer to determining the purpose behind his visions, Barbarash reveals a surprising narrative misdirection, which I appreciated. When Barbarash finally puts all his cards on the table, I was pleased to see that the explanation behind Cogan’s visions wasn’t as simple as I had guessed. On the other hand, I was less pleased that Barbarash’s twist was predicated on such an unconvincing incident. Without giving anything specific away, I’ll just say that I don’t think booze and rap music can enable people to commit just any sort of atrocious crime. For all I know, Barbarash may have ripped this particular event whole cloth from yesterday’s headlines but in the film it doesn’t play as being real.
As for “Stir of Echoes 2’s credentials as a horror film, Barbarash’s idea of scaring the pants off viewers is to have the same burned boogeyman appear over and over again but this charcoaled-grilled apparition has got nothing on Richard Lynch’s crispy creep from “Bad Dreams” (1988) and it also lacks the same eeriness of the ghost girl of Koepp’s film.
Barbarash also comes up short in generating graphic images to compare with the ones Koepp used to drive a psychic stake into viewers such as Bacon losing a tooth or the sight of a fingernail being ripped off. There’s a gun blast here that takes out the back of one character’s head but for gorehounds inclined to keep track of such things, the bucket of red snot that hits the wall may be the cheesiest-looking blood splat ever committed to film. And I had to guffaw at the sight of Ted burning his forearm with a lighter during a possessed trance only to have the word “Killer” perfectly branded onto his flesh. Even for a ghost, that takes some skill!
Koepp won accolades for “Stir of Echoes” by making a movie that depicted the everyday and the supernatural with the same affinity that has made Matheson’s work an enduring influence. But this ‘sequel’ fails to show the same instincts for the genre, leaving it as just an echo of its far more accomplished predecessor.